A gigantic city of gray where you can visit sets of Korean Dramas and wait outside buildings for K-Pop artists to show up. This was the image I had of Seoul from the countless K-Pop and Drama fanatics in the Philippines.
But my research for my itinerary and lead me to a discovery: Seoul is more than just a concrete jungle. My plan for Day 1 especially made me excited because I was going on a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Joint Security Area (JSA) right by the border of North Korea.
The tour began at President Hotel, the meeting point. I arrived early because I wanted to see the Old Seoul City Hall, a Renaissance-style stone building now used as a library. The building’s staircases have pictures of Seoul’s historic events, and the combination of the architecture and black-and-white photos was lovely. The sight from the rooftop was even better: a panoramic view of the city from the city’s center of power.
The President Hotel is just across the street from the city hall so i arrived in time, and our bus left around 11:00 AM. The ride took around an hour and the first stop of our DMZ-JSA tour was Dorasan Station, a railway station that used to transport materials between North and South Korea for a year before North Korea closed the border in 2008. It is now empty, unused, and a reminder of the fragile relationship between the two countries.
Next was the DMZ part of the tour, which started with a short movie at DMZ Theater. The video was about the two countries’ warring history and North Korea’s attempts to attack South Korea by digging tunnels. One of the four tunnels is located right beside the theater and we descended 240 feet below ground to get a glimpse of the ragged, narrow, wet tunnel, which is believed to be only one of twenty more.
Although it is a tourist site, the tunnel is well-guarded and visitors are forbidden to take pictures. Visitors are also required to wear helmets. Don’t forget to wear sneakers if you’re going to join the DMZ tour. The website of the tour operator I chose stated I had to wear formal clothes, and, I tell you, heeled shoes (even less than an inch) are not made for walking up and down a long incline.
From underground, we were taken to Mount Dora’s observatory where I got a glimpse of a North Korean propaganda village situated in the DMZ. It is called Peace Village and, according to our tour guide, has pretty-looking buildings that are actually only concrete shells.
The village also has a 160 m flag pole that North Korea erected after South Korea built a 99 m flag pole in Daeseong-dong, a South Korean town close to the North Korean border. Yes, the war between the two countries extends to flag poles as well. 😞
The last stop of the tour was the one I was most excited about: the Joint Security Area, which is the only part of the DMZ where both North Korean and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face without shooting each other.
After we got out of the bus we went inside a building and were told to walk in a line up the stairs and then outside where we were saw four blue buildings in a row and one white building where a North Korean soldier stood in attention.
We were forbidden to take pictures of some buildings or to point at anything because there were North Korean cameras in the area taking a video of the visitors, which they might use for propaganda. It was an interesting situation to be in and it was also a glimpse into how the North Korean government operates.
We were allowed to enter one of the blue buildings, which is used as a conference room. Inside were South Korean soldiers standing guard without giving any sign of movement or reaction. According to our guide, the area of the room beyond one of the soldiers is technically North Korea so I guess I can tick off both countries on the Korean peninsula off my list.
It was late afternoon when we arrived back in Seoul and it was evening when I got back to my AirBNB. I was exhausted and my feet were crying foul, but I was completely satisfied with Day 1 and grateful that Seoul is more than what I thought it would be and perhaps even more.
Tour Operator: Cosmojin (their website looks dodgy but they’re legit)
Seoul Metropolitan Library: free admission, 09:00-21:00 on weekdays & 09:00-18:00 on weekends