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5 Steps into North Korea – visiting the DMZ and JSA

South vs North. Good vs Evil. Propaganda vs …more Propaganda? Symbolic (possibly fake) villages, stern soldiers, strict photography protocol, self-promoting loudspeakers aimed across the border and a flagpole measuring contest (doesn’t take a metaphor enthusiast to figure that one out) are all features of BOTH sides of the border.

A trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Joint Security Area (JSA) on the Korean peninsula requires a military escort, booking well in advance, and, in my opinion, a healthy sense of skepticism. I’m not saying that I think we’re supporting the wrong Korea, I’m just highlighting that tour guides certainly ensure tourists leave ‘knowing’ that the South is a magnanimous, wonderful state who should and will be the eventual victor in this already decades-long war.

This was the #1 item on my to-do list in South Korea but once I finally (Oct 7th) got around to booking a tour (the only way to gain access to the JSA), we found out that the rest of the month was booked out! I spent the next hour calling and emailing the eight or so tour companies until finally a company I had called and been turned down by replied to an email I’d sent them saying that my requested date wasn’t available but if we were flexible they could fit us in on Saturday, Oct 15th. We expected to have our passports back by then, hadn’t booked our flight to China yet, and, as such, were able to accept! (The Chinese visa experience is covered in the Busan and Suanbo posts)

A very early (6:30am – we’re on vacation!) start had us on the tour bus by 7 o’clock, heading to the DMZ. The DMZ is 240km long (west to east) and 4km wide (2km each side of the border). One surprising thing that many people may not realise is just how close the DMZ is to Seoul – only 35km! Another interesting fact is that, due to there being nearly no human activity within the DMZ for nearly 64 years (since 1953), there now exists a large strip of land that serves as a natural refuge for many species of plants, birds and other animals, who don’t really care for the whims of political humans. That being said, we were told that it isn’t a rare occurence for a landmine to go off in the middle of the night and for the ROK (Republic of Korea – the SOUTH) soldiers to simply roll over and not give much thought to the poor vampire deer whose night (and life) just came to an end.

Only 35km from Seoul to the border.
Only 35km from Seoul to the border.

As we drove along the Han River, we learned about the ambitious Texan who wanted to meet Kim Jong-un. Apparently, having decided that a tour of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the NORTH) was too expensive, in September of 2014 our Texan jumped in the River and tried to swim to North Korea. He didn’t make it very far and was picked up off a bank and arrested by marines later that night. There were no takers when our guide (Han/”english name” Ron) offered to stop the bus if anyone felt like a dip.

We passed under several bridges that Ron informed us had C-4 explosives built into them to be detonated in the event of an invasion from the north. The rubble would seal off roads leading south, at least temporarily hampering the advancement of tanks. I’m pretty sure our bus would have been held back pretty effectively as well. Other tidbits from Ron included that the North Koreans are on average shorter than South Koreans due to malnourishment and that their faces are rounder, and I quote, “more Chinese”.

The DMZ being as close as it is, it wasn’t long until we were having our passports checked by an American soldier at Camp Bonifas, named after a soldier who lost his life during the infamous “Axe Murder” attacks that arose from a tree being trimmed or cut down to improve lines of sight within the JSA. This was one of many delightful tales from Ron, along with stories of various North Korean defectors. Besides famine, separation from family members and overall poor quality of living, another fine reason for defecting for me would be the avoidance of 10 years of compulsory military service for men (“only” 7 years for women) that starts at the age of 17!

The JSA as seen from the South.
The JSA as seen from the South.

After a briefing in an auditorium, nervously delivered by an American soldier with the aid of PowerPoint, we were brought through the “Home of Freedom” building to where we could see the UN and DPRK buildings, straddling the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), where meetings are held between the two factions, as well as Panmun Hall in North Korea.

My goofy head concealing part of Panmungak Hall on the North Korean side.
My goofy head concealing part of Panmungak Hall on the North Korean side.

Notice how I’m wearing a collared, button-down shirt?  Anyone that knows me will recognize that this would not be my attire of choice, especially while travelling.  In fact, Ornella and I were required, along with everyone else, to wear; covered shoes, full-length pants or skirt (no ripped jeans), neat hair and collared shirts.  Tattoos were also to be covered.  This is all meant to prevent the North Koreans from photographing any of us and presenting the images of our unkemptness to it’s citizens as evidence of the woeful lives that foreigners lead.  There’s no escaping the propaganda machine.

Our bus-load of tourists stood in two rows and were allowed to take pictures, looking north only.  Notice how the guards facing North Korea are half hidden behind the buildings, to make themselves smaller targets.

