1. No the color has faded or the hole jeans. (Regular jeans are OK).
2. No training wear, Military style.
3. No short pants, mini skirt
4. No open tied shoes, flip-flops. Sandals, slippers, any open toe shoes or open heel shoes are not allowed.
5. No sleeveless and leather pants.
-- Dress code for visiting the DMZ
With tension at a hair-trigger point between North Korea and the world, visiting the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas may not seem like the brightest move.
The DMZ is what Bill Clinton once described as the "scariest place on Earth." And that was before North Korea successfully carried out multiple nuclear weapons tests, and before our current president threatened North Korea with "fire and fury."
But a DMZ visit was a must do for me and David, my travel buddy (and former editor!). When else would we get a chance to peek inside North Korea and stand at the border between two countries that have technically been at war since the 1950s?
A number of agencies run tours there, but only the ones sanctioned by the United Nations are allowed to go inside the Joint Security Area (or JSA) at Panmunjom -- this is the one area along the border where soldiers from North and South can actually stand face to face. Our agency, Tour DMZ, charged 85,000 won, or about $75, including a restaurant lunch of bulgogi or bibimbap.
Before we departed, Tour DMZ sent everyone an email with the dress code listed above, a reminder to bring passports, and also a warning that tours could be unexpectedly canceled because of an "unexpected military situation."
The group met on a Saturday at 11:30 am and departed on a very comfortable bus from the Hotel President in Seoul.
Our guide, Mr. Kim (That Mr. Kim's brother, he joked), told us that we would transfer to a UN bus once we approached the DMZ, and a US soldier would be assigned to act as both guide and protector. Mr. Kim also explained why ripped jeans are banned at the border -- North Korea has previously used images of poorly dressed tourists as propaganda to prove that Westerners can't afford proper pants.
Driving to the DMZ
The drive took about an hour. We stopped first at Imjingak Park, built so Koreans born on both sides of the conflict could have a place to remember and commemorate their loved ones. The Bridge of Freedom, which lies here, is where soldiers crossed to return south after the Korean War. There were loads of South Koreans here enjoying themselves, lounging under the sun and dining at the restaurants, including a Popeyes.
As we continued north, the road grew more deserted. Barbed wire lined one side, and we saw an occasional billboard-like concrete slab as the bus drove by. If war ever breaks out, we were told, those slabs could be blown up and used to block the invading North Korea forces.
We finally arrive at Camp Bonifas, the United Nations Command military post just south of the DMZ. The camp was named after U.S. Army Captain Arthur Bonifas, who was killed, along with another American officer, in a dispute over trimming a tree inside the DMZ in 1976 (it's now called the Axe Murder Incident).
Our escort for the day, Pfc. Rana, started off with a primer about North Korea, and jokingly (but not really) asked if anyone felt like defecting over the border that day. He also cautioned us to avoid waving, pointing or engaging in any abnormal behavior once we got to the border (This was taken very seriously. Later that day, David stooped down to tie his shoes. Pfc. Rana zoomed over and asked, very earnestly, if he could tie David's shoes for him).
The briefing finally concluded with everyone signing a visitor declaration, UNC Regulation 551-5. We agreed, among other things, that we understood a visit to the JSA "will entail entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."
The JSA and the border
Everyone piled into a UN bus at this point to head to the JSA. We drive past Daeseong-dong, or Freedom Village, which was set up a few years after the 1953 armistice when both sides decided to build model villages. The civilians who live in Freedom Village are mostly farmers; they earn an average of $80,000 a year per household, and are exempt from paying taxes or mandatory military service. Women are allowed to marry into the village, but men are not.
North Korea's version, Kijong-dong, is not inhabited, according to Pfc. Rana. It is now known as Propaganda Village because of the nationalist songs piped over loudspeakers there.
We finally arrived at the JSA, which is essentially a plot of land within the DMZ containing some buildings straddling the border intended for talks between the two sides. First, we walked through Freedom House, built but never used as a site for reunions between families separated by the war. Once we walked out the other end, we were yards from the border and looking into North Korea.
There was a palpable feeling of tension and watchfulness. Everyone was quiet, except when Pfc. Rana sternly told one guy in our group to refrain from accidental pointing.
Below, a watchtower on the North Korean side. They supposedly record all visitors to the border (notice the cameras).
The bright blue buildings, which stretch over both sides, are conference centers intended for discussions between north and south. That concrete bumper-looking line at the bottom right corner of the picture is the actual demarcation line. South Korean soldiers stand at the ready.
Across from Freedom House is Panmungak, North Korea's three-story concrete building. At least one North Korean soldier stands guard at all times.
We were allowed to go inside one of the United Nations Command conference buildings. Since it falls on both sides, it is the only time we could safely go inside North Korea (just don't walk out the door on the other side).
Two South Korean soldiers stood guard in modified taekwondo poses, which they can supposedly hold for up to 12 hours at a time. This guy below had pore-less clear skin (I refrained from trying to ask what his skincare regimen was).
We had a few minutes for photos, as long as we kept a little distance away from the soldiers (Pfc. Rana also kindly asked that we not kiss them).
David and I stood technically inside North Korea. Walking through the door behind us would lead you well and truly into the north (and also spark an international incident).
A few more photos, and everyone jumped back into the bus. We returned to Camp Bonifas and browsed the gift shop (of course, doesn't every tour end with a gift shop?) full of DMZ-related souvenirs and some local crafts. Then we headed on back to Seoul.