Unfortunately, one of the first things many people think of when they hear “Korea” is the Korean War. It was before I was born and before Vietnam, but the demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the 38th parallel is a constant reminder that Korea is a broken country. When researching for my trip I was surprised to find that tours of the DMZ are conducted daily—10 a day to the JSA neutral zone, and many more to the surrounding areas. I booked a tour in advance with the Korean branch of the USO because I wanted the full experience of stepping on North Korean soil. Although the USO tour lasts most of the day and costs more than others ($42), I am confidant that it was worthwhile. Other people who took the cheap, whistlestop tours weren’t allowed into the sensitive areas the USO went.
The short tours leave late in the morning, but I had to get up around 5:45am to make it across Seoul on the subway to the USO offices across from one of the many US Army bases in the area. Two buses (about 90 people) headed North around 7:30am, being briefed by our volunteer tour guide along the way. The river we followed was completely enclosed in barbed wire and dotted with manned guard posts watching North. The highway, “freedom Highway” was built for unification. It’s sad really, so many things in South Korea—customs checkpoints, roads, buildings, train stations—were built for when the country is eventually reunited. The facilities stand empty in the meantime, only visited by tourists
After an hour driving North we were stopped and boarded by a ROK (S. Korean army soldier) who checked our passports. We continued through guarded areas until we reached the entrance to Camp Bonifas, where we got off the bus and stood in line to be checked again by ROK soldiers. Until very recently Camp Bonifas was heavily populated by US soldiers. Many have now pulled out after political pressure from the Koreans and only about 40 US soldiers remain. The soldiers up there are on special assignment, meeting more stringent requirements than other Korean-based US soldiers, but quite a few of them spend their days giving tours. The soldier assigned to our bus was from Southern California and only had one more month until he was discharged. As a sniper for the Rangers he was assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan twice, Somalia and finally Korea. He was ready to go home and spent any downtime discussing sports results and the glory of In & Out burgers
Before traveling by bus to the JSA zone we were briefed by another US soldier who was from Iowa and spoke in a comically loud “shout” much different than our soldier’s laid back California tone. The briefing and slide show we were given was the most concise but informative description of the history of the war and the current situation I have heard. It contained much less information and visuals than the War Museum in Seoul, but was exactly what I needed. When Japan, who had been occupying Korea until about 1945 , was forced to pull out the US came into the South to police the area and the Russians came into the North. Each country encouraged their own form of political system on the area they occupied, which is why North Korea became Communist. After two different governing bodies were formed the Korea war ensued, each side trying to take over the other to form one Korea. The US had the most soldiers supporting the South, although many other countries were involved including Ethiopia. China sent a lot of troops to help the North, especially once the South had pushed the North all the way back to the Chinese border.
Eventually, when a cease fire was agreed upon both groups were told to pull back 2km from their last position. That left a 4km demilitarized zone in which neither the North or South had control. The area is now heavily forested and quite beautiful. A zone was created along the border, within the DMZ, where talks could take place. Each side has a number of buildings scattered throughout the zone, side by side. Because of this North and South Korean soldiers will come face to face with each other as well as US and other foreign soldiers. Armed soldiers are required to wear armbands, which all ROK and US soldiers do, but the North has stopped following that rule. On the Southern side a large, new building was built by the owner of Hyundi as a meeting point for families divided by the war. The building has never been used for this purpose because North Korea forbids it’s citizens from technically crossing into South Korea. They have built a hotel in North Korea where families can meet under special circumstances instead
Photography was forbidden between the camp and the DMZ/special JSA zone, as you would assume. But it was encouraged within the zone and the lookout points, to the point of posing with ROK soldiers. Along the way our soldier pointed out the defense points, including large, semi-sized cement blocks in the air wired to collapse and block the road in case North Korea advances. Fences line much of the area, not only with barbed wire but with rocks inserted into the Southern side of the fence. The allows soldiers on patrol to see if any fence had been tampered with, as the rocks would fall out into the Southern side and onto a neatly raked area of sand
Once we arrived in the JSA zone we formed two lines and entered the new building and walked out onto the steps facing North Korea. We were told to wander on the steps and take photos as we wished, but not to step off the steps, point or make any unusual gestures. I certainly couldn’t do a cartwheel for fear of being photographed and used in propaganda materials by North Korea. Across the small road was a line of buildings owned by either side and a large building being worked on by North Korea. It seems that every improvement made by the South is them mimicked by the North, as they always want to have the tallest building or biggest flag. After 5 minutes we were lined up again and marched across a two lane road and into the middle building, shared by both sides. A ROK soldier stood halfway behind each building, watching the North intensely. They did not speak and stood in a modified Tae Kwon Do position, with wide legs, arms somewhat outstretched at their sides in fists and mouth turned down in a scowl. Large mirrored aviator glasses finished off their look, which is intended to intimidate the Northern soldiers and keep from showing any emotion
A short cement block runs along the actual border, halfway through all of the buildings. Inside were posted North Korean soldiers for our protection and many chairs and tables where talks are conducted. On the main table are microphones which are monitored 24 hours a day by both sides. They must spend a lot of time translating tours. Surprisingly, North Korea also runs tours to the building, but only a few times a month. Tourists posed with the ROK soldiers, although they did not move or speak. We left the building after about 5 minutes, instructed not to look back toward North Korea. In all of my time in the zone I only saw one North Korea soldier who was standing under a guard post on the Northeast side of the zone
We continued on to a Southern guard post where you could see North Korea’s “Propaganda Village.” When the armistice was put in place it was agreed that each side would be allowed one village within the DMZ. The South’s village is very prosperous, with every family farming 17 acres of rice fields and earning around $82,000 a year. Villagers must be born in the village or direct descendants. Men cannot marry into a family, but women can. The Northern city was named “Propaganda Village” by the US because for a long time speakers blasted propaganda at the Southern village, encouraging them to cross over. Of course, the promises are empty because that village is not technically a village at all. As far as the South can tell no one lives in the village and caretakers enter sporadically to tend to the buildings and raise or lower the flag. Propaganda Village features a gigantic flagpole, which has been enlarged over the years to ensure it is always taller than the flag pole in the Southern village. The flag is supposedly the largest flag in the world, weighing around 600 lbs dry
After our excellent tour by the Ranger from California we were dropped off back at Camp Bonifas and boarded our USO buses to drive to lunch. I met an interesting girl from Detroit who was visiting her aunt and we talked over BBQ beef and vegetables. At least the birds flying around inside waited until after we were done eating to shit on us. The tour continued on to the 4th tunnel discovered in South Korea, built by the North. It was incredibly far underground, and luckily discovered with intelligence from a Northern defector. The North went as far as to paint the walls black and claim it was a coal mine and not an infiltration tunnel.
Our last stop on the way back to Seoul was at a newly built train station which is meant to connect the North and South. As with anything built in the hopes of reunification it was sad to see the hopes of Korea waiting for the North to come around. The track has been laid but a practice run of the train scheduled last week was unexplainably cancelled at the last minute by North Korea. Commuter trains run a few times a day to the station, mostly filled with tourists. The pristine sign above the doors to the tracks read “To Pyongyang” in the hopes that someday it will be true.