View Full Version : My Trip to the Korean DMZ

02-12-2012, 11:14 AM
This is a recounting of my trip a few years back to the DMZ in Korea. All I can say is amazing. I figured I'd post this up as it's not something most people get to hear about or experience. Hope y'all enjoy.

Our trip started out bright and early at 7 in the morning. Just another day on another bus. We were off and trekking, with a drive time of roughly 4 hours. I alternated between sleep and reading on the way up. At roughly 9:30 our tour stopped at a "roadside pitstop" type place where you could get one of many korean treats like chicken balls on a stick or fried potato balls (balls is a prominent theme in South Korea). About an hour and a half later and we were at the first of a few stops that day.

Stop 1: Freedom Bridge Park - We rolled in and immediately joined the fray of about 500 South Korean Tourists. Let me tell you when these guys get going, stay out of their way. This park is a couple kilometers from the MDL (Military Demarcation Line), right on the edge of the DMZ, and is home to Freedom Bridge, or the last bridge the 13000 or so South Koreans who were repatriated from North Korea would cross on their return home. It is also the bridge for the train line that used to run from South Korea into North Korea. Here you can find many notes and ribbons left on a fence by South Koreans for their family members trapped in North Korea.

There were a few cool monuments scattered around, including a statue of Harry S Truman. A small museum was at the site, but didn't offer much. There was also still an old train from the Korean War era. The craziest part to me, and the thing that I still can't comprehend was a stark difference between Korean and American culture.

Picture this: You go the Pearl Harbor to pay your respects at the memorial to all the brave men and women who lost their lives on that fateful morning. When you get there you walk into the entrance to the national monument and instead of being greeted with peace and solitude, you are greeted with a fun park! Yes, a fun park... complete with the huge rocking ship. It seems really odd that in a place that should mean so much to so many, it has been completely commercialized and made slightly cartoonish. To this moment I can't get over this.

Anyway, back on the road. Time for lunch. We stopped at "the only restaurant near the DMZ." Turned out to be some buffet with bulgogi and yaki man du. The yaki was awesome. Real Korean bulgogi, on the other hand, is nothing even close to even what we can get right off base. It's more of a soupy mixture. Quite odd and yet still delicious.

Getting back on the bus we took a short trip to the top of a small mountain. This was the first military position we were to visit that day. Immediately you could tell this wasn't a joke. There were wires strung on both sides of the road, and placards place on these wires roughly every 10 meters stating in both hangool and english "mine." Must be getting closer. At the top of the hill we were greeted by a ROKA (Republic of Korea Army) troop who advised us that we could only take pictures up to a yellow line. Walking up to the yellow line was nothing really. What was on the other side was something else. Our first clear glimpse of North Korea. From this vantage point we could see for kilometers, and could also see both Kijong-Dong (North Korea's Propaganda Village) and Taejong Dong (South Korea's version). Unfortunately, yellow sand was out in force and so our view was quite hazy.

After about 40 minutes we were whisked back on our bus and shuttled to the Tunnel 3 Site. A little history: In 1971, Kim-Il Sung (North Korea's leader) issued the Combat Readiness Order. In this order he stressed the importance of digging tunnels, stating that one tunnel was as powerful as 10 atomic bombs and would be an effective means of overwhelming the heavily fortified enemy front. The order was given for each KPA (Korean Public Army) unit to dig two tunnels. Being that there were/are 11 units, that would lead to a total of 22 tunnels.

So far surveilance/detection and information from North Korean defectors has lead to the identification of 4 tunnels. We were at the third to be discovered. Upon arrival we were warned that there was to be no photography inside the tunnel, and to leave our cameras on the bus. That's no fun! (I took mine with me, but under video surveillance couldn't use the flash and therefore got no good pics). We got the brief history on this particular tunnel: Identified by a North Korean defected engineer who had worked on it, the UNC (United Nations Command) drilled core samples to locate the cavities and then pumped in water. Upon the quick drainage of the water, they knew they were on to something. A tunnel was bored on our end at a 30 degree downward angle in 2004 and the tunnel was subsequently opened to the public. One thing we were told to look at was the coal dust sprayed on the walls (North Korea's attempt at masking the tunnel as a coal mine, even though no coal deposits existed). In addition all the dynamite blasting holes had been drilled toward South Korea (as if to make it look like South Koreans had done it).

We grabbed our hard hats and started our descent. Let me tell you that descent is hard on the knees. 450 meters later and we were at the bottom. Immediately water was everywhere, not a big surprise. The actual tunnel began shortly after where the descent left off. Want proof that asians are way shorter than Americans? Go in this tunnel. I was hunched over to take about a foot and a half off my height the whole way. My back was screaming. Meanwhile all these short Koreans are passing and laughing at us, making fun of the "big Americans." We walked all the way in and were greeted by nothing else but a concrete wall and some concertina wire. What a rip off! Turning around we made it out much quicker as the group I was with were all tall and we were ready to stand back up. I think I only hit my head on the rock ceiling 20 or so times, good thing I was wearing that hard hat! The trip back to the top was no easy task, as a 30 degree grade times 450 meters is not pretty. We all made it though.

