We sat in the front row of the auditorium, steps from the stage on which two young, baby-faced American soldiers stood chatting, giving the roomful of tourists a few minutes to settle in and quiet down. I sat waiting, nonplussed. I had been dragged on this tour and to this place — a desolate, yet dangerous, slice of the Korean peninsula — by Iggy.* As a general rule of thumb, I don’t travel to areas where political beefs might endanger my personal safety.
Korea’s DMZ (demilitarized zone) seems like one of those places: the bull’s-eye denoting the political and physical divide between two countries that have been beefing since the late 1940s. I didn’t share Iggy’s fascination with this place. Anything having to do with its historical troubles had never really interested me. My cursory thinking on the countries went something like this: Korea, oh yes, we (America) were involved in a war there, the timeline of which was kind-of fuzzy in my millennial mind until watching the first season of Mad Men. Beyond that I knew that, in the eyes of the West, North Korea is bad, South Korea is good. North Korea has been run by a succession of crazy pot-bellied, chubby-cheeked men, all surnamed Kim. South Korea has been run by…well, frankly, I’ve no idea. North Korea is a country full of starving, repressed people and remote, tragic prison camps. South Korea is a country with a prosperous, overwhelmingly educated populace that has a penchant for spa treatments and plastic surgery. I know, I know — none of this exactly counts as a scholarly assessment, but it was mine nonetheless.
Finally, the lights dimmed and so I stopped flipping through my mental files on the two Koreas. The soldiers (both a little tired from having stayed up to watch the USA vs. Germany World Cup match) proceeded to click their way through a frank, factual PowerPoint. The first part of which included the history behind the DMZ, the second focused on the brazen behavior of the North Koreans. In sum, the DMZ is a 2.5 mile wide section of land that serves as a buffer zone. The 155 mile MDL (Military Demarcation Line) runs through it, officially separating the North and South. Each side is staffed (protected!) by members of its respective armies.
One might be forgiven for nodding off during this part of the tour, especially because much of the information is repeated later during an eerily quiet bus ride through the DMZ. Our bus was one of only three vehicles on the road as we made our way through the seemingly serene, mostly wild, rolling land. A jeep of South Korean and American soldiers led the caravan, followed by our bus, and another tour group’s. The lush green vegetation and the red-crowned cranes sweeping over it under a summer blue sky made it hard to fathom the fact that landmines are buried throughout this area, which has unwittingly become a wildlife sanctuary over the years. I’d love nothing more than to insert a photo here, but we were instructed not to photograph the landscape as we drove.
We were heading to Panmunjom where the Armistice (cease-fire) Agreement between the two Koreas was signed on July 27th, 1953. Today it goes by the name of JSA (Joint Security Area) which, to paraphrase our tour company’s literature, refers to the 400m x 800m rectangular area where bunkers painted in the shade of United Nations blue are used for talks between the United Nations Command (South Korea and America) and its Communist counterparts (North Korea and China).
This was the highlight of the tour where walking through the back doors of South Korea’s Freedom House put us face to face with North Korea. In front of us, stood the blue bunkers, perfectly placed right on top of the MDL. Just beyond them, was a North Korean soldier checking us out through his binoculars from the steps of Panmun Hall.
The tension was palpable at this point, heightened by our armed American security escort who instructed us not to make any hand gestures towards the North Koreans (who, we were told, know how to strategically use Photoshop to their advantage). He explained that we could take photos here, but only towards the North Korean side, before leading us down the steps, across the road, past unflinchingly alert and armed South Korean soldiers, and into the center blue bunker. We felt safe in the presence of our security escort and the two South Korean soldiers standing and looking Madame Tussaud-like in the room.
We delighted in walking to the far end of the room so we could tell our family and friends back home that we were technically in North Korea. Cool! But then half a dozen North Korean soldiers came hightailing it out from Panmun Hall to surround both sides of that tiny little bunker we were in. Suddenly, it wasn’t so cool to be where we were, and we felt the need to listen to our security escort’s instructions to fall in line and quickly walk (no running in the DMZ!) back to the protection provided by Freedom House.
Back on the bus, our escort told us that what we had just experienced was a rare occurrence. Iggy and I assumed it was a theatrical display for the Chinese tour group hanging out on the balcony of Panmun Hall. Who knew? North Korea offers guided tours of the DMZ too.
The soldier wouldn’t confirm our suspicions, but the incident illustrated a frightful reality for the South Korean and American soldiers stationed at the DMZ: on a daily basis they face North Korean soldiers who are prone to inexplicable and random acts of aggression. We were told about two of the more famous incidents on the tour (for a full listing visit Wikipedia). In the 1976 Ax Murder Incident, two American soldiers were killed, while four American soldiers and five South Korean soldiers were wounded. The soldiers had been trimming a tree near a checkpoint when the North Koreans attacked. In 1984, a Soviet tourist on the North Korean side defected by sprinting over the MDL. A twenty-one minute gun fight between the two sides ensued leaving three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier dead. Supposedly, the guy, Vasily Matusak, is now a San Francisco based journalist. Our escort pointed out where these incidents occurred as we continued on our tour. We stopped briefly at the Bridge of No Return where the 1976 incident took place, but weren’t able to disembark the bus.
Besides stopping at the JSA, the tour also makes an even briefer stop at the JSA Tower. This gives you a view — albeit from very far away — of the infamous “Propaganda Village” (Kijong-Dong) on the North Korean side of the DMZ. In previous years, loudspeakers that could presumably “go to eleven” spouted propaganda 24/7 for all in the surrounding area to hear. The messages were aimed at nearby “Freedom Village” (Tae Sung Dong) on the South Korean side of the DMZ. Not surprisingly, the propaganda never enticed the villagers in the south to head on over to its northern neighbor. This is a good thing. Had anyone shown up, they would have found a deserted village, much like a Hollywood movie set where buildings are set-up for display only and where there have never been any real inhabitants.
As entertaining as the story surrounding Propaganda Village is, I was more interested in seeing Freedom Village, but it’s not part of the tour. Perhaps because real people carry out their daily lives there. The village existed long before the divide between the countries and so its inhabitants (some 200 of them) have been able to stay put. They are privy to some great perks: they hold South Korean citizenship, don’t have to pay taxes, and the average family makes a cool $80,000 per year from the land they farm and the government subsidies they receive. Then again, a family member is required to stay in the village at least 240 nights a year, an 11:00pm curfew is enforced, and, yeah, North Korea is practically within spitting distance. As we made our way back through the DMZ, we passed by the road that led to the village and I wondered how the people in it are affected by the strange circumstances in which they live.
Before I knew it, we had arrived back where we started at Camp Bonifas. Our security escort departed the bus and we continued on to other areas of interest within the DMZ (which I’ll tell you about in my next post). It was at this point that I realized I had to fess up and tell Iggy that he was right: a tour of the DMZ had been worth basing a four-day sojourn to Seoul around. For a few short hours, I became painfully aware of the precarious divide that exists between North and South Korea, one that continues to be tested from time to time. Just today, North Korea fired two missiles in an apparent angry reaction to a joint U.S.-South Korean military drill scheduled to take place later this week.
*We booked our tour through the USO via Koridoor Tours. Tours depart from Camp Kim (shown below) in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul.