At the DMZ separating South Korea and North Korea: Weird barely covers it

Closest to the camera are Republic of Korea (aka South Korea) soldiers, standing rigidly and ever-vigilant. In the distance, atop the stairs of the gray concrete building, a North Korean soldier looks south. This is the Joint Security Area of the DMZ.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Several weeks ago, you may have seen a photograph of a dark-suited, gray-haired U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson standing in front of a window framed by blue curtains.

The curtains and window weren’t the only things behind him. Lurking just outside was a North Korean soldier, a Fujifilm camera obscuring his face, with the lens pointed at the back of Tillerson’s head and presumably any officials that the soldier could get in the frame.

Talk about the ultimate photobomb, which other visiting officials have also experienced.

But that’s what going to the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea is like: totally surreal. Technically you’re in a war zone, because only an armistice — not an official peace treaty — was signed on July 17, 1953, when Korean War hostilities ceased.

But it’s also a popular tourist attraction, with many companies offering excursions to the site, a mere 34 miles (55 kilometers) north of Seoul, so less than an hour’s ride. Though there was cautionary language from the American and Republic of Korea soldiers who met and escorted our USO-organized tour when I visited the DMZ in November 2007, the experience was curiously nonthreatening.

It didn’t have a jolly, amusement park vibe, of course, but neither was the tone menacing, despite a military presence nearly everywhere we looked. It was more a feeling of all parties understanding their duties and restrictions rather than anyone looking to trigger an international incident, though the American soldier’s briefing detailed several violent episodes dating to 1976 (two U.S. officers were killed) and 1984.

The U.S. soldier, an Army staff sergeant (I am intentionally not naming him), said that about 600 ROK soldiers were stationed nearby, as were a smaller number of American servicemen at Camp Bonifas. The phrase, “In Front of Them All,” the camp’s motto, was painted on a blue water tank.

(Currently, about 28,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed in South Korea.)

The Military Demarkation Line bisects the peninsula, snaking gently southwest across about 155 miles, starting above the 38th parallel, from the Sea of Japan on the east coast, near the small town of Hwaijinpo, to the Yellow Sea on the west coast and islands. A buffer of 1.24 miles on both sides of the line comprises the greater DMZ.

Many countries fought with the United States and South Korea against the North Koreans and Chinese during the Korean War (June 1950-July 1953). Their contributions and sacrifices are commemorated in this monument.

Estimates are that more than 1 million mines remain from the Korean War (1950-53). The line is heavily fortified with barbed-wire-topped, double-chain-link fencing, an antitank wall, watchtowers and obstacles, and vigilant armed soldiers on foot patrol. Visitors see only a very small portion of this close to the Joint Security Area.

The world situation was calmer 10 years ago, and our visit went as scheduled. Tour organizers reserve the right to cancel at the last moment, especially if tension is high, as it seems to be in more recent weeks.

Tillerson, then on his first Asian swing as a cabinet member, with stops also in Japan and China, told CNN: “Certainly, we do not want things to get to a military conflict … but obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threatens the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response. If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe required action, that option is on the table.”

Panmunjom (it has various spellings), the “truce village,” in the Joint Security Area, is a small swath of the limited territory that’s open to tourists. While some groups journey down from the north, far more arrive from the south side of the DMZ.

It was standard procedure that each JSA visitor was required to sign a form absolving the U.S. and South Korea from any liability should anything untoward happen during the tour. Identification was also examined closely, and we were given badges to wear.

The United Nations flag sits on a table in the Military Armistice Commission briefing room. The French military men are at the back of our group. 

The most bizarre part of our visit might have been the few minutes we spent in the Military Armistice Commission briefing room. That’s a fairly stiff title for what is a not-very-sturdy light blue building (flanked by other similar buildings), with simple tables and chairs and a line running horizontally on the floor.

The interior looks more like a struggling company’s boardroom than a venue for politically charged meetings and negotiations. The 1953 armistice was signed here.

On one side of the line you are officially in South Korea; on the other, you’re in North Korea. You can be sure that every person on our tour crossed the line and had his or her picture taken standing in “enemy” territory.

This was one of the few areas where photos were allowed. Outside, peering into North Korea, we could see an ever-watchful soldier, facing south, standing on the top step of an imposing gray concrete building. The windows were covered by shades, but it’s likely that the inhabitants were monitoring the activity just across the way.

The equally attentive ROK soldiers, chosen for their height and solid physique, we were informed, wore black helmets and sunglasses, and stared north. They carried sidearms but not rifles. Their posture was rigidly immobile.

A friend had met me in Seoul for part of my trip, and he accompanied me to the DMZ. Some of our group were obviously off-duty American soldiers, their closely cropped hair being a give-away.

There were also four French men in their distinctive military attire.

The USO tour included several other brief stops; see the website listed below for an itinerary.

The most interesting by far was the Third Tunnel, which was one of four that North Koreans dug into South Korea, though as many as six others are suspected.

Third tunnel
This sculpture outside the Third Tunnel indicates the wish by some for reunification between the two Koreas.

The Third Tunnel, about three miles from Panmunjom, extends more than 1,400 feet south of the border between the two countries, drawn at the 38th parallel after the end of World War II.

The tunnel, which reached 240 feet in depth, was revealed October 17, 1978, after a North Korean defector coughed up details of its existence.

It was estimated that the North Koreans would have been able to mobilize from 10,000 to 30,000 soldiers an hour, with light weaponry, through the tunnel. Given its dimensions — 1.1 miles long, 6.6 feet high and the same distance wide — those numbers might have been overly optimistic.

Photos weren’t allow here either. Inside, water dripped from the ceiling and walls, creating puddles on the path. Naked light bulbs and spotlights provided dubious illumination. We had to wear blue hard hats to guard our heads, which we inevitably hit anyway, even though we were hunched over a good deal of the time.

Visitors who are even slightly claustrophobic might want to wait outside. The first section leading from the welcome center was at an 11-degree incline, and this same stretch had to be negotiated on the way out of the tunnel.

We slowly proceeded single-file, like a sluggish line of overfed ants. When we reached as far into the tunnel as we were allowed to go, we looked into a hole in the rock that might have been North Korea — or not. No signage gave any clues to whether we had crossed any boundaries.

At the turnaround, we had to squeeze by the other side of the line we had just been in. The tunnel was hacked from igneous granite, but that didn’t stop the North Koreans from claiming that they were extracting sedimentary-rock based coal (they painted the interior black) — not planning a surprise incursion. Exploring the tunnel took less than an hour.

One curious benefit of the no-man’s land that is the DMZ: Wildlife has thrived. Sightings of red-crowned cranes, Asian black bears, a type of goat relative and musk deer have been reported. In fact, the cranes winter in Korea, as do black vultures arriving from Mongolia. The Worldwatch Institute notes that as of 2016, the forest and grassland cover is home to 50 mammal species, 1,100 plant species, more than 80 fish species and hundreds of bird species.

Quick reference: USO DMZ tour, 7:30 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m. daily, except Sundays, Mondays and national holidays. Departs from and returns to Camp KIM. $92. A lunch stop is made but you pay extra for that. A passport is required. Casual clothes are acceptable, but ripped jeans, flip-flops, T-shirts, shorts and miniskirts are not. Reservations must be made at least four days in advance. You cannot visit Panmunjom independently, as in drive a rental car there. Other companies offer tours but check the itinerary to make sure they include Panmunjom and the Third Tunnel.

For information on other DMZ sites:


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