For her birthday, we decided to go check out a war zone.
We made arrangements to take a tour of the DMZ between North and South Korea through USO/Koridoor.
Besides getting up way earlier than we wanted to, we almost missed our bus from the USO. It was a two-hour ride to the DMZ Joint Security Area.
Once we got there, American Military Police (MP) checked the passports of everybody on the bus and reconciled it with the list of people who were supposed to be there. As this is a military installation in actively hostile territory, access is highly regulated.
We pulled up to the main JSA building at Camp Bonifas where we were given a waiver to sign indicating our understanding that we were entering an active war zone and if shit hit the fan and you ended up on the wrong side of the fence, nobody was coming to bail you out. This was followed by a brief Powerpoint presentation about the history of the DMZ.
What we learned.
The Joint Security Area is named such because security for the area is provided jointly by South Korean and United Nations troops (typically Americans, as a participating member). I am often disappointed with America’s wasteful military spending but damned if you don’t want them on your side when diplomatic relations go sour.
Purses, camera bags and other crap had to be left on the bus we rode in on. Coats must be worn, not carried. Flash photography is prohibited, and they made it expressly clear that we were not to initiate contact with the North Koreans or attempt to communicate with them in any way. The fear is that tour participants either will or have made in the past, obscene gestures at the North Koreans, which was recorded and used as propaganda by the North to reinforce how disgusting the rest of the world is.
Everything you do at the DMZ is monitored and recorded by North Korea. There are observation posts and cameras everywhere.
Boarding a second bus, we would be accompanied by an American MP for the rest of the tour. As a military installation, photography was not permitted except in designated areas. This is to prevent North Korean forces from being able to identify military assets by combing through tourist pictures, and to prevent idiots like those at VICE magazine from revealing exact GPS coordinates of things intended to stay hidden (Number one rule of journalism– protect your sources. Number two– don’t use technology you don’t understand the capabilities of just because it’s trendy).
For this reason, once at the official demarcation line (staring face to face with the North Korean troops), you are only allowed to take pictures of anything on the North Korean side. You may not turn around and photograph any of the South Korean facilities.
About the DMZ
The DMZ is an unfortunately positioned strip of land located between North and South Korea. There are two villages within the boundaries of the DMZ– one is neutral Daesongdong, the other is North Korean Kijongdong (the “propaganda village;” more on that later), so it’s not like it’s just a big strip of land littered with landmines and sniper towers (though both exist on the borders themselves).
The USO/Koridoor tour comes closest to, but does not enter, the village of Daesongdong. Farmers with ancestral ties to the region can work and live in Daesongdong, right in the middle of the DMZ, albeit under military curfew. The presence of the joint security forces in the area guarantees the farmers’ safety against North Korean advances even though the area does not align with either the North or South.
What would motivate anybody to want willingly live and work in an active war zone?
- Not everybody can be granted citizenship to this very unique village. You either have to be born into or marry into it, which means you have a sentimental attachment to it.
- You don’t pay income taxes to either country.
- The yearly salary of a farmowner in the DMZ averages USD $100,000.
- You are not bound to the mandatory military service requirements of either country (only if you were born there– marrying into it does not absolve you of your obligation).
- You have access to a post office and a school, so you’re not even completely cut off.
For all intents and purposes, it’s just a peaceful countryside. You’ll drive past rolling hills, local flora and fauna, observation towers and C4-rigged anti-vehicle blockades before arriving at South Korea’s “Freedom House.”
Due to the nature of the area (no pun intended) the DMZ has become a wildlife refuge of sorts. Quite a few endangered species have made the DMZ their home, and it is often speculated that the harbinger of their extinction will be peace itself. Once unification happens, rapid development will follow and destroy the habitat they have adopted.
The Military Demarcation Line
The DMZ is much like the American/Mexican border. Many assume there is a great wall or really long fence that divides the two countries, but as it is not the case in America, neither is it the case in the Korean DMZ.
For the most part, there are very few physical impediments to crossing the border, as it is more a conceptual boundary than a physical one. However, even if you found a spot to cross the line that was clear of landmines and shielded from sniper fire, you still have to consider what will happen to your family if you are caught in the process of escape or even if you succeed in doing so.
By terrorizing your family in order to force you to stay, North Korea has successfully militarized domestic abuse.
