This past weekend I crossed off the most important thing on my ‘Must Do While in Korea’ list by visiting the DMZ. The DMZ is a 160 mile (250 km) long line at the 38th parallel that separates the two Koreas. This area was created in 1953 when a cease fire agreement between the two sides was signed. Because the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) are still technically at war, the DMZ has become the most heavily armed border in the world. As a total history geek and recently turned North Korea-phile, I was ecstatic to finally get the chance to visit this area.
I went to the DMZ with the USO, the only tour that offers access to the Joint Security Area (JSA), which was our first stop. After driving for a little under an hour we arrived at Camp Bonifas which is home to United Nations Security Batallion and located just 400 meters south of the DMZ and is the only area where North Korean and South Korean soldiers stand face to face. We were met by a US soldier who quickly explained some basic rules and then led us inside to have an initial briefing. During this presentation we were reminded that we were entering a hostile environment and then asked to sign something promising that we would not take legal action against the United States Army, the South Korean Army or the United Nations in the case of death or injury. We were told not to point or gesture towards North Korea and also to avoid communication, both verbal and non-verbal, with any DPRK soldiers we may encounter. The last part of the brief included a brief history of the war and of major incidents that have taken place at the DMZ since its creation. It was at this point when I started to wonder how I should feel. Am I signing these papers as mostly just a legal precaution, like when I went horseback riding at the state park? Or could this visit pose any sort of serious risk? I decided to laugh it off and attribute it to America’s general sense of paranoia and over cautiousness.
Once we had all signed our lives away, our US Army security handler brought us into the JSA. Our first stop was a Military Armistice Commission conference room. This room is home to talks between the two nations and their representatives and the building is under microphone surveillance 24 hours a day. Half of the building lies on North Korean soil and half on the land of the South. Thus, once I crossed over the cement boundary on the ground I was technically standing inside the world’s most closed off country.
Then we went outside to take a look at the main North Korean building in the JSA, Panmungak. For the duration of the time our tour group stood looking at this building, a North Korean guard stood on the stairs watching us through binoculars. While it wasn’t exactly scary, it was definitely strange to think about the fact that you were being observed by North Korea.
The armistice allowed for two villages to be built within the DMZ, one in each of the Koreas. Daeseongdong (Freedom Village) was built by the South Koreans and there are currently about 230 residents who live here as rice and ginseng farmers. They receive many benefits from the government but also have to abide by many strict rules, such as an 11 pm curfew. Kijeongdong (Peace Village), North Korea’s village, has been nicknamed Propaganda Village by United Nations troops because they used to broadcast propaganda encouraging South Koreans to defect north over loud speakers for 6-12 hours a day. The North Korean government maintains the stance that people actually live in this village but observations would prove otherwise, as it seems that only a few soldiers occupy part of one building. The highlight of Kijeongdong is the nearly 600 pound North Korean flag that hangs on a 525 foot flag pole less than a mile from the South Korean border. Unfortunately for us it was extremely foggy the day of the tour and our view of these villages was severely impeded.
Our last stop inside the JSA was The Bridge of No Return. This bridge crosses the Military Demarcation Line and was used for prisoner exchange at the end of the conflict. The name comes from the story that says that captured soldiers were given the opportunity to cross the bridge to the country of their choice once the cease fire had been agreed upon, but once across they could never return.
After leaving the JSA we were given the opportunity to explore a tunnel that was built by the North Koreans after the war as a way for thousands of troops to cross the DMZ and invade. Since 1974 South Korea has discovered four of these tunnels. The North Koreans painted the inside walls of the tunnel black, hoping to pass them off as coal mines. But, since the tunnels were dug through granite, and no coal has been found in the area, the South Koreans were not quick to believe that story. We were able to walk through the third tunnel all the way to the border with North Korea. No photos were allowed but I can describe the experience as cold, damp, and incredibly steep. Also, the North Koreans didn’t blast away enough rock to allow my 5’10” frame to walk upright and as I hunched over I hit my head numerous times on support beams. Luckily, hard hats were provided and I made it to the border and back relatively unscathed.
Our next stop was Dora Observatory. This look out point is located at the top of Mount Dora and offers the rare opportunity to look across the DMZ and into North Korea. Unfortunately, once again, the weather conditions that day made it impossible to see anything but white fog. I was somewhat disappointed but with any sort of travel you have to expect that once in a while things aren’t going to work out exactly how you had planned.
The last stop of the day was at Dorasan Station. Check back next week for information about this station, the possibility of train travel from Seoul to London, and my thoughts on reunification of the Korean peninsula.
For more information about the USO DMZ tour, or to make a reservation, visit the Koridoor website.