Have you ever gone on a trip to the DMZ? It can be a stressful experience with all the rules, the soldiers watching you, and the off-chance that something really bad could happen while you’re there.
Literally one wrong step, and you could trigger an international incident. But that will never happen, with all the soldiers making sure you don’t do something stupid.
Or will it?
If you want to get the Panmunjeom experience, there are three options available to you: go on the official tour, or watch the Park Chanwook film JSA, or…
…Visit the film set.
That’s right, there’s a nearly full-size movie set version of the Joint Security Area, the iconic meeting point for North and South Korean forces, and it’s all open to the public.
In fact, did you recognise that picture at the top of this article? Unless Song Kang-ho has defected, that’s not the real Panmunjeom.
Here’s another look at the area, in a clip from the film.
Yet another far more humorous scene shot here, for a project by Planet B-Boy.
You can find this, and other movie sets, at the Namyangju KOFIC Studios, reportedly the largest filmmaking studio in Asia, covering 1.32 million square meters.
There are a few differences between this reconstruction and the real thing. Aside from the decay, the real Panmungak (the building on the North Korean side) has since added a third storey since the era of this film. As well, there isn’t a hill behind the real Panmungak. The Military Demarcation Line is more of a concrete step, whereas at the movie studio it’s more of a yellow speed bump.
Best of all, visitors have free rein over the whole area. Although you can’t go inside the reconstruction of Panmungak, you can climb the Freedom House Pagoda and go inside one of the blue buildings, which is decorated with pictures from the movie.
Some of the movies filmed here include JSA, as well as Shiri, The Host, Taegukgi, Dasepo Naughty Girl, King and Clown, and The Duelist. There are also indoor exhibits, including a center for authentic props and costumes, a sound effect studio, and a courtroom set, but the true joy of visiting is in wandering the outdoor movie sets unsupervised.
After the JSA set, which was also used in the films East Sea and Mt Baekdu and The Super Family, you can visit a variety of sets depicting traditional Korean buildings. Higher up the hill is the traditional Korean house Woondang, a roof-tile house that was moved here from its original location in Jongno-gu, Seoul in 1994.
You can also wander through a 19th century reconstruction of Joseon Dynasty-era Jongno, used in the filming of Chihwaseon in 2002 and more recently of Detective K (Joseon Detective).
Most of the buildings are empty shells, only needed for their exteriors, but a few of them are fully furnished.
If you don’t see the appeal of visiting Namyangju KOFIC Studios, you’re no fun. Also, you probably gave up on this article already. It’s like visiting a folk village, only more hands-on, less crowded, and without all the educational value and the restrictions of a regular tourist site.
Unfortunately visits to the studio are at the mercy of genuine filming schedules, but that’s a small price to pay to see Korea’s filmmakers in action. Also, it seems that some sets aren’t permanent, as the Joseon-era marketplace and red-light district of The Duelist is no longer where it used to be.
March to October: 10am to 6pm
November to February: 10am – 5pm (admission until 4 pm)
Closed every Monday and major statutory holiday
Adult: 3000 won
To get there, you can catch the Jungang Line to Ungilsan Station, where a free shuttle bus will bring you up into the mountains where the set is located. Buses depart every day at 8:50am, 11:25am, 1:25pm, 2:25pm, and 3:25pm, with the last bus taking you back departing at 5:15pm. It is open all through winter, closing at 5pm in November to February. You can get more information (in Korean) from the official site.