Ok, so the De-Militarized Zone, right. Phew, I’m overwhelmed. I’m exhausted at the thought of trying to document everything I saw and learnt. Let’s start with the basics:
The De-Militarized Zone or ‘DMZ’ is a 4km wide and 250km long band of land that divides the border between North and South Korea, 2km of the width belong to the South and 2km by the North. The border is heavily guarded (the most heavily guarded border in the world) on both sides. It was designated at the end of the Korean war in 1953 and hasn’t changed much since, it being, the consequence of a stalemate. Technically, these countries (with polar opposite ideologies) are still at war with one another, though this strip of land keeps that war to some extent, at bay. The JSA or Joint Security Area is the only populated area of the DMZ and it is where both forces face off on a daily basis.
The first stop on our tour was the Freedom Bridge.
Let me back track, our tour guide was called Mr. Kim. He called Kim Jung Il his ‘brother’ because they shared a last name. I’m not sure if this was because whilst in the Joint Security Area he wasn’t allowed to mention Kim Jung Il so by calling him his brother he could openly talk about him, or because he was a bit weird. He was very enthusiastic and nearly the whole journey he was giving us information about the history of the DMZ. He also filled us in on the rules of visiting the JSA.
The rules: No pointing (it might look like your pulling out a gun), no reaching for things inside pockets (it might look like your pulling out a gun) if the North Korean guards think you have a gun, they will shoot you. No questions asked. No torn clothing. No sandals, high heels etc (you need to be able to run if things kick off), no photo’s (only when you are told to take photos can you take photos), you will walk in orderly lines to the designated areas of the tour. There were more rules, but I forget.
So, the first stop was the Freedom Bridge. This bridge was where the last train to enter the North and vice versa rode across; it is also where the repatriated prisoners of war and serving soldiers returned from the North. It is right on the DMZ fence and there are several roads that lead into the North here. There are wishes and dreams of reunification and freedom stuck to the fence in this area, mostly written by Koreans but there were some English signs as well. You can also see the train that came from the North, it is full of bullet holes and is rusted into an early grave, but it sits there, a monument to the past.
Next we arrive at the first military checkpoint to have our passports checked before entering the DMZ. Then you enter the second checkpoint where your passports are checked again along with your dress code, once you’ve gone through a few more checkpoints you get to Freedom House, essentially the Joint Security Area visitor centre. We sat and watched a presentation about the Korean War, the DMZ, and North Korea. It was an interesting presentation albeit a biased one, with some strange assumptions getting made throughout (thus seems to be the way with Korean tourism). After this, before you know it, you are back in your coach, and you pull up outside a rather grandiose looking building. You are lined up. You walk up some stairs. Bang. There you are. The JSA. North Korea. There is a North Korean guard who stares at you from the other side, when the tour group steps out it is his job to take photographs of you and watch you like a hawk through binoculars. You are instructed not to make any eye contact with the North Koreans and not to gesture to them in any way.
There is a line of concrete in the middle of the road which is the actual border line between North and South Korea. The buildings on either side of this line are for meetings and negotiations and you are directed into the centre building. Followed by armed guards who stand with you in the building whilst you look around, this is where you can actually step foot on North Korean soil. The border line in this room runs along the centre table and in-between the legs of the guard standing in the middle. You are instructed not to touch him and not to walk between him and the table, oh, but you can take a photo with him. Weird.
So, what would happen if you were to just run for it? Well, this would be the most ridiculously stupid place to do this, however, if you were from the South running North, the South Korean guards would do everything they could to stop you, but if you made it, there’s nothing they can do. The North will probably not shoot at you and will take you in for questioning and try and find some use for you. Apparently there’s some German guy who comes every year and tries to make it across, apparently he thinks he’s destined to save the North Korean people. What a douche.
Now, if you’re coming the other way, from North to South, it’s a different story. In 1984, a Soviet tour guide did a runner. Several North Korean guards followed him across, guns blazing. South Korean guards fired back and eight North Koreans were shot, three killed. Yeah. I know!
After you’ve experienced this for a while you are escorted out and then led back to the coach. You drive around a little more, you see the bridge of no return which is where the two countries orchestrated their POW exchanges after the war. It is aptly named because any POW who crossed this bridge was never allowed back. The dramatic tensions of this somewhat alludes me, I guess it was tougher if you were North Korean.
You also pass a plaque which is where a tree used to stand. What’s that about? Well, back in the 70’s, in the summer months this tree would block the view of the South Koreans watching another South Korean outpost. So, in 1976, the South decided to chop the tree down. This led to what is now known as the 1976 Axe Murder Incident, a stupid name if you ask me. Basically, they tried to chop the tree down, the North got pissed and started yelling ‘Stop’, they didn’t stop so the North retaliated, the North Koreans grabbed some axes and clubs and went cave man on their asses. They killed one US soldier and injured others. The next day, the South came back, with a convoy of 23 vehicles and sixteen men with chainsaws to chop the tree down, oh and 2 lots of 64 armed guards, 20 utility helicopters, 8 attack helicopters, fighter planes and the works. The tree was chopped down. Now there’s a plaque.
From here you can see the North Korean ‘proper gander’ city. There stands the tallest flagpole in the world and atop that the second largest flag in the world. In the city beneath this, there is nobody. Nobody lives there, nothing goes on there. The North Koreans just got jealous of the flag that the South put up, so they put up a bigger one. South Korea has a farming village, so the North had to build a city. This is what they’re up against, a jealous, fascist, sociopathic infant.
They have a gift shop. I got some North Korean wine, and a shot glass. It is ridiculous to have a gift shop at the most heavily guarded border in the world though, right?
A fascinating trip however and there’s no way I can chronicle it all here, but hopefully that gives you an insight into my visit to the JSA.
What else did they have in the gift shop? Oh, bits of the fence, t-shirts, key chains, the usual. What a strange situation. Who knows what is going to happen?