Yesterday we had an interesting day. We had a visit to the The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with a North Korean Defector. At the DMZ we visited different attractions and even got to see North Korea from a far. This very informative, educational day made us realise how lucky we are just to be born in a free country. We highly recommend a tour to the DMZ if you’re in Korea. There are several companies that operate DMZ tours, and the only way to go there is with a tour. We went with the travel operator Panmunjom Travel Center. In this Panmunjom tour review we share our experiences of our visit to the DMZ.
Panmunjom Travel Center aims to give tourists an accurate understanding of the North Korean regime and the implications of its policies on the countries around it. During the tour we went to the following attractions in the DMZ: The Odusan Unification Observatory, Freedom bridge, Dorasan Observatory, Dorasan Station and the 3rd tunnel. In addition, we saw two educational films about the situation and we got to talk with a North Korean defector throughout the tour. In this article we share our experiences at the DMZ and included some questions and answers from the North Korean Defector.
Panmunjom Travel Center Review: Our experience at the DMZ
The Joint Security Area (JSA)
Of course, we were very interested in visiting the JSA Security Force Camp Bonifas. This is the closest you can get to North Korea from South Korea. Here you can actually see North Korean soldiers and stand on the North Korean border. Unfortunately, the spots for this are quickly filled up and we couldn’t go. Make sure to book at least three weeks up front if you really want to go on a JSA tour.
What is the DMZ?
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a buffer zone between South and North Korea. It was established on the 27th of July, 1953, when the Armistice Agreement was signed during the Korean War. South and North side drew a truce line across the Korean Peninsula and on either side of the truce line is a 2 kilometer wide stretch of land where no military activity is allowed.
Odusan Unification Observatory at the DMZ
The Odusan Unification Observatory was built to console the feelings of dispersed families, and to show that South Korea wants a unified country again. It is located north of the truce line of the western front, where the Hangang river and the Imjingang meet. This observatory is located 3.2 kilometer from North Korea. Sometimes you can even hear the North Korean propaganda. From the observatory you have a wide view of North Korea. As they have also located binoculars, we even saw North Korean people walking on the streets and working on the fields. It was a gloomy, misty day and it was surreal to realise how close we were to North Korea.
Our guide told us about a little white house we saw so close to the border of North Korea. It belonged to a North Korean man who has been away from his home for 64 years now. Of course, he can’t go back, but every day he screams from his house to his family – who remain in North Korea.
There are a lot of North Korean refugees and so many heartbreaking stories. Many are separated from families and miss them and their home. On the photo above you can see drawings from these refugees and each drawing contain things they miss.
In the Unification Observatory we got to see a movie about the situation in North Korea, and the wars and supreme leaders that brought them to this state. Also, the movie was about South Korea’s wish to unify with North Korea.
Freedom Bridge at the DMZ
This bridge is a historical place. As landmines were scattered around the area, this bridge was made to trade back prisoners of war safely. Nearly 13,000 prisoners of war were traded at the end of the Korean War. Now, the Freedom Bridge mostly serves as a place of remembrance for families who were separated. The bridge and surrounding area is filled with flags, ribbons, and music from speakers. On the ribbons and flags lots of texts and messages are written, often about the wish for a unified Korea. Also, a lot of families wrote messages about their lost loved ones, who either passed away or are in North Korea.
Dorasan Station and Dorasan Observatory at the DMZ
The Dorasan Station yet again shows the wish of the South Koreans to unify with North Korea, and that they are optimistic about the future. It’s a railway station on the Gyeongui Line and the line runs through Pyongyang. It is a modern station, all ready to connect South Korea with North Korea, and they even have the plan to let it go all the way to Paris. However, even though North Korea cooperated in completing the rail way, they don’t allow the trains to run through their country. South Korea has the hope that when there is a unified Korea, the train line will connect both sides.
While we drove from the Dorasan Station to the Dorasan Observatory, the guide pointed out to the triangle red signs along the road. They were there to warn us for the landmines. Our guide told us they are still everywhere in the DMZ.
The Dorasan Observatory is located on a mountain – called Dorasan. From the Dorasan Observatory you can overlook North Korea again, this time it’s a bit closer – namely 2.7 kilometers. It was interesting, as from here we could see a propaganda or fake town in North Korea. It looks like a great modern town, but was only built to let outsiders believe that North Korea is paradise to live in.
The Third Tunnel of Aggression at the DMZ
South Korea has already discovered four tunnels built by North Koreans to invade South Korea. The third tunnel was discovered in 1978 by South Korean forces, after a North Korean engineer defected and warned them. Approximately 30,000 soldiers per hour could move through this tunnel. It has been rumoured that besides the four discovered tunnels, more than a dozen other undiscovered North Korean passages exists.
The North Koreans denied the existence of the tunnel, and claimed that it was a coal mine. They even rubbed coal dust on the walls to disguise it as that. The South Koreans blocked the actual demarcation line with concrete barriers to avoid any attacks from the North.
