The main highlight of our trip was getting to go visit the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is in the DMZ (Demilitarized zone). Visiting this area really helped us feel the divide between the two countries. It felt surreal to get this close North Korea, a country I never thought I'd be able to get this close to and have watched some crazy documentaries about. It's also something that Nate and I feel may not be around our whole lifetime and we wanted to take advantage of being able to visit this area while we still could.
We took an hour and a half bus ride from Seoul up to the DMZ. Much of the road towards the JSA border runs parallel to the Han River, which separates the two countries. It’s was crazy to be sitting in a bus with views of North Korea passing by out your window.
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a buffer zone that was established on July 27, 1953 when the Armistice Agreement was signed during the Korean War. Each side agreed to move their trops back 2,000 meters (2 km), creating a buffer zone 4 km wide where military activity is forbidden. Even though this area is demilitarized - it remains one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) goes through the center of the DMZ and indicates where the agreement was signed. This line/zone is 250 km long (160 miles). There is a line drawn across the Korean Peninsula (basically along the 38th parallel), from the mouth of the Imjingang River in the east, to the town of Goseong in the west.
Our first stop was Camp Bonifas that the JSA visitors center was at, where we received a briefing on the history of the DMZ/JSA and what we would be doing that day. We basically had to sign our life away in case shit went down at the border. Some of the rules included making sure we dressed properly (no tank tops, ripped jeans, shorts/skirts, open toed shoes, leather etc). This was to make sure the North Koreans couldn't take pictures of us and use them as propaganda saying us Westerners couldn't afford proper clothes etc. We also couldn't take anything other than a camera to the border and could only stay for 10 minutes. This was to make sure we didn't overstay our welcome and have an international incident happen at the border #safetyfirst
Speaking of international incidents, since 1953, there have been some confrontations within the JSA. In August 1976, there was the infamous Axe murder incident, where some South Koreans attempted to trim a tree that was blocking their line of sight. The North Koreans were notified in advance of what would be happening but for whatever reason they saw the act of trimming the tree as a sign of aggression. As a result, 8 Americans and United Nations militia were injured, and 2 American soldiers were killed that day, Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett. On November 23, 1984, a Soviet tourist, Vasily Matuzok, who was part of a tour to the JSA hosted by the North Koreans (yes apparently they have tours as well...was hoping to see a few of them there but sadly we did not during the time we were at the border), decided to defect from North Korea and ran across the MDL. North Korean troops opened fire which resulted in the South Koreans returning fire. In the end, one South Korean and 3 North Korean soldiers were killed during the incident and Matuzok officially made it south across the border. #dangerzone
The Panmunjeom (Joint Security Area (JSA)) is a small chunk of land in the DMZ surrounding the actual border between North and South Korea. Blue and white huts litter the area that are administrated by the United Nations Military and North Korean military. This area is reserved strictly for political engagements and is where all negotiations since 1953 have been held. The MDL goes through the conference rooms here and down the middle of the conference tables where the North Koreans and the United Nations Command (mostly South Koreans and Americans) meet face to face. (see pics below)
We took the bus to the JSA / border area. #dangerzone Here we were quickly escorted to the main blue building where the important meetings are held between North Korea and United Nations Command. We had about 5 minutes inside the room where we could take pictures with the guard and technically stand in North Korea (on the other side of the official border). But we were instructed if we stood too close to the door on the North Korean side and someone grabbed us and pulled us over to North Korea - well, we were on our own. Trust me, I didn't go near that door haha. #ilikeitonthisside
After the blue building we got to stand and observe the North Korean side from the main building on the South Korean side. I was able to spot a few North Korean soldiers and even snap a few pics even though they tried to hide behind the poles. #gotya! #papparazzi
Other fun facts about the DMZ area:
After our tense, no incident (thank goodness!) visit at the JSA, we headed back to the visitors center where we got to visit the museum and gift shop. The museum was interesting and had a lot of pictures, timelines, and explanations of the history between North and South Korea. At the gift shop, we were able to pick up some North Korean wine! #saywhat! We haven't tried it yet but I haven't heard great things about the flavor - but hey - it's wine from frigg'n North Korea man!
After our trip to North Korea ;), we headed to Imjingak Park for lunch. Here we were able to enjoy a nice lunch of Korean hot pot with a bunch of small sides of Korean dishes (kimchi, etc). After lunch, we were able to explore the area, included Nuri Peach Park. The Nuri Peace Park was established in 1972 and houses various artifacts and monuments from the Korean War and confrontations between the North and South.
Imjingak Park (or village), is the furthest northern point in South Korea that South Koreans (and foreigners) can go freely without special permission by the government and a passport to go further. This area was also built to console people from both North and South Korea who were unable to return to their hometowns, friends, and family after the war dividing the country of Korea.
The "Bridge of Freedom" (or "Freedom Bridge"), is located in Imjingak Park as well. The Freedom Bridge is a former railroad bridge which was used to return POWs/soldiers returning from the north. Nearly 13,000 POWs were traded here at the end of the Korean War and it now is seen as a memorial for families who were separated during the war. Throughout the area, you could see bright colored ribbons with messages written on them that South Koreans had tied to the fence as messages and memorials to their family members in the North (living and dead). It was moving to see such a sight and a reminder of how wars can destroy nations and families.
