If you spend any time as a tourist in Seoul you will no doubt end up on a tour of the DMZ. There are many tours going either to Dorasan Station and the 3rd infiltration tunnel or the JSA. Prices differ and so do the experiences. Panmunjom Travel Center offer a different kind of tour experience and one that is sure to leave you with a better understanding of what the situation is like along the DMZ The main quality that set this tour apart from the many other tours out there is the fact that for part of the tour, you get to travel and interact with a North Korean defector.
At first this may seem like a bit of a gimmick but by speaking to the defector whom has chosen to share her experiences with the group, you gain a better understanding of the situation from a more human stand point. So rather than hearing people speculate about what goes on in North Korea, you will hear first-hand the hardships these people faced and their courage to defect. This is not an easy thing to do and hearing this woman’s story during the tour, I was at a loss for words. I wanted to ask so many questions but at the same time I did not want to offend her. It was one of the few experiences in my life where I could actually see the pain in persons eyes.
The tour itself is well organized and runs well. The Panmunjom Travel Center is located on the 6th floor of the Lotte Hotel, right next door to Seoul City hall. Thus, getting there from Seoul station is simple. The fact you depart from the prestigious Lotte Hotel is also a plus because once you get back as you are central to everything in downtown Seoul.
Mt. Odu Unification Observatory
This was the first stop on our tour and was were we got to meet our special guest and interact with her a bit. The observatory gives a history of the Korean conflict and a look into the every day lives of North Koreans. It was a bit surreal sitting in a recreation of a North Korean classroom and talking to a North Korean. Something that you don’t often get to do. Again I was finding extremely difficult to come up with some good questions during this time.
We then got to watch a typical video for this kind of tour. It basically explained that Kim Jeong Il was a bad man and that he did very bad things. We were told that it was quite emotional and graphic but for the most part it was just a lot of propaganda. Following that we carried on to the next stop on our tour.
What we were basically told was that Imjingak was the place for people with family in North Korea to come to pay their respects and whatnot. It is a more modern looking area with an amusement park that the guide said was basically built to entertain the families of those who were visiting the area. Imjingak also has the Gyeongui train which sits infront of Imjingak and is an interesting piece as it was damaged during the Korean War and gives you a glimpse at the ferocity of the battle.
After lunch the tour continues ever closer to the DMZ. It is at Camp Bonifas that we received our briefing about the area which was quite interesting. We met the military personel that would accompany us to the JSA as well as here was where we switched buses to ones designated as “military vehicles” but were essentially just a different bus. Make a note that even though we surrounded by US military and this was an English tour (also Japanese too) the soldiers were all South Korean ROK forces that came with us.
Following the a brief check of passports and clothing, we were finally on our way to the JSA. The country side was great but sadly this was one of the many “no photo zones” in this tour. When we arrived we were taken through a large building to those famous sky blue little buildings. We were let in to one and had a look around and then we were out in what felt like less than 10 minutes. However, these buildings straddle both sides of the lines and we were allowed to walk across the line onto North Korean land. We then lined up along the steps out side and back in South Korea to take a look at the North Korean Building called “Panmungak” Then it was back to the bus and a tour around the JSA. The showed us where the infamous “axe murders” took place and “The Bridge of No Return” After that we headed back to our original bus waiting for us at Camp Bonifas.
This was a great experience and something that I was happy to be apart of. The JSA tour was extremely interesting and is certainly a tense place. I would highly recommend the Panmunjom Travel Center for anyone wishing to head to the DMZ. They offer different packages much like the other tour companies meaning that there is a separate tour of the Western Line with just the Dora Observatory and the 3rd tunnel, then the JSA tour and finally a combined tour.
Panmunjom Travel Center 6th fl Lotte Hotel, Seoul, South Korea