May 6, 2013

DMZ tour from Seoul, Korea

One of the most popular day tours in Korea is to the DMZ and Panmunjom.  With all the news about the 29-year-old North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, I was curious to see if tours to the border area between North and South Korea were still possible. The two-mile wide DMZ runs about 160 miles along the 38th parallel cutting the Korean Peninsula in half dividing Korea into two parts.
John and I wanted to book a full day tour to the DMZ and Panmunjom but visiting Panmunjom was not allowed while we were there because they were holding military maneuvers. This was understandable considering the rhetoric we were hearing on CNN but we were told that each side routinely holds “shows of strength.” The Koreans we talked to said they were not really worried. They said, “It is the same-old, same-old.  We have been living with it for 60 years.”

Panmunjom, officially called the Joint Security Area by the United Nations. is where the armistice
agreement was signed in 1953. It is a “no-man’s land” with no side in charge.  I understand that it is basically a deserted village and that the DMZ is actually more interesting. 

The bus ride from Seoul north along the river was interesting because it was lined with barbed wire and guard houses at frequent intervals. At one point our guide pointed out that the other side of the river was North Korea. She said that recently a North Korean swam across the river and knocked on the guardhouse and asked for asylum.

Our first stop was Imjingak, a park that was built to console refugees who left North Korea during the war. It is a fascinating place that combines historical artifacts with amusement rides.  The park has become a place for Koreans to relax and enjoy the out-of-doors but it is also a place where they can bow in the direction of their ancestral graveyards.  There is a view of the Freedom Bridge, a former railroad bridge across the Imjin River, used by repatriated POWs/soldiers returning to South Korea from the North. Also on view is a huge train riddled with more than 1000 bullet holes as a reminder of the war. 

Actually there are several interesting things including a high platform from which people can view North Korea but there isn’t much to see.  The Stones of Peace wall is a sculpture containing stones from 86 battlefields in 64 countries. It was dedicated on January 1, 2000 in the hope that the new century would be one that would see the unification of the North and South and world peace.
On the same day a 21-ton Korean-style Peace Bell was also dedicated in the hope that the 21st century would be “…a time of unification and peace for all mankind.”  We asked our guide who was very knowledgeable if we could ring the bell which was housed in a gated, temple-style pavilion. She said it was not allowed and was surprised when we pointed to a sign that said that people who were interested could ring the bell in the name of  “…unification, peace and hope...” She said she had never seen the sign and no one ever asked before but ran off to get the person in charge.  So for about $10 USD John rang the bell.  It was my favorite part of the stop in