In the tunnel you are not allowed to take any photos. After being taken inside the tunnel with a slow sort of train vehicle, you can walk 265 meters until hitting the dividing wall.
After visiting the tunnel, we got to see a movie about the four tunnels that were found. In addition, the movie told about different attacks by the North Koreans on the DMZ. We also got to walk around a museum with different information about the DMZ and historical events.
North Korea was like being in Hell and when she came to South Korea it was like arriving in Heaven.
Interview with the North Korean Refugee
A North Korean Defector came with us on the Panmunjom tour. We were allowed to ask her everything we wanted to know about North Korea and her life there. She only spoke Korean but our tour guide translated everything we asked and everything she told.
The North Korean defector was Kim Ha, which is a fake name obviously. We were not allowed to take any photos of her for safety reasons. Although she looked like a real lady with high heels, purse and make-up, her story showed us she is a real tough one – a bad-ass. In North Korea she served two years in the navy. She ranked quite high and had to endure a tough journey to get to South Korea. We will share some of the questions our group asked and what she responded.
How did you defected to South Korea?
She crossed the border at China, and went through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. To get into China she gave money to the border security and later she also had to pay money to smugglers. In total it took her one year to get to South Korea. She was almost caught by police in China. When the police burst in her room, she jumped four floors down, and ran into the bush. Luckily, the police were not as well trained as she was.
What if you were caught?
Because she defected to the Chinese border, the punishment would be less severe. If Chinese caught her, they would most likely sent her back to North Korea, where she would have to go to jail. In the past, Chinese people even got money from North Korea when they sent back a North Korean defector.
If she would have been caught when crossing another border, she could have been shot at the spot.
Have you left any family behind?
Yes, she still has family in North Korea, such as her mother. If the government knows that she is defected, they would execute her family. However, because there was a recent accident with lots of casualties, her family could say she died there. She still has contact with her family via the smugglers.
How are you treated in South Korea?
When she first got here she felt out of place. The language is not completely the same, so it was a bit hard to communicate. Therefore, it felt as if she was treated differently. Later, she realised how warm and welcoming everyone was. She is treated very well.
What is the difference between North and South Korea?
She said that you can’t compare the two sides. North Korea was like being in Hell and when she came to South Korea it was like arriving in Heaven.
How much do North Koreans know about the outside world?
During the first supreme leader Kim Il-sung everybody believed the government. They all didn’t know better and thought that the whole world was in the same situation as them. Now, everybody knows about the outside world. Often, Chinese people visit North Korea and they smuggle information in. Also, there are a lot of North Korean defectors now, and they can keep in touch with their families. They do so via phone calls – also smuggled in- so they can tell about the situation outside.
What surprised you most about the outside world?
She knew that other countries were more developed than North Korea. However, she didn’t expect it to be this good. She was surprised by the cars, the buildings – everything. She was also surprised to see that people give their dogs a name.
Can you have a business in North Korea?
The government owns everything, 80% of any profit goes to the government. It’s not allowed to have a business, but some people have an illegal business. The government doesn’t want people to have any money.
What does the North Korean Government want from it’s people?
Because more people know what is going on, more people want change. So, there are public executions to scare anyone for trying to disobey. In every town they hold weekly meetings to be sure that nobody does anything wrong. In these meetings, the North Koreans have to tell if someone did something “bad”. For instance, when the first and second supreme leader died everyone had to cry for at least three minutes, twice a day. You can see clips of this in the unification movie or here on YouTube. If anyone didn’t cry enough, they would get punished and this would be discussed in those meetings.
It is becoming harder for Kim Jong-un to control the masses. Basically, he wants people to obey him and he doesn’t want anyone to have money or power.
The Panjumjom Travel Center Tour
We had an interesting and very educational day during the Panmunjom tour, and it gave us a lot of food for thought. Panmunjom Travel Center offer various other DMZ tours, check it out on their website. The DMZ tour with a North Korean Defector was a good tour with a friendly and quite funny guide and we were happy it included a good lunch.
If you’re planning on visiting the DMZ we definitely recommend a tour with Panmunjom Travel Center. They are the only tour that provides the chance to speak with a North Korean defector and lets you ask them questions. Hopefully this Panmunjom Travel Center review helped you with making up your mind. We will come back to South Korea to see more and then we’ll definitely visit the JSA.
Other DMZ tours
Not sure if you want to book the tour with Panmunjom Travel Center? Check out other reviews on TripAdvisor, where you can also book the tour in advance. For other tours to the DMZ that you can book in advance, check out GetYourGuide. We haven’t experienced their tours, but the reviews are promising!
Do you have any questions or comments? Please let us know in the comments below or sent us a message firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: Panmunjom Travel Center offered us a complimentary tour in exchange for writing about our experience. The expressed opinions and written experiences in this article are my own and completely honest. This post contains affiliate links. For more information please check our Disclosure page.
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