Ever since I began telling people I was going to Korea, they immediately asked if I was going to the DMZ. We were lucky enough to get on a media tour with U.S. Forces Korea on Wednesday to see the Joint Security Area and the demilitarized zone. The tour happens weekly and if you need a drink of water or take a bathroom break, you’re going to miss it or get left behind. It’s quick.
The tour begins in a JSA visitors center, where Korean army Sgt. Keukryul Park gave our group a presentation on six major incidents to occur in the JSA over the past 60 years. Now when I say the JSA, it’s the area you think of from movies featuring it — two large government buildings on each side of the border with armed guards just watching each other. I’m not sure where or what movie I got this image from, but it was pretty close to the real thing.
Also during the brief, we got information about the two villages each country operates in the DMZ as a sign of peace. The South Korean village, Taesung-dong, or Freedom Village is made of rice farmers who are heavily subsidized by the government, pay no taxes and are exempt from the country’s draft. About 208 people live there. I can’t imagine. They must be so isolated from the rest of country.
Just meters away, is the North Korean village, Gijung-dong, better known in South Korea as “propaganda village.” It was completely empty until 1982. It’s now inhabited by about 300 people.
These residents can’t talk to each other. It seems pricey and strange to support these two villages in the midst of the nothingness that surrounds them in the DMZ, but this is what’s done.
After the brief we received awesome blue armbands marking us as media and set out on a bus.
As we traveled toward the DMZ we passed the chain link fence Korea placed marked how far north civilians are allowed. Then we passed two giant black blocks, made to fall into the roadway, should North Korea invade. Then we were in the DMZ. The zone is the 1.2-mile buffer along both sides of the borderline, known as the demarcation line, or the 38th paralel.
Our first stop was the JSA, where we saw the guards watching each other, the former village of Panmunjom, where the armistice negotiations took place in 1953. We couldn’t take any photos of the South Korean buildings — which was strange to me because North Korean stare at them all day. What’s the secret?
As we took pictures to the north, their guard pulled out binoculars and looked back at us. We were absolutely forbidden to make any gestures or appear in any way we were trying to communicate with him.
Exactly centered on the borderline are four buildings — two blue and two silver. One blue building is the UN building where both countries can come together and talk today.
Weirdly enough, both countries use the building for their tours. If it’s a southern tour, their guards are present, and vice versa. The microphone cords on the table in the center of the room follow the borderline. I was able to cross the room and technically stood in North Korea for about 2 minutes. It didn’t feel any different.
The other blue building belongs to the south and the two silver buildings are for the north.
After just a few minutes we were ushered back onto the bus and driven to Checkpoint 3. This site is historic, because of the 1976 axe murder incident. Back then, the entire JSA was open for both countries to move about with checkpoints on either side of the borderline.
A large polar tree grew between Checkpoints 3 and 4, and had to be trimmed each year to keep the line of sight available. That year, while trimming the tree, about 20 North Korean guards attacked the Americans conducting the tree trimming. A captain and a lieutenant were killed. Camp Bonifas is now named for the deceased captain. The tree was cut down completely in Operation Paul Bunyan — during which the country was elevated to DEFCON 2 and an aircraft carrier was ready to attack if needed.
Again, we were quickly, rushed onto the bus and driven past the Bridge of No Return. In 1953, a prisoners of war exchange occurred on the bridge and people could choose which side they wanted. I can’t imagine what kind of propaganda was in people’s heads at the time of their decision, especially in the north.
We couldn’t get out of the bus at the bridge. Our tour guide, Park, said that because of the placement of the bridge, the North Koreans are able to carry larger guns on the other side than they are on the south in the armistice agreement. Therefor, it’s not safe. Interesting, though, a ceremony is held near the bridge sometimes to lay a wreath at the site of the axe murder. The 2nd Infantry Division hosted last year’s ceremony.
And that was pretty much it. That was our DMZ media tour. I wish I had learned more about how Americans help, but the information wasn’t available on the tour.
Personally, I’m still grappling with the whole thing. How can two countries be cordial enough to share a conference room, but angry enough to murder on a whim with an axe?
Seeing the ribbons of freedom in Peace Park, the northernmost place civilians can go, confused me even more.
There seems to be many Koreans who like a united Korea — north and south together. In a perfect world I’d like to think it could happen. But seeing how much effort has gone into separation, it’s hard to picture.