There’s nowhere in the world quite like the Joint Security Area (“the JSA”), a settlement squatting in the middle of Earth’s most heavily fortified frontier, and the only place in DMZ territory where visitors are permitted. Visits here will create a curious dichotomy of feelings: on one hand, you’ll be in what was once memorably described by Bill Clinton as “the scariest place on Earth”, but as well as soldiers, barbed wire and brutalist buildings you’ll see trees, hear birdsong and smell fresh air. The village of Panmunjeom itself is actually in North Korean territory, and has dwindled to almost nothing since it became the venue for armistice talks in 1951. But such is the force of the name that you’ll see it on promotional material for most tours that run to the area; these are, in fact, the only way to get in.
The JSA tour
Situated just over an hour from Seoul is Camp Bonifas, an American army base just outside the DMZ. Here you’ll meet your guides – usually young infantry recruits whose sense of humour makes it easy to escape the seriousness of the situation – and be given a briefing session reminding you of the various dos and don’ts. Back on the bus look out for the white-marked stones pushed into the wire fence – these are detection devices that will fall out should anyone try to climb over. On both sides of the road you’ll see hilltop points from where UNC forces keep a constant lookout across the border for any military build-up that would precede a large-scale attack.
Once inside the JSA itself, keep your fingers crossed that you’ll be allowed to enter one of the three meeting rooms at the very centre of the complex, which offer some serious travel kudos – the chance to step into North Korea. The official Line of Control runs through the very centre of these cabins, the corners of which are guarded by South Korean soldiers, who are sometimes joined by their Northern counterparts, the enemy soldiers almost eyeball-to-eyeball. Note the microphones on the table inside the room – anything you say can be picked up by North Korean personnel. The rooms are closed to visitors when meetings are scheduled, which is just as well since some of them have descended into farce. One such fiasco occurred when members of one side – it’s not clear which – brought a bigger flag than usual to a meeting. The others followed suit with an even larger banner, and the childish process continued until the flags were simply too large to take into the room; at this point, both sides agreed on a standard flag size.
From an outdoor lookout point near the cabins you can soak up views of the North, including the huge flag and shell-like buildings of “Propaganda Village”. You may also be able to make out the jamming towers it uses to keep out unwanted imperialist signals – check the reception on your phone. Closer to the lookout point, and actually within JSA territory, is the Bridge of No Return, the venue for POW exchange at the end of the Korean War (and also for James Bond in Die Another Day – though for obvious reasons it was filmed elsewhere).