There is no frozen banana stand in the DMZ, dear Arrested Development fans! Which isn’t really a surprise, given that it’s not exactly easy to get bananas in the DPRK. Or chocolate. Or nuts. Or a freezer. Or a reliable source of electricity…
Nevertheless I kept my eyes peeled after watching the show’s final episode (of season 3…) for the gazillionth time – at the *Minsok Hotel* on a media player the night before going to the North Korean side of the DMZ / JSA.
I decided to not bore you with too many facts about the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), especially after I dropped way too many numbers and Korean terms in the previous article – there are plenty of ways to educated yourself about the Korean war and its end, and you probably know the basics anyway. Instead I would like to talk about how it is to visit the DMZ when in the DPRK.
First of all: People who say that they’ve visited the DMZ most of the time actually visited a very tiny part called Joint Security Area (JSA), the only portion of the Demilitarized Zone where soldiers from both Koreas get close to each other and don’t stand 4 kilometers apart – to the best of my knowledge tourists can only visit one other part of the DMZ: A lookout where you are supposed to see the Korean Wall. “The Korean Wall?” you ask? Yes, the Korean Wall. More about that topic next time!
I’ve never been to the southern side of the JSA, but I’ve heard it’s not exactly a relaxed trip. You have to sign a waiver (since there is a theoretical chance that you might be injured or killed…), groups are split by languages (sometimes prohibiting couples of different nationalities to go together), you have to apply several days in advance (some nationalities have to go through a background check), there is a dress code, you are not allowed to do certain things (like pointing at DPRK soldiers) and overall it seems to be quite a rushed experience.
Going to the northern side of the DMZ / JSA is actually quite laid-back. We went through a background check before entering the DPRK, none of us brought offensive clothes, no matter what nationality all of us spoke English, 80% of the previous locations were a rushed experience anyway and our guides knew we would behave properly without reminding us – and signing a waiver was not necessary. It felt like just another place to see, to my surprise without any photography limitations. Even usually off-limit motives like military personnel were no problem at all. Heck, our local guide in the rank of daewi, Captain, patiently posed for photos with everybody who was interested in having one.
Visiting the JSA from the northern side started a couple of kilometers northwest, pretty much at a distance where the DMZ technically begins. There everybody had to leave the bus at a military checkpoint for checks unspecified to us. The procedure took about 20 minutes – and to keep people busy there was a decent gift shop and a separate restroom building. When the buses were ready to continue the waiting groups got a little lecture about the history of the DMZ in front of a huge painted map. Meanwhile the buses actually drove about one hundred meters past a checkpoint and everybody had to pass through an opening in a wall next to the road (rows of two, like in school!) before boarding the bus again. (No metal detectors or being padded down involved…)
About 1.5 kilometers down the road was the first of two stops, a neatly gardened area with a building where the armistice was negotiated and the building where it was signed, now housing the North Korea Peace Museum. Located in the former village of Panmunjom, the buildings were specifically constructed to house the negotiations and the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement.
The second stop was the actual Joint Security Area, which most people visit from the southern side. First we visited a monument dedicated to Kim Il-sung reading and signing a document about Korea’s reunification on 1994-7-7, the day before his death. The signature plate is 7.7 meters wide, the whole monument 9.4 meters; and of course it is richly ornamented with Kimilsungias, an orchid named after guess who. From there we went to the Panmungak, the building for visitors on the northern side of the JSA, to take some photos and… that was it. There was barely any activity on the southern side and since it was a quiet sunny morning, the whole visit felt quite peaceful and slightly surreal.
People always seem to be so excited about visiting the JSA, especially those who step into North Korea for half a minute in one of the blue conference buildings on the border between North and South Korea, but after having spent six and a half days in the DPRK the experience was rather underwhelming; nothing in comparison to standing in front of *Chernobyl’s Reactor #4* or *having lunch with North Korean locals*. No disrespect to the incredible importance this place has in history, but to me the first stop was much more interesting than the second one…
(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)