Thursday, June 7, 2012

Let's See Seoul! (The DMZ/JSA)

Seoul really should be included in the "Welcome To Japan And Don't Screw This Up For Your Country" orientations we've all slept sat through. A military vacation from Japan really don't get any easier than this!  I had absolutely no idea about what a great destination Seoul is, until my friend, Peyton (the Peyton of Space A expertise), put together a girls' trip with some of her friends from Guam.  Since it was in the middle of Mr. TF's deployment last year, Little TF and I met up with them in Seoul. What a fantastic time!

Reasons why Seoul belongs on your Military Family's itinerary:
  • Seoul is only a two hour flight from Tokyo.  Any kid can handle two hours, right?  Right?
  • Compared to the sticker shock of Japan's yen rate, South Korea's won makes purchasing just about everything much more attractive.
  • Public transportation is available, but why drag a stroller up and down subway stairs when you can take a much more convenient (and extremely inexpensive) taxi?
  • Shopping!  Shopping!  Shopping!  Brightly lit shopping malls sparkle with the latest fashions and outdoor markets burst with counterfeit Hello Kitties, while traditional shops display celadon ceramics and calligraphy brushes within their musty walls.
  • Seoul is home to immense, UNESCO World Heritage-designated palaces.  They're stupefying in their grandeur and size. Don't miss Gyeonbokgung Palace.
  • Seoul is home to the United States Army's Yongsan Garrison.  This base is home to the military's Dragon Hill Lodge, which is Seoul's answer to Tokyo's New Sanno military hotel.  Lodging in the heart of Seoul that is cheap, clean, has a pool, and offers American meals for your most finicky eater (that would be Little TF)?  Yes, please!

With all these great reasons to visit Seoul, everyone should be headed to South Korea right this minute!  Especially since Dragon Hill Lodge's tour desk makes planning a day of sightseeing almost laughably easy.  The tour desk offered some great day trips.  Itineraries included amusement parks, war memorials, shopping, and cultural shows.We took a tour to see some of the Seoul's breathtaking palaces and shop at Itaewon (the street of celadon ceramics, calligraphy brushes, fans, scrolls, and cute cafes), and then took another tour to one of Seoul's bustling markets.  

The highlight of the trip, however, was when we toured the DMZ/JSA, the uber-tense (Haha, understatement!) zone between South Korea and North Korea.  Our bus picked us up from Dragon Hill and took us to meet up with other tour participants from around the city.  After meeting our tour guide and other members of our group at the top of a luxury hotel, our passports were requested by official-looking people in black suits, and taken to another area for an identity check.  Identities confirmed, we were each assigned a specific seat on the bus, which then drove our group out of Seoul and north towards the border between North and South Korea.  We could see lookout towers, military personnel, and lots of fencing as we drove down the highway.

On the highway leaving Seoul.  Say hello to the man aiming a tank gun a North Korea.  He's real!

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) was the first part of the tour.  It's funny that it's called "demilitarized," because there are actually military and weapons all over the place.  See the bridge in the photo below?  We are on the South Korea side.  See the other end of the bridge? That's North Korea over there.  Squint hard and maybe you can make out one of the manned, North Korean bunkers stationed on the shoreline.
Hello, North Korea!

South Korea, of course, had their corresponding, armed bunker.

Fences in this tourist-y area were festooned with ribbons that pray for peace.

There was also a large, official Peace Bell.  This part of the tour was almost festive.  It bustled with ice cream stands, vendors selling hoodies and post cards, and members of the general public wandering around snapping photos and making peace signs.

Peace Bell.

The second part of the tour was deadly serious:  No joking. Strict dress code. Cameras turned off. Instructions followed, explicitly.  As I learned on the tour, inside the DMZ is an area called the Joint Security Area.  A Zone within the zone, this is a very small section of land that is bisected by the border of North Korea and South Korea.  A small collection of buildings, situated on top of this border, are where meetings between the two countries are held.  Forget the piddly tanks and guarded bunkers of the DMZ.  Our bus took us through miles of barbed wire, anti-tank walls, heavily guarded gates, and mine fields.  Once inside the first few layers, our bus was boarded and escorted by a heavily armed, security detail. Absolutely no photos allowed, of course.

