Note: Posting this in fall 2017 because of the timely heightened tensions of late — and because it’s always striking to be reminded of how long this situation has taken to develop. This is based on notes and recordings from 2004, but they could just as easily be from this year. Little has changed… at the border, that is.
January 28, 2004
I woke up at 6 a.m. to catch the bus to Seoul. I have to be at the Lotte Hotel, where a travel agent has arranged for all the tourists to meet. We’re to go to the DMZ.
I’m the only American and only one of two whiteys. The other is a Canadian woman. The rest are Japanese, about twenty or thirty of them.
So I have to sit with the Canadian.
“Where are you from?”
“Manitoba.” I idly wondered if she knew Melanie, one of the people in the Hwangung foreigner group. She’s also from Manitoba and I’ve slept with her. But that strikes me as like thinking all black people know each other. Not likely.
“I’m here visiting my friend Melanie.”
“Does your friend live in Hwangung?”
“Yes! How did you know that?”
“That’s where I live. I know her.”
The odds must be astronomical.
A bus takes us from metropolitan Seoul into the countryside. They have two translators going, one for us and one for the Japanese.
It’s not long before the roads are lined with barbed wire and small cement guard stations, spaced out at regular intervals. I’m sitting in the front seat of the bus. A ROK guard is standing right in front of me, whispering to himself, as though reciting something.
Specifically, we’re going to the Joint Security Area, the most visible symbol of the armistice that ended Korean War hostilities. It’s a place for both sides to meet and air grievances about matters related to the armistice, and other more mundane matters of maintaining it. It’s the bookmark in time they placed when they agreed only to stop fighting, not to end the war.
A collection of buildings in an atmosphere of hostility, and, at the moment, snow, ice, and browned January foliage.
It is known by many names and has many bodies associated with it. Besides the JSA, it’s also known as Panmunjeom, for the farming village that used to be here. And because of that it’s also called the Truce Village. The US-controlled half of the JSA we’re going to also is called Camp Bonifas, and United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission Headquarters Area.
The United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area are the US-ROK forces stationed there. The South Korean soldiers are called KATUSAs, for Korean Augmentation To the United States Army. These Republic of Korea soldiers also are known as “ROKs”, a lucky happenstance of the English language for giving a sense of toughness. Ready to rock and roll. Strong as a rock.
There also is a farming village, just 226 residents but alive and functioning, called Daeseong-dong, and an area for the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. This is staffed and run by Swiss and Swedes whose job is to independently observe that the armistice agreement is being lived up to.
And then of course there’s simply “the DMZ”, the name people usually use. So much more daring than your usual tourist sightseeing spot. Travel businesses cater to this, offering tours of Panmunjom and DMZ “infiltration tunnels”. And that’s precisely what drew me in.
Tensions are in the air. “Five days before the 50th anniversary of the signing here of the truce that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953, American and South Korean officers were busy Tuesday, planning what they call a ‘commemoration,’ not a celebration,” reads an International Herald Tribune article from last year about this place.
“The ceremony comes as reports of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program provoke fears of a far deadlier conflict than the one that killed more than 2 million people after the North invaded the South in June 1950.”
When I called to make my reservation, they told me I couldn’t wear jeans or sportswear. This is to be treated seriously and respectfully. At least part of that, I believe, is out of respect for the North Korean government’s wish to shield its people from displays of western wealth and modernity. One can imagine North Korean uniforms complaining in their usual blustery way about it at some past meeting.
They had us sign a waiver at the hotel before we departed. [This is from a legit internet source, see reference folder. But I also recall having some such document like this from the trip. The paper that informs me of the danger? Dig it up when back in the US, because I can’t find the scan.] “The visit to the United Nations Command (UNC) Military Armistice Commission Headquarters Area (MACHA) will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a result of enemy action. The MACHA is a neutral but divided area guarded by UNC military personnel on the one side (South), and North Korean People’s Army (KPA) personnel on the other (North). Guests of the UNC are not permitted to cross the Military Demarcation Line into the portion of the MACHA under control of the KPA. Although incidents are not anticipated, the UNC, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and shall not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.”
“UNC/ROK military personnel will wear appropriate service uniform prescribed by their service for wear. Other visitors will be dressed in appropriate civilian attire so as to maintain the dignity of the United Nations Command.”
“Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions which could be used by the KPA side as propaganda against the UNC.”
A stop at the Odusan Unification Observatory gives us glimpses of the North in the distance, across the
Han River, half covered in ice, at a point where it meets the Imjin, a river flowing from the North. It also has trappings that make me momentarily forget we’re in an area of present high global security tensions. Display cases containing North Korean military medals, primary school classroom textbooks and stationary, liquor, toys including guns and binoculars. One display case has everyday items like toothpaste, a toothbrush, comb, fingernail trimmers, keys, paper clips, and batteries, none of which are all that different from anywhere else. We are shown a room made to be a replica of a typical North Korean classroom. Photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang above the chalkboard.
There’s even a souvenir shop. I buy two bottles of North Korean wine for my grandmother and myself. It’s more like your standard goofy tourist spot, with some winking jest pointed at the weird North Koreans, as if it were an exhibit of some unfortunate nonsense of the past.
Then it’s back to the seriousness as we head to the JSA. We’re instructed not to take photos at certain points heading in.
The whole place has the feel of being a Cold War relic. The last holdout of that era. Signs and posters, of both sides, have that feel.
“Bunker No. 3, Alpha Sector”
“In front of them all”
“Wear your Kevlar and seatbelt at all times,” reads a sign on the road that depicts a skull and grabbing hands.
Phrases like “the Ax Murder Incident” and “Bridge of No Return” are tossed around.
