For our very last day in South Korea, we made it to the DMZ and literally crossed into North Korea and back thanks to Koridoor Tours. I have to say that this was probably the most interesting part of our entire trip through Seoul and highly recommend the DMZ/JSA & 3rd Tunnel Tour to anyone planning their itinerary.
My friend recommended a tour that run out of the USO at Camp Kim by a company called Koridoor Tours and so we booked directly with them. The cost of the tour was $80 USD but is currently $92 for civilians. Now this seems a little steep but was definitely worth it since many tours don’t include the infiltration tunnel.
We got to Camp Kim at 11AM to check-in but we didn’t get on the coach bus until 11:30AM. Our guide introduced himself as Vincent and gave us a low down of the itinerary and also what we wanted to eat for dinner (bimbimbap or bulgogi).
3rd Infiltration Tunnel
Our first stop on this tour was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and we arrived there at around 1PM.
They made us watch an introduction movie and Vincent walked us through a museum in the fastest 3 minutes ever. From there we walked across the parking lot to the actual entrance to the tunnel. We put on our yellow hardhats and walked down hill a good 300 meters until we got to the the bottom.
The real tunnel itself is probably only 200 meters in length that you have to walk through.
What was really annoying about the tunnel was that it must’ve been made by really short people so I banged my hard hat on the ceiling a ton of times. This kind of makes sense actually because North Koreans are supposed to be a lot shorter in height because of malnutrition.
Once you get to the end of the tunnel, you get to see the third barrier the military had placed to block off the tunnel and a tiny hole allows you to see the second barrier.
So the whole story behind the tunnel was that the North Koreans were clearly trying to dig their way through into South Korea but as a cover story they painted the tunnel walls with coal dust. When they were discovered in 1978, they claimed they were digging for coal but none of that makes any sense because they found dynamite marks (which are marked in yellow) pointed in the direction of South Korea and the fact that geologically there is only granite in the area.
The scary part is that South Korea has only found 4 of these tunnels when they suspect there are 20 more like these scattered along the DMZ.
Good to know: No photos are allowed in the tunnel.
Dora Observation Center
Our second stop was the Dora Observation Center. which is where you get a great high vantage point to see what the landscape of North Korea across the border looks like.
The sad thing was that we were only allowed to take pictures behind this yellow line and not where all the binoculars were lined up. We did however use the binoculars to take a closer look at the North Korean flag pole and the fake village of Gijongdong.
We also got to spot the DMZ area from left to right, the industrial complex of Kaesong which I was surprised to hear from Vincent actually produces cheap goods for the South Koreans. Right when we were there, we could see a ton of trucks lined up across the main highway that were meant to transport the goods back to South Korea in exchange for USD (how ironic). The South Koreans do try to provide the North Koreans with a bit of economy and at the same time they get cheap labour.
Dorasan Train Station
This is a station that acts as the last stop before North Korea. In 2008, the line was actually open between Dorasan Station and Kaesong to transport goods but with the switch to a more conservative government and a whole bunch of other political developments (catch the news lately?), they shut it down.
We paid 500 Won (currently 1,000 Won) to get a commemorative ticket and a chance to see the platform itself.
Once this is linked up, it’ll be able to go up to North Korea and as a result also connect into Siberia and China.
Joint Security Area and Camp Bonifas
Last but not least was the tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) itself that is most well-known. We entered into Camp Bonifas and right away a US Captain came on board to give us a quick and to the point brief about what was going to happen. He was essentially assigned to our bus as a security escort for the entire duration of the tour.
From there we rolled into the visitor centre where we went into a theatre to sign basically a release that says we agree to enter hostile territory where we could die and to hear an official briefing by the US military about the history of JSA and the joint operation between the Republic of Korea Army and US Army sanctioned by the United Nations Command Security Battalion.
The Blue Houses
We hopped on a special UN bus and made our way to the Freedom House. Along the way Captain West pointed out a few things like the active mine field, electric fences, explosive laced roads, observation towers and entrance to the Freedom Village.
The Freedom House was apparently built to reunite families of the South and the North but it was never used that way because the North Koreans couldn’t trust their people to not defect. In 2 single files (yes very specific), we walked to the back exit of the building and we were finally staring down at the blue buildings and some North Korean building. Standing outside were 5 Republic of Korea soldiers in some serious stance.
They must’ve been there for over an hour standing still like that. How they’re not freezing out there is a mystery.
We first went into the main armistice agreement building and inside were 2 more guards.
Captain West explained to us a bit about how the meeting room was used and then allowed us to roam around and take pictures for 10 minutes. The only rules were that we had to stay a good 40cm away from the soldiers standing guard at all times or else they’d push us away, we couldn’t take pictures of the Freedom House from the inside (I still don’t get that) and we couldn’t pass the guard who was standing at the North Korea exit of the conference room.
Captain West said it was pretty rare to see North Korean soldiers to be posted inside the room or even outside unless there were people visiting which was contrary to what I thought. I suppose this way North and South Korean soldiers don’t have to look at each other all day long or have the South convince the North to defect.
These soldiers are also trained at the highest level of Tae Kwon Do so their stance is some sort of ready position (fists at the side) so they are ready to attack at all times. We were told that they also wear sunglasses in order to further show no emotion.
The most interesting thing we learned was that since the demarkation line itself crossed the centre of the conference table, we were at one point straddling both North and South Korea. Things got really intense when we were fully in North Korea although only by 1.5 meters.
