The DMZ. Where to start? What to say…? The experience of visiting the most heavily guarded border in the world stirred up many different feelings. Wonder. Confusion. Anxiety. Sadness. How do I begin? First, I suppose, you are interested in some background information. I’m not going to explain the history myself, but if you are interested, I would strongly suggest watching this overview of the Korean War. It’s one of the best, and simplest, explanations. One thing I will do, however, is explain some vocabulary.
The DMZ = The Demilitarized Zone. A strip of land about 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide running across the Korean peninsula around the 38th parallel. It acts as a buffer between North and South Korea.
The MDL = The Military Demarcation Line. The line that runs through the center of the DMZ. Essentially a border – the point in the DMZ that cannot be crossed.
Panmunjom – The “truce village” in the DMZ where talks between the two countries are held.
The JSA – The Joint Security Area. An area in Panmunjom where talks are held in buildings that straddle the MDL. It is in this area that South and North Korean troops stand face to face every day.
I visited the DMZ on a guided tour, which, as far as I know, is the only way to visit Panmunjom and the JSA. Our trip actually included several different stops, but the JSA was obviously the highlight, so I am going to start with that.
PANMUNJOM AND THE JSA
It started when we arrived at Camp Bonifas, which is located on the edge of the DMZ. At that point, a soldier stationed at Camp Bonifas took over for our tour guide and escorted us for the rest of our time in the DMZ. First, we had a “briefing” at the visitors center. The soldier gave a brief talk about the history of the DMZ. Oh, and uh, then, we each had to sign a piece of paper that basically said if we got shot by a North Korean solider then South Korea’s official position will be, “Hey, man, don’t look at me!” The soldier also informed us that we couldn’t take any photos until we got to the JSA, so I didn’t get to take any pictures of the DMZ while we were driving through it.
The JSA is basically a South Korean building and a North Korean building facing each other, with smaller buildings straddling the MDL in between.
Well, here it is. We’re all lined up on the steps of the South Korean building, per strict instructions. Allow me to point out the Military Demarcation Line, the MDL, which runs through the center of those blue buildings and is represented by concrete slabs. In other words, across that line is North Korea. Can you see the North Korean soldier to the left of the door? Allow me to zoom in.
When we walked out, he started peeking at us through binoculars. I wanted to wave back and shout, “Hai!” – but we were told not to make any gestures towards North Korea, including pointing, waving, or any other jackassery. Also at this point, we were told we could start taking pictures because, as the solider said, “They’re taking pictures of you.” I won’t lie, it was more than a bit unnerving. The best part, however, was going in the blue building.
Heck yeah, we got to go in! The armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean war was signed at that middle table! And yes – it, too, straddles the MDL. Which means – you guessed it – I got to go into North Korea.
In that last photo, I’m in North Korea and the two girls are in South Korea. However, we didn’t really have time to savor the moment. The solider led us in, talked very briefly about the room, told us not to get within 2 feet of the soldiers, and said, “Okay, you have 5 minutes in this building.” Well, there had to be about 40 of us on the tour, and everyone was scrambling to take pictures.
The whole JSA experience, from waiting on the steps to going in the blue building and leaving, couldn’t have lasted longer than 20 minutes, but I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.
Another place we went to, outside of the DMZ, was Dora Observatory. It was the best view of the DMZ and North Korea.
Yeah, look at North Korea, just beyond the wall! Oh, wait, you can only take pictures behind the yellow line. How annoying. So, you end up doing something like this:
The view really was incredible. You could clearly make out where the DMZ ended and North Korea began. You could also see the North Korean propaganda town across the border. Here’s a picture of it from a different point in the tour:
Apparently no one actually lives there. The soldier explained that they knew this because at night when the lights are on (which is apparently rare) in multi-level buildings, the light fades as you get closer to the bottom, meaning there are no ceilings or walls in the buildings. Also, that flag pole is apparently the 3rd tallest in the world, and the flag itself is over 600 pounds, according to our guide.
Alright, at this point, I’m realizing I have a ton more photos and I’ve already written quite a bit. I touched on the highlights of the trip, so I’ll just share and explain a few more photos.
Some North Korean liquor on sale at one of the gift shops. Why didn’t I buy that North Korean soju!? Stupid.
The other major stop on our tour was the 3rd tunnel of aggression. Long story short, the North Koreans dug tunnels under the DMZ to secretly invade the South. The tunnel was basically a long mine – it was small, wet, and cold. We couldn’t take pictures in the tunnel, so here I am near the entrance.
This was taken in Dorasan train station, the last train station before North Korea. The train hasn’t actually gone to Pyeongyang, the capital of the North, for a few years.
Our soldier guide and I near the site of the Ax Murder Incident. Yeah, the name tells you what you need to know. He explained to us that, at this area, we were surrounded on 3 sides by North Korea, as the MDL makes a “U” shape here.
This is rice grown in the DMZ by the South Korean peace village. It is the only village inside of the DMZ, with about 200 people. The villagers are guarded 24 hours-a-day. They also don’t have to pay taxes and their schooling is completely paid for. To live there, you have to have lived in that area before the Korean War or be a descendent of someone who did.
Look, I’m out of energy. That’s all for now.