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how to travel to the joint security area of south korea

By far, one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been to is the Panmunjom Joint Security Area located inside the DMZ at the border of North and South Korea. In fact, this is one of the most unique tours in the entire world.

Joint Security Area Korea: What exactly is the JSA and what is its purpose?

In essence, the JSA or Joint Security Area exists within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to act as a buffer between North and South Korea along the 38th Parallel. Within this zone, the JSA acts as a meeting point between both sides. The JSA is the location where all negotiations since 1953 have occurred. It’s here you will find ROK soldiers standing in a face to face détente with North Korean soldiers.

By far, one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been to is the Panmunjom Joint Security Area located inside the DMZ at the border of North and South Korea. In fact, this is one of the most unique tours in the entire world.

Joint Security Area Korea: What exactly is the JSA and what is its purpose?

In essence, the JSA or Joint Security Area exists within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to act as a buffer between North and South Korea along the 38th Parallel. Within this zone, the JSA acts as a meeting point between both sides. 

The JSA is the location where all negotiations since 1953 have occurred. It’s here you will find ROK soldiers standing in a face to face détente with North Korean soldiers.

To get to the JSA you will need a military escort to take you there as opposed to just visiting the DMZ.

Panmunjom and the Joint Security Area are often used interchangeably, but Panmunjom is actually an abandoned village just north of the de facto border of North and South Korea where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. Today, none of this village actually remains.

After the 1953 agreement, the Joint Security Area was constructed to house talks between the United Nations Command (UNC) and both the North Koreans and their regional ideological ally, China.

Korean Armistice Agreement
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The 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement at Camp Bonifas

 

I spent a lot of time in South Korea over the course of a couple of years so my first visit to the border was to the DMZ. I returned again to visit the JSA.

Joint Security Area JSA Korea
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The heavily armed border looking out over North Korea across the river

 

On my last trip to South Korea, I went to the border alone. After booking arrangements this time a week early, I got on a bus one morning and rode an hours drive to the border down Unification Road. 

I found myself sitting next to a rugged Army vet who spoke little but managed to inform me that the bracelet on his wrist is worn out of respect for the friends he lost on 9/11. He was there at the World Trade Center. 

The bus ride was quiet and I remember everyone silently gazing out over the heavily armed border, out into North Korea. Once we left Seoul, the tone shifted.

READ  Marine City, Busan, South Korea - A Futuristic Architectural Gem

A Panmunjom tour however isn’t without its risks. This is the most heavily armed border in the world and tensions between North and South Korea are always simmering. There are always joint military exercises between the US and South Korea and without fail North Korea threatens action in protest.

Visitor Declaration at the JSA
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The Visitor Declaration I had to sign at Camp Bonifas

Was I nervous about visiting? A little. The agreement in 1953 is a ceasefire agreement which just means the two countries are still technically at war, as seen by previous incidents in history that have broken out.

When you visit the JSA, you are first taken to Camp Bonifas base camp where you’re given a briefing in Ballinger Hall. It’s here you are handed a Visitor Declaration to sign. Camp Bonifas was last attacked by the North Koreans on August 29, 1967 which killed one US and two ROK soldiers and wounded 24 others. Upon entering the camp, you’re told to stop filming or recording anything.

Sometimes it’s easy to have a false sense of security when you travel, but you are required to sign this form acknowledging that you’re entering a war zone and death is possible. 

At this point, I got a little anxious but my Army friend on the bus assured me that men I never knew existed would swarm out of nowhere to protect us and there are a ton of landmines as well. Awesome.

The Joint Security Area JSA Korea
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A ROK soldier stands in a ROK Ready stance

 

As we headed into the JSA, we were cautioned not to make any gestures or eye contact with any of the North Korean guards as they often try to create attention. They told us they often try to distract ROK soldiers and make funny faces outside of their windows. They referred to one of their buildings as the monkey house for that reason.

A picture on the wall
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A picture of a picture I took hanging up at Camp Bonifas. Whoever took this picture really nailed it. Unfortunately, the DPRK building in the background was under construction when I was there
Inside the JSA
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Distinguished visitors and heads up state who have visited the JSA


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the JSA

North Korean Soldier in JSA Rants about US Imperialism 

Map of the Area
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A map of the Propaganda Village and the surrounding area. Propaganda Village is North Korea’s village. See Facts about Panmunjom at the bottom of this post.
ROK Ready Stance
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A ROK Solider standing in ROK Ready position. They don’t take pictures with visitors and they remain completely stoic the entire time. No bathroom breaks. The shades are to prevent eye contact.
Joint Security Area JSA Korea
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The building in the back is called Panmungak and is North Korean territory. The blue houses are the UN Command Military Armistice Buildings.