Mangbaeddan is a permanent alter at the park that allows the 5,000,000 displaced people from the war whose hometowns are located within North Korea to bow down to their parents or family in North Korea as a sign of respect during cultural events such as New Years and Chuseok (Korean Mid Autumn Festival, usually entails paying respect to your elders and ancestors). It represents the earnest longing for reunification of the country and prayers for the welfare of those in North Korea.
After our tour, we headed over to another hotel for the last night of our trip. Here we would be meeting up with Jill, who was flying from Los Angeles to hang out with us for a day before her and I headed to the Philippines. We also had scheduled dinner plans with one of my dad's old work colleagues, TJ. Jill was supposed to join us all for dinner but was worn out from her long flight #understandable So after Jill said hi, then Nate, TJ, TJ's brother Hawk, and I headed to some Korean BBQ for dinner.
I honestly love this part of our travels in Asia - it so fun to meet people who worked with my dad for years and hear stories of him traveling and hanging out with them while I was growing up. I love hearing their perspective of him (always positive, normally about his joke telling, personality, and success) and regaling them with tales of my own of him when I was a child and now adult. My dad's friends over here are always wonderful, kindhearted, and humorous people (as to be expected to be able to put up with him). TJ and Hawk were no exceptions to this.
We had a blast at dinner with them and they introduced us to the deliciousness of Korean BBQ. We got to get to know one another and learn about their families, jobs, and lives. TJ has lived in Korea most his life, while Hawk has actually spent some time with his family in the Bay Area (so he spoke great English) where his son his currently still going to school. They also introduced us to the Korean drink Makgeolli or Makkoli - a Korean rice alcohol with a sweet (not too sweet) flavor. I loved it and it reminded me of nigori (a type of Japanese sake). #thanksfortherecommendationKareena! Truth be told, when I asked them about this beverage that had been recommended to us by our friend, Kareena, the restaurant didn't have it. But, TJ and Hawk just gave the hostess some money to go buy some of this from a store nearby. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the hostess emerged triumphantly with our requested alcohol #awesome #thankyoubothforanamazingnight
The next morning, Jill, Nate, and I tried to make the most out of her 1 day layover in Seoul (I convinced her to do this by advertising the DMZ/JSA tour - unfortunately the day she had her layover there was no tours due to a retirement celebration - whoops....) So we headed over to the Changdeokgung Palace. This palace was constructed in 1405 and helped provide balance to the city of Seoul by being the "East Palace" since the main palace, Gyeongbokgung, is known as the "West Palace". It's layout is meant to be in harmony with nature and the mountain in the background behind it. This place was beautiful and its grounds were huge. We spent some time taking in the beauty and bright colors of the buildings.
One of the things we were most impressed by (surprisingly enough) was the bathrooms! When you would walk inside the modern bathroom, lights would turn on and soft music would start playing. They also smelled wonderful and the design was quite appealing #whoknewyoucouldbeimpressedbybathrooms I would add these to the list of attractions at the palace - just say'n...
We were supposed to go on the secret garden tour at Changdeokgung Palace but we were short on time before Jill and my flight that night (I recommend it though to others!). So we headed over to one of the anticipated events of our trip - Cafe Blind Alley - the raccoon cafe. Yes, a raccoon cafe! Here we could order snacks and drinks (we had smoothies and a bagel sandwich) and watch raccoons hang out through a window. There was also a cafe dog (corgi) hanging out :) But after we had our snack, we bought some raccoon food from the cashier and headed into the raccoon room. Here we were able to pet and feed the raccoons hang'n out in there. It was crazy to be petting raccoons and have them eat out of our hands. Their tiny little paws would grab our hands and either directly eat out of them or pick the food out of them with their delicate small paws. #sofriggincute Apparently this cafe has had these raccoons since they were only a few months old - so they're trained and used to being around humans - so don't worry folks - pet and feed away! #nowiwantapetraccoon
With only a few hours left before Jill and my flight to Cebu, Philippines, we had enough time for one last meal with Nate in Korea - naturally, we had to enjoy some Korean BBQ one last time :) So we took Jill to the same spot that TJ and Hawk had taken us to.
After our delicious meal, Jill and I said goodbye to Nate and headed to the airport to begin our sister trip to the Philippines to celebrate her 29th birthday!
Follow in our Footsteps:
Panmunjeom (Joint Security Area)
Gunnae-myeon, Paju-si, Gyeonggi-do
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 3 times a day (09:45, 13:15, 15:15)
※ Private tours are not permitted. Visitors can tour Panmunjeom only by group tour arranged by official authorities and/or travel agencies who have a permit. Tours are not available on Sundays or public holidays in Korea.
Imjingak Resort (Nuri Peace Park, Bridge of Freedom)
148-53, Imjingak-ro, Munsan-eup, Paju-si, Gyeonggi-do
Hours: 9am - 6pm
Changdeokgung Palace (and the Secret Garden)
99 Yulgok-ro, Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Hours: 9am - 5pm (Monday closed)
Admission Fee: ₩3,000; Secret Garden ₩8,000
Free English tours at 10:30am and 2:30pm, Secret Garden tours at 11:30am, 1:30pm, and 2:30pm
Blind Alley Cafe (Raccoon Cafe)
63-20 Cheongpadong 2(i)-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
*can't find the hours but we went around 2pm and it was open
Other recommendations for Seoul that we didn't have time for :( (boo sickness)
Megan Bond - AUTHOR
Just a girl raised in California and loved exploring Southeast Asia with my husband! We're back in the States but still exploring the world as much as we can!