After that we stood at the top of the steps of the Freedom House and spent another 10 minutes taking pictures of the blue houses and the North Korean behind. Earlier there wasn’t a North Korean guard standing there but there was one now. Captain West also pointed out that to the left of him was actually a guy behind the glass with binoculars watching us so we shouldn’t hesitate taking photos of them.
Good to know: No pointing at the North Koreans or again taking photos behind at the Freedom House.
Note: This is no longer offered with Koridoor Tours due to current developments at the border.
From there we went to checkpoint 3 tower to take a look down at checkpoint 4 where the axe incident murder occurred and some other stuff in the distance. We took a bus ride around to look at the Bridge of No Return and then headed back to the visitor centre to conclude the tour.
We swapped back on our own bus and headed back to near the Dorason Station for dinner at a cafeteria.
After our quick dinner, we hopped back on the bus and got back to Camp Kim at 7PM where our tour ended.
The Real Gangnam Style
We decided to check out Gangnam as our last destination for our trip. After all, Gangnam style was HUGE. While I thought there wouldn’t be much to see, it was pretty cool to explore a neighbourhood that’s much more upscale and posh than other neighbourhoods we had seen on our trip so far. It was very much a New York-esque part of the city with tall skyscrapers surrounding the area, bright lights, wide muli-lane streets and of course lots of shopping.
The shopping area underground once you get off the subway was also huge. From what I saw the prices there were really good for clothes (mostly women’s clothing).
Farrah then decided that we could visit a Dr. Fish (where tiny fish nibble at your feet to eat off the dead skin). It took us a long time to find it as we first got out of the wrong exit and then had to consult the wifi for more directions. We eventually found our way but we had to go through a stretch of Gangnam outdoors.
I don’t know what was wrong with me but the cold really got to me and by the time we got to the second floor of the cafe with Dr. Fish I was in an uncontrollable shiver. I literally couldn’t stop. To add to that the Dr. Fish part of the cafe was closed as this was around 10:30PM. All I could do was drink some warm water and try to warm up.
Since there wasn’t much we could do and it was getting pretty late, we got on a cab and headed home.
From what I can remember seeing of Gangnam, it was a complete transformation from the other neighbourhoods we had seen prior. It was very much a New York style neighbourhood with tall sky scrappers surrounding the area, lots of bright lights, wide muli-lane streets and tons of stores. It really is the nice, posh and modern part of Seoul.
- Be sure to book this as early as possible once you can decide on the date of your tour and plan your trip to Seoul around it. By the time we wanted to book we found that a lot of dates (especially weekends) were already taken. T
- Their booking system is a bit weird. You have to fill out a form which gets submitted but after that you have to wait for someone to get back to you to confirm that you’re in the tour. However if the tour date is full, it won’t take you to the form to begin with.
- Payment is a bit tricky. You have to pay 4 days prior to the tour and it’s either done by 1) Cash in person which would mean making a special trip to the USO office or 2) Credit card (charged in Won)
- Since only one meal is served on this you might get very hungry along the way so don’t forget to bring an extra meal or snacks.
- Dress code is enforced. Read the details here.
This was our full day’s itinerary from Wednesday February 20, 2013:
- Bus to Seoul Station and subway to Samgakji Station
- Koridoor DMZ Tour
- Walk to Camp Kim USO
- 11:00AM Check In
- 11:30PM Bus departs
- 1:00PM 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
- Dora Observatory into North Korea
- Dorasan Train Station
- 3:15PM Camp Bonifas – Briefing, Freedom House, Conference Row, Checkpoint Charlie, Bridge of No Return)
- 5PM Dinner
- 7PM arrival back at Camp Kim
- Subway to Gangnam Station
- Underground shopping
- Walk around the streets of Gangnam
- Failed attempt to find a Dr. Fish
The updated DMZ Tour is as follows:
- 07:30: Depart from Camp Kim USO
- 09:00: Arrive at Camp BONIFAS.
- 20 Mins Briefing by U.S. military at JSA Visitor Center
- Tour to the JSA (Freedom house, Conference room, Bridge of no return and point of Ax murder)
- 11:20: Arrive at and tour the Third Infiltration Tunnel
- The Dora Observatory and Dorasan Train Station. : Free admission (Optional : Admission to platform – extra 1,000KRW)
- 12:30: Lunch is at a Korean Restaurant during the tour.
- 14:00 Depart for Camp Kim USO
- 15:30 Arrive at Camp Kim USO
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Addresses & Directions
- USO Camp Kim (Koridoor Tours)
- Address: USO #104, Galwol-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea 140-807
- Tour name: DMZ/JSA & 3rd Tunnel Tour (Seoul)
- There a few ways to get there when they send you the instructions but the easiest is this way:
- Take the subway to Samgakji Station Exit 10
- Once you leave the exit, walk straight for 7 minutes and you’ll see a walled compound to the left. Keep walk until the next opening and you’ll see a USO sign. Turn left into the building.
- There a few ways to get there when they send you the instructions but the easiest is this way:
- Price: Civilians are $90 USD and U.S Active Duty Military & Military Dependent are $65
- Dr. Fish in Gangnam (it’s in a cafe called Namu Gunul 나무그늘)
- Gangnam Station Exit 10
- Walk 5-7 minutes straight from the subway exit
- You will eventually comes to a BSX (Basic House) on your left and a large crosswalk on your right. The cafe is located on the second floor above BSX
- Price: 2,000 Won for Dr. Fish
Check out the next day
And that’s a wrap! Our last day was a transit day from Seoul back to Toronto but standby is always a surprise waiting to happen. Check it out here: Day 8 – Goodbye Seoul