Before being allowed to embark on this last leg of our tour, we had to watch a security video.

"Your security detail has been assigned for your protection.  Do everything he says.  In the event of an infraction, the tour will be immediately canceled and everyone sent back to the bus.  Do not attempt to communicate with South Korean soldiers or North Korean soldiers.  Feel free to take photos of North Korea once permission is granted.  Absolutely no photos may be taken of the South Korean side."

The movie then went on to detail atrocities that North Korea has committed within the JSA, including the attack on Camp Bonifas, ambushing a transport truck with grenades, and the infamous Axe Murder Incident.  According to Wikipedia, there have been over 750 overt acts of violence at the site.

So in fear of...everything, we meekly boarded our bus, along with our security detail, and drove the last few hundred yards to our destination.

Standing in South Korea, looking at North Korea.  WHAT!?

And just like that, we were face to face with the Democratic People's Republic Of Korea.

South Korean soldiers have their backs to me and face North Korean soldiers.

To serve at the JSA, a South Korean soldier must meet specific height and weight requirements, the better to intimidate the North Koreans.  A soldier must also be male.  In spite of North Korea's policy of "military first," which ensures that (increasingly) scarce resources go first to the army, average heights of the North Korean soldiers stationed at the border are slowly shrinking.

Inside the conference room.  I'm standing on the South Korean side to take this photo.

We were only allowed inside the conference room for three minutes.

I'm now standing on the North Korean side.  Holy moly.

Our tour finished, we carefully filed back to our waiting bus.  As we drove away, our tour guide casually informed us that JSA policy requires all waiting tour buses to idle.  You know, in case all hell broke lose and we had to make a run for it.  North Korea has a history of random, unprovoked attacks.  We were chillingly reminded of this when we passed the site of the infamous, Axe Murder Incident.   That's what it's officially called, but it is also referred to as the Tree Trimming Incident and the Poplar Tree Incident.  Look it up.  Gruesome stuff.

The location of the Axe Murder Incident.

Then, like all good capitalists, we hit up the JSA's gift shop on the way out!

Been there, done that, got the...

The DMZ is home to two propaganda villages.  I mean, the village in North Korea is the Propaganda Village.  The one in South Korea is the Freedom Village.  Officially speaking.  Both of them are populated.  South Korea's village residents are those who lived there originally, before the war.  No one is allowed to move into the village, unless he or she marries a descendant of an original villager.  I'm really not sure why one would want to live there. Anyways, North Korea's Propaganda Village is home to the world's tallest flag pole.  South Korea's Freedom Village originally had the taller one, until North Korea decided that that was unacceptable and made theirs bigger.  None of us could think of any jokes to make about that.

Congratulations, North Korea.  You win the flagpole contest.

As we left the DMZ/JSA behind us, we could see the low mountains of North Korea on our right. There was something odd about these particular mountains.  Not much seemed to be growing on them.  As our tour guide solemnly explained to us, these mountains of North Korea have been stripped of their trees.  North Korean citizens burned them to keep warm.

Please note:

-The DMZ/JSA tour offered by Dragon Hill Lodge requires a booking at least 48 hours in advance. Have your passport information on hand. 
-Young children are not allowed on these tours, due to their lack of running ability.  I was unable to find exact age information, so please inquire.  Thanks AGAIN to my friend, Peyton, who took Little TF to Seoul's zoo and Space Needle so that I could go on this tour.  
-No sloppy clothing.  No strappy tops.  No denim with holes.  Shoes must be closed-toe and have a heel strap, so that running ability is not impeded.
-Tours may be canceled without notice and indefinitely.  This happened when Kim Jong Il died, and happens when North Korea threatens to fire rockets.  
-If you want to see the JSA as well as the DMZ, make sure you choose the correct tour.  Some of the tours offered only include the DMZ.

Disclaimer:  I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate.  However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong.  Please let me know if something needs a correction.  Thank-you!


  1. The DMZ was a highlight of my two years out here. Great recap... and fun to relive it! Also I've heard the USO does the best DMZ tours and they're only like $12, offered Saturdays & Sundays I believe.

  2. That's right. We didn't take a USO tour though...were they canceled that week? I can't remember!