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Unsettled Peace & Pastoral Monuments:
Legacies of the Korean War in Panmunjeom, Imjingak & Cheorwon

Tours to Panmunjeom
The USO Tours by Koridoor runs popular and cheap tours to Panmunjeom/DMZ. The tour is open to both servicemen and civilians alike. The tour costs US$80 or 96,000 won for civilians and US$40 or 48,000 won for servicemen. Be sure to make your reservations in advance. For more information, call (02) 6383-2570.

The Korea Travel Bureau Panmunjom Travel Center also run tours to Panmunjeom. Both cost 77,000 won, and both leave from the downtown Lotte Hotel. For more information, call Korean Travel Bureau at (02) 778-0150 or Panmunjom Travel Center at (02) 771-5593.

Chung Ang Express's tour to Panmunjom costs 77,000 won and leaves from the downtown Lotte Hotel. For more information, call (02) 2266-3350.

Finally, the International Cultural Service Club's Panmunjeom leaves from downtown Lotte Hotel and costs 78,000 won. For more information, call (02) 755-0073.

Cosmojin Tour is providing diverse tour services for VIPs from all of the world who visit Korea such as prime ministers, politicians, CEOs from global companies, and celebrities from various fields. Cosmojin Tour offer DMZ Tour for 38,000 won as special price only on website ( and Panmunjeom (JSA) for 87,000 won (include hotel pick-up service). For more information, call (02) 318-0345.

It’s often said that the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is the most dangerous place on Earth. This distinction is probably technically true - the mountains and hillsides on both sides of the 4km strip of land separating the two Koreas bristles with troops, guard posts, tanks, missile, bunkers, gun emplacements, land mines and other tools of death and destruction. A one-hole golf course at a military base in Panmunjeom, the truce village that has come to symbolize the world’s last Cold War frontier, warns not to retrieve balls from a fairway lined by land mines - once designated as the “world’s most dangerous golf course.”

Yet the DMZ is perhaps the supreme irony in a land of ironies. As you gaze out upon the DMZ from Checkpoint 3 of Panmunjeom’s Joint Security Area, your attention is drawn not to the rare opportunity to peek into mysterious North Korea, the North Korean soldiers perched on the watchtower nearby, or your chances of survival in a sudden (and highly unlikely) re-opening of hostilities. Instead, you’re captivated by the supreme tranquility - the quiet, the lush green hillsides, the rare birds swooping into untouched marshlands. Here, at the most militarized border on the planet, you feel completely at peace.

The DMZ stretches some 248 kilometers across the Korean Peninsula from the mouth of the Imjin River in the west to the town of Goseong in the east. The demilitarized zone itself, where human activity has been greatly limited for the last half-century, has become one of Asia’s greatest nature preserves. In the sparsely populated hinterlands just outside the zone, where it seems soldiers outnumber civilians, you can find both towering monuments to battles won and derelict ruins that stand witness to the tragedy of war.

No one can properly take in the entire DMZ area over the course of a single weekend, but if you’re in Seoul, the peace village of Panmunjeom, the touching Imjingak park and the beautiful mountains and rivers of Cheorwon offer the traveler a real glimpse of the history and culture of this most uniquely Korean tourist destination.

→ Find out more! DMZ tours

Panmunjeom: Last Cold War Frontier

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Panmunjeom became the world’s last remaining outpost where democracy and communism stare at each other in the face in a tense standoff, pregnant with political and historic meaning. Improved inter-Korean relations as of late have reduced the atmosphere of tension in Panmunjeom considerably, but the men standing guard on Freedom’s Frontier, as the DMZ is called, aren’t taking it easy. Civilians cannot enter the DMZ without prior permission, and tourists can visit Panmunjeom only as part of organized group tours. Even then, visitors must follow strict dress codes and, above all, follow closely the instructions of official guides, who are usually US soldiers.

Tours from Seoul first take you along Freedom Road, the flat and straight highway connecting the capital with the DMZ. The buses eventually reach the Imjingang River, crossed by the Unification Bridge. This is the end of the line for most civilians. If you’re with a tour group, however, you’ll pass through an army checkpoint at the southern end of the bridge and cross into the Civilian Limit Zone and, a bit beyond that, the Joint Security Area, or JSA.

The first stop on the tour is Camp Bonifas (named after a US soldier who was axed to death in the JSA in 1974), a large South Korean military installation that serves as the base camp of the United Nations Command Security Force-Joint Security Area. For most of post-Korean War history, the southern side of the JSA was jointly patrolled, but since 2004, it has been entrusted exclusively to the South Koreans (although a small contingent of Western, mostly American, troops remain). At the camp, you’ll be briefed (usually by a US officer) on the history and regulations of the JSA. There, you can also check out the short par-3, one-hole golf course on the base premises - just don’t expect to retrieve your golf balls.