The blue buildings are UN controlled, the grey ones, DPRK controlled.
The blue buildings are UN controlled, the grey ones, DPRK controlled.

After this we were marched down to the T2 Conference Building for our highly anticipated crossover to the North Korean side.

Standing in a modified taekwondo stance called "ROK Ready" to show the North they mean business.
Standing in a modified taekwondo stance called “ROK Ready” to show the North they mean business.

The inside of the room wasn’t very exciting, although we could see where the MDL ran through the building. Walking past the microphone in the middle of the table meant that Ornella and I were technically in North Korea.  We made it out just fine!

ROK soldier straddling the border.
ROK soldier straddling the border.

It was at this very table, shown above, that delegates from the two Koreas sat for more than 12 hours negotiating with nobody from either side willing to get up from the table, even to pee, lest it be interpreted as a sign of weakness! This lead to a policy of compulsory breaks every hour and a half, so that delegates could safely take care of business.

Not as convincing a stance but I am standing North of this soldier, fully in the DPRK!
Not as convincing a stance but I am standing North of this soldier, fully in the DPRK!
Facing North - no help available if you decide to go through the door.
Gateway to the north – for those who dare.

Once our 15 minutes were up we were quickly marched away from the JSA – no more photos permitted – and back onto our bus.  Normally our tour would have taken us to the “Bridge of no Return” (point of POW exchanges between the DPRK and ROK) but we had to skip that due to reports of fresh landmines having been recently placed near that location.   Another bridge of note nearby is the so-called Cow Bridge.  The story,  in short, is that the founder of Hyundai – Chung Ju-yun – was born in North Korea and that his 3rd out of 4 attempts to escape North Korea in the 1930s was accomplished (he was later found by his father and brought back north) by stealing one of his fathers cows and selling it in order to purchase a train ticket to Seoul.  Many years later, and as a wealthy businessman, Chung Ju-yun delivered a large number of cows (1,001) over this particular bridge from South Korea to North Korea; 1,000 “unification” cows as a symbol of hope for things to come, and 1 cow as payback for the one he stole from his father.

We helped ourselves to a Korean buffet before moving on to the next attractions; a viewpoint with binoculars looking into North Korea, the northernmost train station in South Korea, and a tunnel discovered by South Korea that the North initially denied having anything to do with.

This station is ready to go into operation as soon as reconciliation is achieved...
This station is ready to go into operation as soon as reconciliation is achieved…

The viewpoint offered numerous items of interest to look out for.  It wasn’t a crystal clear day so we couldn’t see the statue of Kim Il-sung in Kaesong (real village) but we could still make out the enormous flag and flagpole (formerly #1 but now 4th highest in the world) in the fake village (Peace Village or Kijŏngdong) on the North Korean side.

The view, as it were.
The view, as it were.

South Korea put up a 98.4m high flag pole in it’s DMZ town of Daeseong-dong, obstensibly as part of the lead-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The North Koreans quickly retaliated with their 160m tall flag pole. Peace Village is seen to be just a propaganda (uninhabited) village due to indicators such as very little visible human activity and the fact that three story buildings have brighter light visible through the top level windows with decreasing brightness as you look at lower levels, suggesting that the buildings are hollow (no floor divisions). An audible feature of the region is the sound of the propaganda loudspeakers that North Korea has pointed south extolling the virtues of their country. Of course, South Korea has retaliated with their own mega-speakers, with news reports and K-Pop giving the North a soundbite of southern living.

Ornella keeping an eye on things.
Ornella keeping an eye on things.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the tunnel that we visited, although I did walk to the point where ROK had sealed off the tunnel with three concrete walls. It is 70m below ground and was about 1.6km long when it was discovered (using pipes inserted into the surface and filled with water – the pressure wave from blasting used in tunnel construction would shoot the water out of the pipes, allowing South Korea to pinpoint where tunnels were being dug). Initially North Korea denied they built the tunnel but, with the design of the tunnel optimising water drainage to the north, they then claimed the tunnel was for coal mining. North Korea even blackened parts of the tunnel with coal to add weight to the lie. Since the tunnel is in granite, there was little to no chance of there being coal in the region.

Hopes for reconciliation are still high.
Hopes for reconciliation are still high.

As we finished our tour and were heading back into Seoul, Ron told us that reconciliation WILL happen. He was just more uncertain on the timing. That seemed to be the point of view of most South Koreans that we spoke with. I hope they are right, and that it’s sooner rather than later.

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