If you look in the center of the photograph above, you can see a ridge on the ground. This is the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) defining North and South Korean territory around the 38th Parallel. Also, below, a closer photo of the MDL taken from inside the UN Command Military Armistice building.

The Border at the JSA Korea
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A picture outside of the window where I stepped over into North Korea
The Joint Security Area JSA Korea
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A North Korean Guard in the distance. They like to watch us through the windows
DPRK Guard at the JSA Korea
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DPRK guard. This wasn’t a telephoto, I just cropped the image I took above
 
Looking out into North Korea at the Joint Security Area JSA Tour
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Looking out over North Korea. No telephotos lenses longer than 90mm are allowed.

 

Tours of the jsa at the south korean border

There are many tours available, here are a few of my recommendations. Again, you’ll need to book in advance to ensure proper background and passport checks.  

1. viator tours to the jsa

There are a variety of interesting tours available. Personally, I wish I could have taken a tour with North Korean Defectors! But these are great options and viator is super easy to book. 

2. Korea dmz tours

FACTS TO KNOW BEFORE YOUR JSA TOUR

  • A JSA tour can take up to a week process so this does need to be planned in advance and is not a tour you can phone up one day and join. It’s easy to schedule a visit to see just the DMZ, but it takes more effort to see JSA. Policies change so check ASAP with a company if you know you want to visit.

  • UN requires all passenger’s to provide a passport copy at least 3 days before the travel day and on other tourism websites, you will see 7 days in advance. Book ASAP in advance if you want to go. 

  • You will need your passport.

  • A strict dress code applies for all visitors: “faddish, extreme, torn, tattered, frayed, overly provocative or otherwise inappropriate” clothing is not allowed. Sports clothes (incl. tracksuits), military clothing, oversized clothing, sheer clothing, sleeveless shirts/tops, tank tops, and flip flops and similar sandals are specifically banned

  • Certain countries are restricted access to tours

  • Telephoto lenses over 90mm are not allowed

Panmunjeom Facts

  • Each of the tour buses with all companies are designed and approved by the UN. You will need to join one of the companies in Seoul that has access to this area.

  • On June 24, 1951 North Korea though a Soviet Ambassador to the UN recommended that a truce line be formed on the 38th Parallel. The JSA straddles the Military Demarcation Line. The MDL passes through the center of the negotiating table in the Military Armistice Commission.

  • Each country set up their own village, Freedom Village ROK, and DPRK’s Propaganda Village. You can ID each village by its flag.

  • Heads of State and numerous US Presidents have visited the JSA on similarly scheduled tours.

  • The ROK Ready stance is the famous Tae Kwon Do stance that ROK soldiers hold when visiting the JSA. This is to communicate to the DPRK not to pull any tricks. Read more about ‘ROK Ready’ Soldiers.

Joint Security Area JSA Korea
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  In Essence…THE JSA JOINT SECURITY AREA IS AWESOME

I totally recommend a visit. It will open your eyes to the reality of a conflict that we hear about 24/7. It’s one thing to hear about the North and South Korean conflict but it’s another to witness for yourself the reality of these delicate tensions on the ground. It’s indescribable. Plus, you can actually say you’ve stepped foot in North Korea.

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If you’re heading to Tokyo soon, I highly recommend my book Hidden Tokyo. It’s filled with tons of insights on a range of activities around Tokyo.  It also helps to explain this complex city better by dissecting 18 different major neighborhoods into chapters, with around 400 pages of pure Tokyo insight & recommendations. It lays out the city in a way that you can grasp!  

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2 Comments

  1. March 4, 2016 at 4:21 pm — Reply

    I regret never going the JSA route for sure, Stephanie. Went to two different parts of the DMZ (Dorasan, Goseong) and wish we’d gotten to go here. The time we went to Dorasan, etc. was way more uptight than Goseong on the East Coast.

    I really liked your story of the army man sitting next to you and the fact he mentioned his ribbon. Too bad he lost his friends and hopefully he’s coping with that as well as possible.

    Thanks for sharing this, Stephanie. I miss Korea more and more everyday. Btw, did you also live there or just visit from Japan?

    • March 7, 2016 at 10:13 am — Reply

      Ah, I wish you got to go! But now it’s another excuse as to why you have to go back:).

      We lived in Japan, but my husband had to work in Korea for about three months so I went to live with him for a lot of it. We were in Busan and Seoul. I loved Korea, I wish I could have explored more of its beautiful country.

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