Back on the bus and finally we were on our way to Camp Bonifas. This is the station closest to the DMZ, and these troops have rightly earned the title carried by the Camp, "In Front Of Them All." We were greeted outside the gates of the Camp by our Army guide, and taken to an auditorium. Inside the auditorium we were given ID tags to wear and a paper to sign. The most significant thing on this paper was this passage: "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action." We were also told not to gesture or talk to the North Koreans, provoke them in any way, or do anything that could be used for North Korean propaganda.

And with that we were off. On the way from the base to the JSA (Joint Security Area) we were shown the one time "most dangerous hole of golf in the world," which is a one hole golf course, Par 3 we were told, that was once surrounded on 3 sides by landmines (they have since been pushed back outside the Camp's fenceline). Out the gate we went onto the one highway leading to the JSA. On our way we were pointed toward Observation Post Oullette, manned by US Military, which has the best vantage point into North Korea. Shortly thereafter on our left was Kijong-Dong, and boy were we close! No photos were allowed to be taken during this part of the trip, lord knows why. One interesting thing is that we did see a couple farmers, all guarded by ROKA with machine guns. Intense.

Just like that we pulled up to the JSA. Words can't describe the feeling of tension in the place. It was surreal. We were ushered into the "reunion house," built by South Korea as a place for North Korean and South Korean members of the same family to reunite for a day. Unfortunately it has never been used for that purpose as North Korea is afraid of their citizens permanently defected if they're allowed to cross the MDL. After a short brief we were out the back door, and there it was, the JSA! It was utterly quiet. We were accompanied by our guide and 6 ROKA soldiers. The ROKA soldiers of course were in their "modified" stance to intimidate the North Korean enemy, and were standing with half of themselves behind a wall, to present a smaller target.

We were immediately under observation. A sole North Korean in uniform stood at Panmon Hall and there were several video cameras pointed at us. In addition there were a few North Korean guard shacks, and we were assured personnel in each were watching us closely. An interesting note is that there are white stakes placed roughly every 3 meters. These white stakes are the actual MDL and are a "do not cross at any cost" thing.

Next we walked into the MAC, which is where all the North/South meetings take place. We walked around a table to get another small brief, at which time we were informed that we were in North Korea. Wow! Upon looking out the window, there is a concrete barrier which is the MDL. On one side is rock, which South Korea added for the 50th anniversary of the JSA. They offered to do it for North Korea as well, but North Korea declined because sand is harder to run through and therefore defect. There are plastic flags representing all the countries of the UNC on the wall. These replaced the cloth flags that had been in the room after a video camera discovered the KPA shining their boots with the American and South Korean flags.

We then walked back out of the jSA and got back on the busses. As we were leaving, the old site of the sunken garden was pointed out. It was on this spot that a Russian defected was chased over the MDL by North Koreans, as they were shooting at him. A firefight between North and South broke out, and one ROKA was killed along with several KPA, before the KPA retreated.

Our next stop on the trip was Checkpoint 3. First and foremost this is a great vantage point of North Korea. Second it looks upon the Bridge of No Return. The Bridge of no return holds a lot of significance here. Some 80 odd thousand North Korean and Chinese POW's were returned over this bridge as well as some 13 odd thousand South Koreans and a few Americans. The bridge got its name because at the time of the POWs' release, they were given the choice of country. Once they crossed the bridge they could never return. There was a checkpoint at this area, at one time surrounded by 3 KPA guard shacks, cutting off any route of our personnel's escape. A large tree cut off the view from Checkpoint 3, and there had been several attempts to snatch the UNC troops and drag them across North Korean lines.

A crew was dispatched for a routine tree trimming. As they were working they were confronted by a large force of KPA, who used the axes of the workers to kill two American Military personnel. These axes are now displayed in the North Korean Peace Museum right across the DMZ. Operation Paul Bunyan remedied the problem. Two battalions of American personnel as well as several ROKA battalions accompanied engineers with chainsaws to cut down the tree. In addition, Cobras and B 52's circled behind them, and every base on the peninsula was put on the highest military alert. A carrier group was even dispatched. The North Koreans didn't do anything that day. The trunk of the tree was left as a reminder, until a monument was made on the spot. The bridge hasn't been used since.

All in all I had a great trip. So much stuff I saw. It is pretty surreal. I hope you all enjoyed me recounting this, and if you'd like links to learn more, let me know. I'll hook it up.

Oh, and NO CLIFF NOTES. I took the time to write it, take the time to read it.

02-12-2012, 11:16 AM
On with the pics:

Guard shack and fence along the river. The guard shacks are manned at all times, and there's one every 30-40 meters.