ROK soldiers are standing on one side, North Koreans on the other, all of them with zero humor in their faces.
A military helicopter takes off in front of us.
Then comes a one-hole golf course to titillate us. “The World’s Most Dangerous Golf Course, as featured in Sports Illustrated”, reads a sign. “Danger! Do not retrieve balls from rough live mine fields.”
At one point, our tour guide, a Korean woman, points to a flag on the North Korean side. “There’s the famous North Korean village, the Propaganda Village.” It’s supposed to convey how orderly and functioning the North is. “Nobody lives there, but the US magazine Soldier of Fortune offered one-million dollars to capture the flag over there. Do you wanna try?”
We go down to a line of small white and blue buildings situated right on the “MDL”, or Military Demarcation Line, the actual border line separating the two countries. A North Korean guard stands off in the near distance across that line, looking down at us from the top of some stairs. The stairs lead into a sturdier building that precedes their path to these small buildings. The whole time we walk about, the eyes of North Korean soldiers are upon us.
Quoted in that International Herald Tribune article was a Private First Class Michael Choate from Texas, who showed the writer around this place. Because the Canadian and I are the only non-Japanese in our group, we get a personal tour from this very same guide.
He tells me he’s been doing this for almost a year and is ready to move on to “bigger and better things”, like the Iraq War.
“Then you’ll have been at the two most controversial places.”
“Absolutely. Looking forward to it actually. A lot of people outside of the military are really just like, why would wanna do that? It’s one of the main reasons why I joined up.”
“You’ve got the skills, might as well use them, right?”
He’s relaxed and easygoing, and he clearly gets a kick out of sharing the strangeness of this place with others.
Choate leads us into one of the buildings. The JSA conference room. It’s the size of a bedroom. Wooden tables and chairs, blank blue walls. Some closet-sized rooms in opposite corners.
It’s situated right on the MDL. The line runs through the middle, bisecting the room. There’s a door on each side. Meetings happen here.
That is, when goofily grinning tourists aren’t getting their photos taken from “inside North Korea”. We take turns stepping into the North side of the room for photos.
A South Korean soldier stands in front of the door to the North. He’s in a “modified taekwondo stance”: Legs apart, elbows bent, fists clenched at the waist. Immovable facial expression. Jaw and mouth set. Helmet, dark sunglasses. Sharp uniform. They stand like this, motionless for hours.
“That’s what we call ‘ROK ready’,” Choate says. “That’s all to present a more intimidating stance towards the North Koreans.”
I can only hope the idiot half-drunk Western tourists who must come through here are kept from being too disrespectful.
Choate points to a line of microphones sitting on a table. The microphones are lined along the MDL. “They are also monitoring and recording 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by our (Joint Duty Office), not the North Koreans. Everything said right now is being listened to. They’re also observing us through that camera right there, so there’s nothing that goes on in here without them knowing about it.”
On the outside of these buildings, the ROK guards stand facing the North, with their bodies half concealed by the wall they’re standing by and the other half exposed.
“That’s just to cut the silhouette in half. In case they’re fired upon, it’s a smaller target to hit. That’s the only reason for that. Over your shoulder here, we have a case of flags…” Choate goes on to explain why the flags are encased. President George W. Bush and former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung once had a meeting in this room. “After the meeting was over, they shook hands, and at about that same time they had two North Koreans who had crossed over to this side and proceeded to spit shine their boots with the American flag — yeah, big, big no-no — so they actually put (the flags) inside that case in the hopes that it wouldn’t happen again, make it harder to target.”
When less formal meetings are held, the North Korean will “drink whisky, they’ll smoke our cigarettes, They’ve grown quite fond of our Marlboros — Marlboro reds, Marlboro lights — they actually try to sneak out with some whenever they leave.”
There have been attempts by North Korean soldiers to grab South Korean soldiers and pull them through their door. And, Choate tells us, they have kidnapped residents of Daeseong-dong, the farming village nearby, and held them for ransom.
“Matter of fact, the last time they did that, they kidnapped an old lady, and she caused so much grief they ended up giving her back. ‘We don’t want this lady no more. Here, take her please.’ So that has happened before too. The last time was about five, six months ago.”
“Really, that recently?”
“Yeah, because that MDL runs right through their village.”
Skirmishes and disputes have happened over the years. Some are comical, like arguments over the size of flags and flag towers. Over at the “Monkey House”, as Choate calls one of the North’s buildings, guards make silly throat-cutting gestures, thinking they being scary.
Others have been deadly serious. Our Korean guide tells us of the 1976 Ax Murder Incident, where two US soldiers, Arthur Bonifas and Mark Barrett, were axed to death by North Korean soldiers, who got upset over the US soldiers trimming some poplar trees on the Bridge of No Return, which the MDL also runs through.
In 1984, there was the “defector incident”, a case of a man from the Soviet Union, on a tour of the JSA on the other side, who sprinted across the line, sparking a 21-minute gunfight that left one South Korean and three North Korean soldiers dead.
In 1975, a fight broke out between a US major, W.D. Henderson, and some North Koreans. Henderson ended up on the ground with a North Korean soldier’s boot on him and his larynx crushed. Little did I know, a few years later I would end up meeting a South Korean photographer was there and captured one of South Korean media’s most famous images of the scene.
Our Korean guide points to some propaganda across the distance. Big white letters in Korean, arranged at the tops of little hills. She translates the predictable messages. “Yankee, go home.” “Our leader is No. 1.” “Kim Jong-un is the strongest of the 21st century.”
When leaving, I get an unexpected twinge of homesickness. It is controlled by my countrymen, after all. This inhospitable, 800-meter-wide place noted for its bizarre flavor of scariness also is a little piece of America.