ُThe most impressive building on the North Korean side of the Joint Security Area is called Panmungak. This gray, three-story structure was completed in August 1969, and it houses the North Korean JSA guards and it serves as a waiting are of North Koreans participating in talks with the South. This facility is occasionally open to the North Korean people who visit the DMZ.
When people visit the south side of the JSA, northern soldiers stand watch with binoculars. Occasionally you will also see a curtain pulled up in Panmungak so a guard can snap pictures of visitors.
The United Services Organization, in conjunction with Koridoor Tours, offers numerous DMZ tours each week. For 96,000 Won per person (in 2013), you will take a bus from downtown Seoul to the DMZ. Stops include the Third Tunnel of Aggression, the Dora Observatory, Dorasan Station, Camp Bonifas, and the Joint Security Area. Some tours also have a stop for dinner at a cafeteria at the Inter-Korean Transit Office next to Dorasan Station.
The highlight of the tours is the visit to the Joint Security Area. The other stops tend to be a bit boring and time consuming, and they may feel like a waste of time if your visit in Korea is short.
The USO is located in Yongsan-gu near the National War Memorial. Located about 5 minutes north of Samgakji Station.
At the center of the Joint Security Area, straddling the Military Demarcation Line, stand a series of silver and baby blue United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission buildings.
All visitors are allowed to enter the center UNCMAC building where peace talks are held. But be wary of the burly South Korean soldiers standing in Tae Kwon Do stances with sunglasses -- they guard the door leading to North Korea. They serve a dual purpose -- to protect visitors from the North Koreans, but also to prevent people from entering the North. While in this building, you may step across the line into the North...but only for a few minutes until your tour continues.
The Third Tunnel of Northern Aggression is located near Panmunjom at the DMZ. It was the third of four confirmed tunnels dug by North Korea to establish invasion routes into the South. There are believed to be at least 20 tunnels from the north to the south in total, and it is estimated that the tunnels would allow 30,000 soldiers an hour, armed with light weapons, into South Korea. The tunnel was discovered in 1978, when its location was revealed by a North Korean defector.
Today the third tunnel is a popular tourist stop when visiting the DMZ from Seoul. There are two entrances to the Southern side of the tunnel, one via tram and one that must be descended and ascended on foot. The tram is much easier, but not always available. The walk takes 5-10 minutes each way, and does get a bit claustrophobic once you enter the small, wet, dark portion of the caves made by North Korea. Directly under the DMZ, the south built three walls, 2 of which can be viewed by tour groups. Unfortunately photos are not allowed at the walls under the DMZ, and most tour guides tell visitors not to take photos anywhere in the tunnels.
Kijong-dong is the official name of a small village located on the North Korean side of the border int he DMZ. It is one of only two villages in the entire DMZ, along with the South Korean village of Daeseong-dong.
Kijong-dong is known outside of North Korea as "Propaganda Village," mainly because most of the town is fake. The buildings, constructed in the 1950s, appear to be empty concrete shells without rooms or windows, but wired with electricity for the illusion of inhabitants. Also, until 2004, load speakers in the village broadcasted propaganda messages into the south. Finally, Propaganda Village is also home to a 525-foot tall flagpole, but solely to be taller than the 323-foot tall flagpole constructed on the South Korean side of the border.
Dorasan Station, on the on the Gyeongui Line, is the last train station before the North Korean border. For about a year trains were allowed to pass through this station and across the border to Kaesong's industrial city, but these only ran from 2007-2008.
The station may no longer be an active gateway to the north, but it is the terminus for four trains per day from Seoul. From here, visitors are very close to Dora Observatory and the third North Korean invasion tunnel. You can also buy a souvenir ticket to Pyeongyang, 205 kilometers to the north, for just 500 Won (USD 0.50). The station lies 56 kilometers from Seoul.
The Dora Observatory is located on Mount Dora, just across the border between North and South Korea. This tourist destination has an observation room and an outdoor observation deck that offer great views into North Korea. The area is open for tourists and it has a small gift shop, public restrooms, and a small temple.
From here you can look into North Korea over the DMZ to see propaganda village and the world's tallest flagpole, as well as Kaesong.
Dora Observatory is next to Dorasan Station, the last South Korean train station before the border, and very close to the third North Korean invasion tunnel.
Camp Bonifas is located just 3 kilometers southeast of the Joint Security Area near the DMZ. This is the home of the United Nations Command Security Battalion—Joint Security Area, which is responsible for patrolling the JSA and protecting visitors to the area.
The UNC Security Battalion also provides tours of the JSA. The tours begin with a visit to the new visitors center, where guests must sign a form labelled UNC Reg 551-1, which warns prisoners of the dangers of the DMZ. This form reads in part: "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action." After signing the form, the military personnel at the JSA give a very good and informative briefing about the Korean War, the DMZ, and the JSA. Next guests enter UNC buses for the ride to the JSA.
The visitors center at Camp Bonifas has a large gift shop, selling items to include North Korean goods, and it has a small museum.
The Bridge of No Return was for many years the only bridge connecting the Joint Security Area at the DMZ with North Korea. The bridge itself straddles the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) which is the actual border between North and South. After the Korean War ended, the bridge was used for prisoner exchanges where the prisoners were free to choose to stay in the north or south, but once the decision was made, it was final. The prisoners could never return to the other side, hence the name of the bridge.
Until the axe murder incident of 1976, the North Korean soldiers used this bridge to man their posts within the JSA, but after the incident the forces in the JSA were ordered to stay on their own side of the border, and North Korea constructed a new bridge to the north.
In the Joint Security Area of the DMZ, next tot he Bridge of No Return, is the site of the Axe Murder Incident. At this spot in 1976, a US Army Captain and a US Army Lieutenant were killed, and 8 other UN soldiers were wounded while trying to "prune" a tree to improve visibility between checkpoints.
Later, the UN responded with Operation Paul Bunyan on 21 August 1976. This show of overwhelming force including an 83-man tree-cutting crew, backed by a 64-man South Korean special forces unit, 20 utility helicopters, 7 cobra attack helicopters, and a number of B-52 bombers, F-4 Phantoms fighters, South Korean F-5 fighters, and the aircraft carrier USS Midway. Additionally, 12,000 other US troops were deployed to South Korea. The operation went smoothly, with a quiet response by 100-200 North Korean soldiers, as the tree was removed in less than 45 minutes.
Today, this infamous site is marked by a bronze plaque that sits above a circular concrete pad that is said to be the precise size of the tree they were sent to trim. The inscription on the plaque reads:
On this spot was located the yellow poplar
tree which was the focal point of the ax
murders of two United Nations Command
officers, Captain Arthur Bonifas and First
Lieutenant Mark Barret, who were attacked
and killed by North Korean guards while
supervising a work party trimming the tree on
18 August 1976.
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