It’s another short bus ride to the JSA. About 400 meters past Camp Bonifas, you come to a double-barbed wire fence manned by South Korean soldiers. This fence, which continues almost unbroken for the entire breadth of the Korean Peninsula, marks the start of the DMZ. Pass the fence, and it’s like entering a completely different planet. Vegetation grows lush and, outside the bus, the scenery is eerily peaceful and, frankly, spooky. Some of the land is cultivated by the villagers of Daeseong-dong, the only civilian habitation in the southern half of the DMZ (villagers are given more than $80,000 USD per year and are exempt from taxation and military service). But by and large, the only things that move are the birds - protected from human activity for a half century, the DMZ has become a habitat for many species of wild birds.

The Joint Security Area itself is iconic, especially if you’ve seen Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film, “JSA.” This small cluster of buildings - some impressive, some humble - was born in 1953 following the signing of the Armistice Agreement (“ending” the Korean War) in the actual village of Panmunjeom, which was located about 800 meters to the north but has since disappeared. The JSA - widely referred to as “Truce Village” - was used for regular meetings between North Korean and UN military officials (the Military Armistice Committee, or MAC) to supervise the implementation of the armistice. It is now used primarily for inter-Korean meetings.

The JSA is split down the middle by the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the actual “border” between North and South Korea. On the southern side are the impressive Freedom House and Peace House, which aside from being splendid pieces of modern Korean architecture, are also used for inter-Korean meetings. On the northern side of the MDL is the Panmungak, a gray Stalinist structure which, our guides will point out, is probably smaller than it actually appears. Soldiers from both sides stare down visitors and each other. Between the two borders is the sky-blue MAC building built in the 60s, where with a guide, you may briefly cross over into North Korean territory (permissible ONLY within the building).

Near the buildings is a highpoint called Checkpoint 3. From here, you get a sweeping vista of the DMZ. The tranquility of it all is unnerving. Who’d imagine that surrounding this beautiful stretch of untouched nature is one of the largest concentrations of military force in the history of man? In the near distance, in the North Korean Potemkin village of Kijong-dong, is home to the world’s tallest flag post (160 meters), flying the world’s largest flag.

→ Find out more! Panmunjeom

Imjingak: Shrine to the Displaced

If you’re into traveling alone, or want to forego the Panmunjeom tour, Imjingak is worth a visit. The closest thing most South Koreans can get to the DMZ without special permission from the government, the Imjingak is a park overlooking the Imjingang River - literally a shrine to national division. Major landmarks include an altar where families originally from the North come to perform ancestral rites (usually performed in one’s ancestral hometown) on the Korean holidays, an observatory and Freedom Bridge, the hastily constructed bridge where some 130,000 South Korean and Allied POWs crossed to return home at the end of the Korean War. You may also purchase North Korean goods or eat North Korean food at some of the park’s shops and restaurants.

Getting to Imjingak couldn’t be easier - hourly commuter trains now go directly to Imjingak from Seoul Station.

→ Find out more! Imjingak

Cheorwon: Amidst the Ruins of War

More adventurous souls can also visit the small town of Cheorwon, some two hours northeast of Seoul. Once a sizable town and major railway stop commanding the Geumhwa Valley, Cheorwon was literally obliterated during the Korean War - brutal frontline warfare that earned its name, “The Iron Triangle.” Today, Old Cheorwon is now either overgrown or has been developed into rice paddies - it’s never quite recovered although there’s a small downtown built nearby - but there are a number of inspiring war memorials in the area (especially the obelisk commemorating the particularly bloody fighting for White Horse Hill) and a few ruins that testify to the horrors of war and tragedy of national division.

The most notable of these are the ruins of the old Korean Workers Party office. An impressive three-story Soviet-style building made entirely of concrete, the building was built in 1946 - when Cheorwon was under North Korean control - as the regional headquarters of the North Korean ruling party, the Korean Workers Party. Now, only its bullet and shell-scarred exterior remains. Like the burnt-out shells of churches left standing in post-war Germany, these bombed-out ruins are a moving reminder of its shattered past.

Another interesting site is Seungil-gyo Bridge, which crosses the Hantangang River several kilometers from the ruins (a short bus ride from the small town of Dongsong-eup). Look carefully, and you’ll notice the two halves of the bridge are different: either North Koreans started building the bridge before the war and South Koreans finished it; or the Japanese started it before Liberation in 1945 and the US Army finished it to transport men and supplies to the front during the war. Even the name is curious: seemingly combining the names of the first presidents of South and North Korea (Rhee Syngman and Kim Il-sung), the bridge was likely named for a South Korean officer, Colonel Park Seung-il, who was killed during the war. Now, somewhat incongruously, the river around the bridge is often used for rafting and other water activities.

The easiest way to get to Cheorwon is by subway line 1 to the northern suburb of Dongducheon, where a commuter train takes you to Sintan-ni. From there, it’s another short ride to Cheorwon.

→ Find out more! Cheorwon
Written and photographed by Robert Koehler
The article courtesy of Seoul magazine
Date 06/30/2015

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