Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

Recently, a friend and I went for a tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas. It was our chance to briefly peek into the ever-shy North Korea. Dressed in nice clothes (no army fatigues, ripped jeans, short skirts or shorts, bare midriffs, “faddish” or “extreme” clothing, flip flops, “gangster” or “biker” clothing, or sportswear allowed) and passports in hand, we arrived at USO’s Camp Kim in Seoul early one Saturday morning.

On our bus ride to the DMZ, we were entertained by our Korean guide, who frankly shared her personal opinions about North Korea. She said that towers in North Korea block all communication signals from South Korea so “their people are kept deaf and dumb.” Her mother apparently was a refugee during the war, so her anger with North Korea stems from her mother’s experiences with the communist country. She added at the end of her mini family history, “Communism is a lie---all red liars!”

After our arrival at Camp Boniface (motto: “In Front of Them All”) in Panmunjeom, we signed a waiver that reminded us we were technically in a war zone and that death is a possibility. We also picked up some badges to wear at all times during the tour, just to let everyone with guns know who we were and encourage them not to shoot us. We watched a short video that outlined a brief history of the DMZ. For someone who at that time really didn’t understand why Korea was divided in the first place, I thought the video was both interesting and beneficial.

From there, we went on a drive past The World’s Most Dangerous Golf Course (active landmines included!) to the Joint Security Area (JSA). Our group was divided in half so our behaviour could be better monitored and controlled by our US Army tour guides. We were led single-file through the clean, modern Freedom House out to the back, where we could look at the North’s side of the DMZ. Buildings here are somewhat scattered; there are actually some South Korean buildings officially on the North Korean side, and likewise some North Korean buildings on the South Korean side. But it’s all kept organized by colour: brown buildings belong to North Korea, blue buildings belong to South Korea. Soldiers wear coordinating uniforms, too; blue for the South, brown for the North.

DMZ soldiers

South Korean soldiers stood strong and tall behind buildings, half hidden as to better protect themselves against attack. All South Korean soldiers wear matching sunglasses to protect their identities, and it works because they all look remarkably similar. A single North Korean soldier stood on the steps of the North Korean building we faced. They were like statues. We were reminded not to gesture in any way to any North Korean soldiers we saw because it could be considered some sort of silent communication, which undoubtedly would get us in some big trouble.

We entered the UN’s Military Armistice Commission (MAC) building that stands on the border on both North and South Korean land. A long table sits in the middle of the room so the sides can talk. A permanent microphone on the table records everything said in the room at all times. A UN flag sits at the top of the table and no one is allowed to walk around the table at that end as some kind of nice, symbolic gesture towards the UN’s efforts, I think. Standing around the table at the side closest to the door we entered, we were in South Korea, but standing around the other side, we were officially “in” North Korea. A South Korean soldier stood on the North Korean side with us and we were clearly instructed not to attempt to walk behind him. He stood completely still as we visitors took turns taking pictures beside him. He would make an excellent statue. We had heard that North Korean soldiers sometimes peek in the windows during these tours, just to see what’s going on inside, but they unfortunately left us alone on our tour.

Scene of the DMZ axe murder incident

Scene of the DMZ axe murder incident

After our few exciting minutes standing in North Korea, we headed to the area around Checkpoint 3---the location of the horrendous Axe Murder Incident of 1976. There are numerous observation huts in the JSA so both sides can observe actions on the enemy’s side. Back in the seventies, there was a 30 metre tall poplar tree that blocked the line of sight between South Korea’s Checkpoint 3 and Observation Post 2. That observation post is the closest post to the border and is very close to the Bridge of No Return that connects the two Koreas. Because of its proximity to North Korea’s side, there had been numerous kidnap attempts on South Korean/US soldiers at that post. On 18 August 1976, some soldiers were sent to trim the tree in order to clear the line of sight for the South Korean and American soldiers. During the trimming, some North Korean soldiers appeared and demanded the soldiers stop the work. But they continued trimming the tree and a short but deadly confrontation resulted. During the brutal thirty second attack, two United States Army officers were killed by North Korean soldiers wielding axes dropped by the tree-trimming soldiers. The tree was later cut down, and a plaque now sits at its old location as a tribute to the two fallen soldiers.

