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Panmunjom and the DMZ, North Korea

  
  - darkometer rating:  8 -

The pivotal point on the heavily guarded border between North Korea and South Korea, including the place where the Korean War armistice talks took place.
 
A visit to this place is pretty much a standard on itineraries of tours of the DPRK (at least those that aren't just restricted to Pyongyang) and an absolute classic highlight of dark tourism that is unique in the world.
  
And from the South you can go on special coach excursions from Seoul. These give you a chance to peek over and even briefly set a foot on what's technically North Korean territory (inside one of the blue huts) without actually having to go to travel to the DPRK as such.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

More background info: Panmunjom is the "nerve centre" of the DMZ between North and South Korea – and nerves really are an element in this. DMZ may stand for "De-Militarized Zone" but in actual fact this is the most militarized zone in the world. It is guarded by over a million soldiers, a great majority of these on the North side – the DPRK has the world's fourth largest standing army! It is also said that the military installations (i.e. artillery mainly) – none of which can of course be seen with the naked eye – would have enough ammunition for 48 hours of constant firing, which would result in effectively depopulating an area stretching ca. 50 miles (80 km) from the front line. To avoid direct clashes, the DMZ serves as a kind of buffer zone between the two Koreas.
 
It also has to be remembered that there has never been a peace treaty, only an armistice. So technically speaking this is still a war zone! And Panmunjom is its centre, designated a "Joint Security Area", the only point, where North and South  actually stand face-to-face, as it were, and where you can see the actual demarcation line.
 
It was here at Panmunjom that the opposing sides in the Korean War held talks and on 27 July 1953 signed an armistice. To this day, the huts standing directly on the demarcation line are the venue for negotiations between the two sides, the South still comprising the United Nations Command, involving various Western countries in addition to the USA and South Korea.
 
The armistice has frequently proven fragile and there have been smaller or larger skirmishes along the DMZ, including one in 1976 that ended free use of the Joint Security Area by both sides. Since then, they have kept to their own respective side of the demarcation line – and nobody is to cross that line. Only once did a visitor do so, a Russian defector, who simply hopped over to the other side in 1983 … creating a major incident, of course. Do not try to replicate this!
 
 
What there is to see: The following account describes the experience of an excursion to the DMZ as part of a larger tour of North Korea. See under South Korea for some information about tours to the other side of this border.
 
When you get to the edge of the DMZ, there'll be a security check, and from here on some North Korean military officers will accompany you on the local tour. You'll drive past "monuments" whose primary purpose is to act as tank-proof roadblocks, which would be put into place by setting off explosives under them so that these concrete blocks would tumble into the middle of the road. You may also be able to spot well camouflaged bunkers, lookouts and the like.
 
Then you get to the first stop for sightseeing: the Armistice Talks Hall, where those talks began in 1951. Next door is the building in which the final armistice treaty was actually signed – a small, faded, feeble looking UN-flag is on display, in that way rather aptly symbolizing what indeed wasn't exactly the UN's finest hour …
 
There are also photos and a diorama model of the area, but overall not all that much information. And what you get is, obviously, the North Korean side of the story. This story is much more elaborately and entertainingly told at Pyongyang's "Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum".
 
The tour then continues for another half a mile or so to the actual border at the Joint Security Area. The centrepiece of this is the row of small blue huts that actually sit directly on the demarcation line. You first get a view of the area from the balcony of a building overlooking the huts from the Northern side. Beyond the blue huts on the Southern side stands a more recent hi-tech glass and concrete monstrosity – this is where visitors to the Southern side of the border go on day trips from Seoul (see South Korea). These days, visits are co-ordinated so that there'll never be groups on both the North and South side at the same time. You may spot the South Korean soldiers, though, with their mirrored sunglasses and shiny helmets looking like something straight out of a third-rate US action flick as they pose menacingly, half-hidden behind the blue huts. The North Korean soldiers, on the other hand, look very Soviet in their green uniforms and slightly too wide hats.
 
The highlight of the Panmunjom tour is going inside the actual blue hut in which the negotiations between the two opposing sides still take place – obviously not when tourists are visiting. You'll see the table that sits directly on the demarcation line – which is marked on the tabletop by a string of microphones. You can even sit down at this table and circle around it. Thus you'll technically have crossed the border into South Korean territory, but of course you can't pop outside the hut on the Southern side. Two guards posted by the door would be quick to stop you anyway.
 
From a little booth in the Southern corner of the room, which looks like a double interpreters' booth, a camera points at the visitors – and you wonder whether it would actually be taking any footage and if so what would it be used for … Above the windows of the booth a plaque is displayed with little flags of all the nations involved in keeping the peace at this volatile spot. See if your nation is amongst them.
 
It is clear enough that this place is no museum, though, but a genuine front line in what is technically still a "war zone". Considering that, the atmosphere seems surprisingly calm at this infamous border all the same. OK, there were soldier guards on the bus, video cameras pointing at us from the South Korean/American side, and there is a certain air of abnormality – but not really any tension. At other times that may be different, and when there's a real crisis, it may not be possible to visit the DMZ at all. But if you can go, it's an incredible, strange experience.
 
Beyond the Joint Security Area, you can also spot another oddity, or rather: pair of oddities. On both sides of the border, gigantic flagpoles fly their respective nation's flag. And they are impressive. In fact they're both record-breakers: in a bizarrely choreographed act of compromise the DPRK's flagpole is the higher one, at 525 feet (160 metres) tall it was once the tallest in the world, only recently beaten by Azerbaijan; see Martyrs' Lane) while the shorter Southern one flies the slightly bigger flag …
 
Around the Northern flagpole there's a village – right in the DMZ. The North Koreans claim it's an ordinary collective inhabited by a couple of hundred peasants. The South Korean side claims it's merely a Potemkin village.
 
In the past psychological warfare also used to be waged in the form of stacks of loudspeakers blasting out propaganda across to the other side (similar to what they used to do at the Vietnamese DMZ at Hien Luong Bridge). But this was stopped in 2004.  
 
At times there's another stop at the DMZ, namely where you can see the wall built by the US. Yes, another Cold War wall, and unlike the Berlin Wall, it's still there! (Some 25 feet (7.5 metres) high and that at a location where the Cold War is to all intents and purposes still on!). Apparently the Americans denied its existence, but the North Koreans at least used to show it to visitors. I didn't get to see it on my tour, as our group was running a little late. But on other occasions it may be included in the tour.
 
Most excursions to Panmunjom also take in Kaesong. Here you're likely to stop at Kaesong's own version of the Grand Monument, i.e. another towering bronze Kim Il Sung, standing on top of a hill allowing a good bird's-eye view over the old part of Kaesong to be had from here.
 
In fact Kaesong is the only city with an old town centre left in the whole of the DPRK! The reason why it was spared from the otherwise total bombing of the North by the USA is simply the fact that Kaesong used to be part of South Korea before (and thus technically also during) the war. It's just that the demarcation line at the end of the war was not drawn exactly identical to the one in place at the start of the conflict, and so some formerly Northern parts ended up south of the border towards the eastern coast, while Kaesong in the west ended up to the north of it.
 
Don't expect to see too much of the old town, though. Kaesong is first and foremost used as a lunch break stop. In fact I had the best meal of the whole trip to North Korea there – though I passed on the very Korean speciality of dog soup that's offered here! The old parts of Kaesong are not treated as a tourist sight by the North Koreans – for them it's backward and anyway doesn't have a Kim-connection, so what's the fuss … Still, you'll get a good look at old Korean-style houses and roofs en route. Kaesong is also famous for its ginseng, and there may be a chance for purchases …
 
Another site en route, again rather more on the weird front, is the stop at a "rest house" over the empty motorway, at Sohung, about halfway to/from Pyongyang. It must be the most pointless motorway cafe in the world. Since there is practically no traffic on the motorway it is, of course, deserted unless a tour group turns up. So clearly its only purpose in life is to sell drinks and souvenirs to the few foreign tourists en route to the DMZ. The eclectic selection of goods on offer is remarkable: I noticed the somewhat surprising presence of German biscuits and chocolate, Chinese tins of Spam (who'd buy this here?) and sweets packaged in plastic tanks steered by Teletubbies dolls! But the best bit is the view over the deserted motorway. One single other car went past during the entire time our group was there. A couple out of our group even had a little waltz in the middle of the motorway. You probably couldn't do that anywhere else in the world!
 
 
Location: right on the border between North and South Korea, just a few miles east of Kaesong.
 
Google maps locator: [37.9561,126.6773]
 
 
Access and costs: see North Korea. You can't go here independently, certainly not to the north side (but see South Korea), so you'll be at the mercy of your tour group's plans including this highlight. Most tours do.
 
 
Time required: the excursion from Pyongyang to the DMZ takes the best part of a whole day, as it is about a two and a half hour drive to get there alone.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see North Korea. Of course, the most obvious combination would be to see Panmunjom and the DMZ from the other side, but getting to South Korea is not possible from North Korea. It may only be yards away, but you cannot cross this border. You'd need to get back to Beijing in China first and then fly all the way back out to South Korea, this time to Seoul, from where DMZ tours from the south are offered (see under South Korea).
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see North Korea.
   
 
  
  • Panmunjom DMZ 1 - looking towards the SouthPanmunjom DMZ 1 - looking towards the South
  • Panmunjom DMZ 2 - inside hutPanmunjom DMZ 2 - inside hut
  • Panmunjom DMZ 3 - South Korean flagpolePanmunjom DMZ 3 - South Korean flagpole
  • Panmunjom DMZ 4 - sad UN flagPanmunjom DMZ 4 - sad UN flag
  • Panmunjom DMZ 5 - sweet dreams of reunificationPanmunjom DMZ 5 - sweet dreams of reunification
  • Panmunjom DMZ 6 - Potemkin villagePanmunjom DMZ 6 - Potemkin village
  • Panmunjom DMZ 7 - empty motorway towards the borderPanmunjom DMZ 7 - empty motorway towards the border
  • Panmunjom DMZ 8 - roadblock monumentsPanmunjom DMZ 8 - roadblock monuments
  • Panmunjom DMZ 9 - KaesongPanmunjom DMZ 9 - Kaesong

    

  

  

  

  

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