Sunday, May 29, 2011

Visiting a War Zone

Unless you are stunningly naive, you well know that Korea is a divided peninsula, made so after the victors of World War II divided up Korea (as a spoil of war from the conquered Japan who had ruled Korea as a colony since 1910) between the USSR to the North and the United States to the South. This led to the horrible Korean Conflict (1950-1953) that ended in an armistice (signed by China, the United Nations, and North Korea--not South Korea who never wanted the division) that left the peninsula in the divided state that we know it as today. The armistice agreement established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 250 mile long, 4 mile wide area that hugs the Military Demarcation Line separating the two countries. This is the most heavily militarized border in the world.

And also, as it turns out, a very popular tourist attraction! While it is quite a lengthy process for South Korean citizens to visit the DMZ, foreigners can visit pretty easily--and they do, to the tune of 500 visitors a day. But it's not exactly a stroll in the park, as we discovered from our visit in late May. Here are the details:

  • The DMZ is only about 40 km north of Seoul. Since private cars can't access the area and you have to be part of a tour to enter, most people catch a tour bus in Seoul and go from there. Much of the ride up there hugs two rivers--the Han and then the Imjin--and the water is lined quite intensely with barbed wire, gun placements and look out posts every few hundred meters. No surprises will come floating down the Imjin River from North Korea. I do feel sorry for the soldiers who have the duty of staring at the river.
  • First we stopped at Munsan Reunification Park where there are monuments to many different individuals and groups, including journalists killed in the war since this was the headquarters for journalists. Here we also ate lunch. It is 25 km south of the border.
  • We next visited Imjingak, which is 10 km south of the border. This is the farthest north that civilians can go without documentation. For this reason, South Koreans whose hometowns are in the north and have relatives there, visit Imjingak on those holidays (like New Year's and Thanksgiving) when the custom is to visit one's hometown and pay respects. We saw the Memorial Altar that was erected here for this purpose. We also saw a bridge--one of three on the trip--that was built by the 13,000 South Korean prisoners of war who needed a way to cross the small river here when they were being marched back after the war. Another major highlight of Imjingak was the front of a train. This train had been delivering supplies during the war when it came under heavy fire and had to be abandoned into land that became the DMZ. Thus, it remained untouched for 60 years until it was pulled out last year and brought to Imjingak.
The front of the train that came under fire and was abandoned in the DMZ. Looking slightly worse for the wear.
Freedom Bridge
Memorial Altar
  • After Imjingak, soliders came aboard the bus for the first of two security checks. This one was pretty tame; they just checked to see that we had foreign passports. During the second check, they carefully checked all of our passports to see that our numbers aligned with those that had registered for the tour. They also checked to see that our cameras didn't have too strong of a zoom and they even checked our dress code. If we weren't appropriately clad, we couldn't proceed:
--no shorts
--sandals have to have a back strap (no flip flops)
--no jeans with holes or frays
--tatoos have to be covered
--must wear sleeves
--no tights or leggings
--no Western logos, particularly on hats
--no sports wear of any kind
--no army wear
Why? "Because North Korea is always watching."
  • So, since we all safely passed the security checkpoint, we proceeded across Unification Bridge, which was covered with yellow and black barricades that indicate military presence. We were forbidden from taking pictures at this point. We also passed under (at this point and several others) the 12 anti-wall tanks that stand between the DMZ and Seoul). These are huge concrete structures that are designed to blow up at the touch of a button and impede the forward progress of any advancing tanks. It was slightly sickening to drive under them, given the possibility of being crushed by several tons of concrete. Here's to sound engineering.
  • Finally, we made it to the Advance Camp. Here, there is Camp Bonifas, home to 700 soldiers, 95% from South Korea and 5% from the United States. Because South Korea never signed the armistice agreement, all the flags flown here are from the United Nations. This Camp is 400 meters from the DMZ. The DMZ is 4 km wide--2 km north of the military demarcation line (MDL) stretching into North Korea and 2 km south. Basically, this is as close as it gets. Here we got a presentation about the DMZ and switched buses. To enter the DMZ we had to be driven by military personnel on a military bus. We couldn't bring anything with us besides our camera. We had to wear special badges that announced our status as visitors. From this point on, we could only take pictures when they told us we could.
The military buses.
Our guest badges, to be worn prominently on the front of our shirts.
  • On the military bus, we couldn't stand up. The only person who could stand was a soldier at the front wearing a bullet proof vest. We were driven past SK's three-tier defense system: land mines, barbed wire and gates, and tank barriers. They drove us to the Joint Security Area (JSA), an 800 meter wide area that is jointly administed by North and South Korea. Half of the area and the buildings are North, half are South (blue is South, gray is North). Here, you can see the MDL marked by posts and lookout points, lines on the ground, and lines down the middle of the table in the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Building where Northern and Southern leaders come together for talks.
The JSA--the concrete slab down the middle is the MDL. These South Korean soldiers are looking North.
The line down the center marks the division of North and South, even in the conference room.

Here, South Korean soliders stand at the border and look towards the North. One solitary North Korean soldier stares back through binoculars, while many more look back from inside their building. (When it is necessary for more NK soliders to come down to the MDL and stand guard, they stand in groups of three--two facing each other and one facing north. The Southern soldiers look north to protect against violence from NK, the Northern soldiers face north to protect against people defecting.)
Can you see the North Korean solider staring at us with binoculars?
  • When we got out of the bus here, we were given very strict orders:
--no cases of any kind, lest they be mistaken for bombs
--nobody could have any kind of alcohol or consumed any recently
--no video cameras or talking on cell phone
--no pointing or gesturing
--no writing anything down
--no eating or chewing gum
--nothing can be held in your hand
--stay in two lines, wear visitors badge
--only take pictures when explicitly told it is ok
Becky and I ate the JSA
  • We were able to stand in the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Conference Building and walk around to the other side of the table. This means...I was in North Korea!!
Me on the other side of the border.
  • We got back on the bus and were driven through the DMZ a little bit more. We saw North Korea's propaganda village--designed to showcase the ingenuity and modernism of the country, even though no one lives in the village. It is home to the world's tallest flag pole, with an enormous North Korean flag on top.
  • We also glimpsed South Korea's Freedom Village, made up of a few families who were allowed to live within the DMZ because it is their ancestral land. Out of the 1 million landmines that were dropped by aircraft onto the area that became the DMZ, 70% still remain. 30% were cleared so that farmers could do their work, but you can imagine that they don't take many romps to the countryside. Since their farms abut North Korea, they are guarded by armed South Korean soldiers as they go about their farming. The SK Freedom Village and the NK Propaganda Village are only about a 15 minute walk from each other, but no one has ever made this trip.
  • We also saw the site of the 1976 Axe Murder Incident and the Bridge of No Return. This bridge was where the prisoner repatriation operations took place, but once you go across this bridge either way, there is no going back.
Bridge of No Return
  • Thankfully, there were no incidents this day at the DMZ. But, our visit was a stark and sad reminder that the peninsula remains a divided place. Families are still separated. The South Koreans say they long for reunification and believe that all Koreans are one people. It is my hope and prayer that some day peace can come to Korea and North and South can be reunited in a way that is beneficial for all.


  1. You are my hero. Thank you for teaching me things. And being so badass. I love you. -Favorite

  2. Looks like a very interesting trip, though I wouldn't say it sounds exactly fun. Sounds a bit stressful, actually. Very cool though that you were "in" North Korea!