I try to not take a tour if it is possible to avoid it, but for visiting the border with north korea, independent tourism was not possible.
I arrived at the tour registration desk at seven in the morning. Way too early for my taste, but that is the way of the tour. Speaking nearly constantly during the hour-long drive north, our guide made it abundantly clear that we could only take photos when told it was OK. We arrived at a checkpoint on the unification bridge, just shy of the border with north Korea, and showed our passports to a stone faced Korean soldier in sunglasses. We then crossed the river into the military controlled area and the advanced base at camp Bonafis. Here an American soldier with a gun on his hip stepped on the bus, then checked our passports a second time before letting us off the bus into a building.
Here we got a briefing about the days main attraction, a visit to the Joint Security Area, a military facility right on the border with North Korea. During the briefing we were asked to sign a waiver, denying UN responsibility if we should be injured in an attack. With the armed soldiers, passport checks and this waiver, the atmosphere was feeling tense. Our guard come guide, military police PFC Hindenburg, lead us from the building onto a bus driven by another soldier. We were taken through the Demilitarized zone, passed a number of guard posts and mine fields, all the way up to the JSA.
Here we could see fierce-looking South Korean solders with dark glasses, standing in martial arts poses, staring at the other side. They even let us in to one of the buildings where they sometimes hold armistice talks. Walking around the central conference table, we crossed the Military Demarcation Line and actually took a few steps into North Korea. It is a special feeling to be this close to the border between two countries that are technically still at war, it is both tense and exciting at the same time. It is almost unreal, like it is all for show but you are still aware that the guns at the soldiers sides are very real, and considering the photography ban and coils of barbed wire visible in the distance, you know they are taking security very seriously.
The visit over, PFC Hindenburg brought us back to our normal bus and we went on our way. From here on, the tour was considerably less interesting. We made quick stops at a memorial park, a train station, an observatory and a tunnel. The tunnel had been intended as an infiltration route by the communists, which was interesting but the tunnel itself was rather boring. The train station was pretty thought provoking though, as it is the last stop on the south side for a train into the north. The railway has been connected all the way to Pyeongyang the only thing stopping the trains from rolling is the political situation; once the countries are unified, this will be an international train station, connecting Korea with the rest of Asia.
Dorasan train station, the tracks actually lead to North Korea
Dorasan observatory. On a clear day, this is where the South Koreans spy on the north.
The weather throughout the day was overcast and rainy. Normally this would be less than ideal, but I do feel that gloomy weather suits this kind of place better than sunshine. Overall I liked it, but other than the JSA visit, the tour was not super interesting. None the less i recommend it to anyone visiting Korea.