Train to nowhere and dead-eyed stares: my visit to the Korean demilitarized zone

(Photos by ©Mark Cerulli, all rights reserved)

US Army Private Travis King's apparent defection to North Korea earlier this month during a routine DMZ (demilitarized zone) Tour immediately brought back memories of my 2016 visit to the highly fortified border.  Although my tour was calm, even tranquil, it was easy to see how someone could rush the border if they wanted. The only question is, why would they?

My wife is an entertainment technology exec and being a freelance writer, I had a lot of, uh, time on my hands, so I joined her on a business trip to Seoul. She had meetings but I was free to explore – and the main place I wanted to go was the DMZ.

Not realizing how popular those tours were, I only tried booking once I arrived in Seoul.  Most were sold out, but I finally found one open seat on a USO tour run by Koridoor, a local tour outfit.  They offer two versions – the one you want includes the JSA (Joint Security Area) which visits Camp Bonifas (named after Arthur G. Bonifas, one of two U.S. soldiers killed when they were trying to cut down a tree in the no-man's land between the two Koreas in 1976.) The Camp is a United Nations military post and is located right at the border.  Even with a ticket, a visit to the JSA isn't assured – sudden military activity, training or a VIP visit and the base is off limits.  Fortunately, on this day no crises occurred, and we were off at 8:30 AM. Visitors are told to dress appropriately – no ripped jeans, no sandals, no "exposed midriffs" (for women) and no faux military wear. Oh, and you'd better have your passport.  

One of the first things you notice as you leave Seoul is the lack of traffic heading North – the modern highway was virtually empty.  Soon you start seeing barbed wire fencing and guard towers along the otherwise verdant green route. Yellow and black metal barriers had been installed as we crossed a bridge, requiring the driver to slowly zig-zag.  Not exactly the Garden State Parkway…

The first stop was the Dorasan Train Station, built to accommodate regular train travel between North and South Korea – except that never happened. There was some freight traffic back and forth until the mercurial NK government put a stop to it. Now there is only sporadic service between several South Korean stations, so the platforms are largely deserted. 

After a tasty buffet lunch (under a sign telling diners to "Get Enough") it was on to the Dora Observatory which offered the first real glimpse of North Korea – via binoculars on an expansive observation deck.  This spot was crowded with tourists and locals, plus a not insignificant number of South Korean soldiers.  One of the views is of the "Propaganda Village" – a purpose-built and (according to South Korea) empty North Korean town with speakers broadcasting music and commentary, purportedly to induce their southern neighbors to defect.  It's highlighted by a 525-foot pole flying a huge North Korean flag.

Nearby is the "Third Tunnel of Aggression" (aka "3rd Infiltration Tunnel") built by North Korea for nefarious purposes and discovered in 1978.  Yellow safety helmets are handed out as your group joins others in marching over a mile down an incline ending in a rather disappointing concrete nub.  The walk back was sporty – or as the website says, "Walking back up could cause trouble for those who are out of shape."  

Finally, it was time for the main event – visiting Panmunjom, the United Nations Command base responsible for security along the 150-mile militarized border.  Once we rolled onto the grounds, the bus stopped and the perky female Koridoor guide was replaced by an armed soldier who examined everyone's passport.  Like any tourist destination, there were multiple points of interest even if they were on the macabre side – like the site of the yellow poplar tree that Captain Bonifas and Lieutenant Mark Barrett were trying to cut down when North Korean soldiers attacked them.  Our new guide pointed out that the tree WAS cut down days later under armed guard.  Another spot was the Bridge of No Return which crosses into North Korea and was used for POW exchanges as recently as 1968 when the crew of the USS Pueblo walked across to freedom. There was no foot traffic or vehicles anywhere, hinting at the danger lurking in this woodsy, remote place. The camp also boasts a one-hole golf course surrounded by land mines but that wasn't on the itinerary.  

The most interesting stop was the Joint Security Area where North and South Korean troops stand eye to eye. After an instructional video and a warning not to yell or make any gestures towards North Korea, we were led through the lobby of "Freedom House", a large modern building that houses the official Liaison Office and is ready for meetings between the two governments.  As you might have guessed by now, it sits largely unused.  On the day of my visit, things seemed downright serene. The base was eerily quiet and a warm wind blew as we were ushered across an asphalt strip to three bungalows painted blue where the rare face-to-face negotiations take place.  At this point you are just inches from North Korea. On our side of the border were three large South Korean guards facing towards the North, fists clenched and seemingly ready to rumble. In contrast there were no guards on the North Korean side save for one standing at the entrance to their administrative building, Phanmun Pavilion. No doubt there were others that we couldn't see.

Inside the bungalow was a long wooden table with small microphones and a blue satin UN flag. There were several other desks for support staff and no less than three unsmiling South Korean soldiers – one guarding the hut's rear door. If you stood next to him for a photo – which most of us did – you were standing in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  After five minutes, we were escorted back up the Freedom House steps to file through the lobby and onto the bus.  As we left, I noticed a uniformed soldier with visiting family members walking on the asphalt strip to pose for photos next to the low cement slab that marks the actual border – the same one Donald Trump famously stepped across in June 2019 and Travis King sprinted across on July 18th. As the soldier and her guests smiled for a photographer, a U.S. soldier had their backs – literally – standing behind them facing North Korea, ready for… anything.

After a stop at the base's well-stocked gift shop, it was back along the deserted highway to Seoul and the uneasy calm of a major city still in the grip of a war that ended 70 years ago but without any real peace.  


Mark Cerulli is a former HBO writer/producer who also worked on DVD documentaries on the Halloween series and two James Bond classics.  He has traveled to 30 countries (so far) and written for Cinema Retro, Fangoria, Filmfax and other magazines.  In 2022 he directed By Design: The Joe Caroff Story, a documentary feature now airing on HBOMax and is producing AREA 5150, a horror comedy he co-wrote.