More of the fence. They're not playing around with the constantine wire.

The main monument, called the memorial altar. This is where Koreans gather to remember those they were separated from.

Some of the panels

The rest of the panels

The "cauldron" where they burn offerings. No animals or anything. Just incense and the like.

Straight on shot.

It's plaque.

The pavillion which houses the Freedom Bell

The Freedom Bell

Random angle.

Random cartoon character in the park. These cartoonish things are everywhere in Korea.

Her male counterpart.

The Freedom Bridge.

All the random notes and ribbons left behind for lost family members.


Me at the overlook to the Freedom Bridge.

Not sure if you can see it, but there is a guard shack out in the middle of the old bridge supports. The shacks really are everywhere up toward the DMZ.

Random monument

Monument to the United States contribution to the Korean War.

Stone in the center.

One of the four murals on the inside of the monument.

Two of the four.

Three of the four.

Four of the four.

Another random monument.

Harry S. Truman

Korean War era train.

Old ass passenger car.

Odd yet cool statues on a hill.

And in the middle of all this seriousness... a fun park...

...complete with rocking boat.

Another monument.

02-12-2012, 11:17 AM
The military mountain top position.

A little buddhist temple type thing on the mountain top.

The "military" viewers on the left, the civilian ones on the right.

First shot of North Korea

02-12-2012, 11:17 AM
One of the many "mine" placards placed everywhere. Bad place to let the chilluns run free.

Small monument on Camp Bonifas.

JSA here I am!

Inside South Korea's "Reunion House" at the JSA.

Our North Korean watcher.

This is it folks. Can't get much closer to North Korea. This is the main corridor, used by the South and North for repatriation of bodies and the like.

North Korean guard tower.

Another one a little larger. No telling how many sets of eyes we had on us.

Blue is UNC building, and silver is North Korean. The North Korean building in this pic is a "fitness hall" although there's nothing inside. This is used to stage North Korean troops when meetings take place.

Poor North Korean looking so solitary.

The MAC Building. This is where all the meetings between both sides take place.

Far left is an old multi country headquarters. No longer used.

Couldn't see us well enough so had to grab the binoculars.

South Korean guard in "modified tae kwon do" stance.

The main North Korean building.

Smile! I'm on North Korean camera!

Only half exposed to North Korea so as to present a smaller target to snipers.

Okay, so I'm on a LOT of cameras.

The MDL is the concrete. South Korea offered to put gravel in on North Korea's side for the 50th anniversary of the JSA, but North Korea refused. Sand is after all harder for defectors to run through.

Yes folks, I'm officially in North Korea.

Our brave South Korean guard ensuring no North Koreans enter and take us.

Bad pic, but me behind enemy lines.

Our other guard. We couldn't round the table on that side, so as to show respect to the UNC flag on the side we did round.

Ah, safe again.

The plastic flags that replaced the cloth versions the North Koreans were using to shine their boots.

Constant surveillance. The booth used to be used for a translator. One was on both sides. Translators now sit at the table, and the booths are not used.

Main UNC headquarters.

This is the monument where the sunken garden used to be.

Not sure how well they show up, but the white stakes are the actual MDL.

02-12-2012, 11:18 AM
North Korean Guard Shack looking back at Checkpoint 3.

The roof of the North Korean Peace Museum. Not so much considering it houses the two axes kept from the killings at the Bridge of No Return.

You can kind of see the Bridge of No Return. The blue UNC checkpoint is no longer used, but the tan North Korean one is still manned 24/7.

And there it is in the distance. Propaganda Village.

The tallest flagpole in the world!

Those buildings at its base are 4-5 stories tall.

Some of the hollow, floorless, windowless buildings of Propaganda Village.

The expanse of it.

It really is a big ghost town. Doesn't even look like much more than a bunch of concrete from a distance.

Another view of the run up to the Bridge of No Return.

Our South Korean guard watching over us in the shadow of North Korea.

View from the Bridge of No Return back up to Checkpoint 3.

Monument to those that lost their lives for trimming a tree on the location where the tree originally stood.

Close up of the inscription.

Bridge of No Return. North Korea has let their end be completely overgrown as it's no longer used. The bridge has fallen into disrepair and although the UNC has repeatedly sought North Korea's permission to fix it, North Korea has repeatedly refused.

Shot from a little further back.

As close in as I could get to North Korea's side. They actually do reenlistments for those soldiers stationed at Camp Bonifas in the middle of the bridge.

The abandoned checkpoint.

Anyway. That's all I have. Hope you enjoy.

02-12-2012, 11:29 AM
Awesome pics! I'll have to make it up there one of these days.

Here's a series of videos from someone who made it inside the country.


posted 1. Go to youtube for the rest.

02-15-2012, 04:37 AM
I went there a number of times when i was in korea. Would love to go back to that country sometime, good times.