We got a little closer to the Bridge of No Return in our tour bus. The bridge is the only bridge that crosses the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and connects the two Koreas in the DMZ. Prior to 1968, it was used to return prisoners, when prisoners were given the choice to return to their home country or remain in their captive country. But once they crossed the bridge, that was it---no chance of returning. As intimidating as its name is, it’s actually a rather unimpressive construction. It’s a simple concrete bridge with four bright blue concert pillars to block motor vehicles from crossing. Trees and bushes crowd the bridge from both sides. It’s hard to imagine people crossing the bridge to North Korea, knowing that they couldn’t ever return to South Korea, but I guess it’s a choice some people actually made.

Bridge of No Return

Bridge of No Return

We could also see the North Korean town of Kijungdong, which is called “Peace Village” on the North side but nicknamed “Propaganda Village” by South Korean and American soldiers, located just two kilometres from the MDL. It’s supposedly home to about two hundred residents, but it’s been suggested that the only people who live there are soldiers. Undoubtedly, its pride and joy is the flagpole---the world’s tallest. It stands 160 metres tall and is topped with a North Korean flag that’s about three storeys tall and weighs six hundred pounds. The flag is so big that it has to be removed when it rains or snows to prevent it from being ripped under the extra weight. When we were there, the wind was certainly having a hard time getting any action out of the heavy flag. Propaganda messages from Kijungdong were once frequently heard across the border, but an agreement between the two sides was made a few years ago and most propaganda has been stopped.

From there, we boarded the bus and left the JSA, joining the dozens of other DMZ tour groups for the remainder of the day. We were taken to Dora Observatory on top of Mount Dora and got another view of Kijungdong, this time from above. The building was strategically built so that we couldn’t see too much without the aid of binoculars, and no one was allowed to take photos unless it was from behind a marked photo line. Intimidating soldiers were carefully watching us to make sure we all followed the rules---I did.

Finally, we ended our tour with a walk through one of the tunnels dug by North Korean soldiers. We donned bright yellow hardhats and sauntered down a wide tunnel that led us to the Third Tunnel situated over two hundred feet underground. The Third Tunnel was discovered in 1978; it’s one of four tunnels discovered (so far) in the area that were designed by North Korea to be used in a surprise attack on South Korea. I enjoyed the signs intermittently posted along the walls that simply read “Up” and “Down” with corresponding arrows---as if we couldn’t figure out our location on our own. Once we got to the Third Tunnel, I was surprised at how small the tunnel actually is: only two metres tall and wide. I had trouble keeping my hat and head away from the ceiling. But, as small as it is, it can accommodate a surprisingly large number of soldiers to carry out an attack. Adding to the semi-claustrophobic atmosphere was the fact that tour groups were parading through the tunnel in both directions. The walls looked fake, like they were painted grey as some sort of stage prop. In fact, signs say that the walls were painted to make the tunnel look like a coal mine---the excuse used when the tunnel was discovered. But unfortunately for North Korea, the tunnel is mostly granite rock, which means no coal. At the end of the tunnel, I was greeted by a steel door and some barbed wire that encouraged me not to go any further, so I turned around and headed back above ground into the sunshine.

A DMZ tour is an amazing opportunity to observe this divided nation at war, up close. The DMZ itself is only four kilometres wide (two kilometres on either side of the border) and extends the full width of the Korean peninsula. The Korean DMZ is the most heavily armed border in the world, with barbed wire, tank traps, automatic artillery, landmines, and probably more. My friend observed that it's not so much "demilitarized" as it is "dehumanized."

The lack of human interference has allowed the area to flourish in true wild form, as the home to birds, bears, and deer. Conservationists hope that when the two Koreas unite (everyone is, for some reason, rather optimistic), the area will be left as it is. After a day of observing the hostility that is fired back and forth across the border between both sides, we left with this image of peace and unity for the future of one Korea.

I highly recommend the USO's DMZ tour, which you can book through this website. The tour starts at Camp Kim USO, which is a short walk from Samgakji Station Exit 10. You can take either the (light blue) Subway Line 4 or (brown) Subway Line 6 to get there. 

Don't forget your passport, and make sure you follow the dress code outlined above.