During the Cold War, Russian defector-to-be Vasily Matusak attended a DMZ tour on the North Korean side. At the MDL, he made a break for South Korean territory, and the North Korean soldiers made the mistake of chasing him across the border while firing their weapons, thus entering South Korean territory. It was open season. The South suffered one death and one wounded, and the North had suffered three deaths, five wounded and eight captured. Matusak succeeded in defecting unharmed.
Freedom House / Welcome Center / DMZ
Photographs of the Freedom House itself are not permitted, but when you see pictures of the blue buildings with the soldiers standing guard, directly behind the person wielding the camera is the Freedom House. The stone building at the far end, on the North Korean side of things, is North Korea’s equivalent “Welcome Center” (Panmungak).
The Freedom House was built by South Korea as a neutral ground for families of North Koreans separated by the border dispute to temporarily reunite, similar to the way visitation hours work in prison.
The facility has never been used for its intended purpose. Currently it sits empty and of no use to anyone. In what has become a recurring trend, anytime South Korea makes a concession or gesture of good will, North Korea defies it by doing the exact same thing with some degree of overcompensation.
Case in point– North Korea’s Welcome Center used to only be two stories tall. Upon the construction of the three-story Freedom House by the South, the North added an extra floor to their own structure so as not to be outdone.
The conference room
The leftmost blue building houses the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room, the only place one can freely cross the MDL so as to be able to claim they have set foot on North Korean soil. The room itself is used in discussions between the North and South in the hopes of achieving peace and ultimately, unification.
I have heard that no such talks have been held since the early 2000s, when North Korea refused to acknowledge South Korea’s standing as a legitimate member of the MAC. It seems to me like another weak justification for not having to play nicely with the rest of the world.
The MDL bisects both the conference room and the conference table. There were two South Korean MPs present in the room with us, but this changes depending on whether the North or South are running DMZ tours that day. One stood straddling the MDL, the other blocked the exit on the North Korean side of the room so nobody accidentally (or deliberately) tried to depart that way.
Military personnel stationed at Panmunjeom are the best of the best. A basic requirement is that they have spotless disciplinary records.
American servicemen tend not to enjoy their prolonged deployments to Panmunjeom. It’s understandable; things are generally quiet but you have to face every day not knowing if a surprise attack is going to happen (and given the North Koreans’ history, it’s always a very credible threat). Such events have happened before, such as the Ax Murder massacre that claimed the namesake of Camp Bonifas. More on that later.
The South Korean servicemen must have attained black-belt status in either Tae Kwon Do or Judo. Armed with pistols, they stand frozen in place, half-concealed by the buildings to intimidate the North and minimize exposure to gunfire. Having half of their body concealed also allows them to discreetly communicate using hand signals if necessary.
The ones not posted outside stood in a very specific Tae Kwon Do stance with fists at the ready.
Curiously enough all of the South Korean and American servicemen wore dark sunglasses to make it difficult to read their faces. The North Koreans did not feel compelled to do the same.
The other side
To the right of the blue MAC buildings there stands the “KPA Recreation Room.” It looks like a walk-in refrigerator and is constructed of lies, as there is no recreation equipment to be found inside. North Korea’s idea of recreation is pulling back the curtains and making obscene gestures at conference participants and South Korean guards alike, which has earned it the affectionate nickname “The Monkey House.”
In the distance is a North Korean observation post. There are cameras and sensors mounted on a pole in front of it. With them, they are watching your every move.
Between the observation post and the Monkey House there are some trees off to the right. Between these trees is a half-height, white post. Most of the MDL outside of the JSA area is demarcated using these posts so if you find yourself wandering the DMZ alone at night and you come across them, your night is about to get much worse.
Propaganda Village (Kijongdong)
Due to humankind’s predilection for thrill-seeking behavior, no point in the DMZ tour lets you linger long enough to get bored and do something stupid. So in very short order, we were back on the bus. Our next stop was Observation Post 5, a vantage point from which we could see Kijongdong, the infamous “Propaganda Village” of empty buildings.
So, another tale of dick-waving: South Korea built a flagpole in Daesongdong in the 1980s. Not to be outdone, North Korea decided they were going to build one too, but it had to be bigger. For a time North Korea’s Panmunjeom Flagpole in Kijongdong was the third-largest free-standing flagpole in the world but has since been demoted to fourth. The likes of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia now have bigger poles.
The flag itself weighs 600 pounds and must be taken down on rainy days, otherwise when wet it would rip itself apart under its own weight.
Supposedly, the only inhabitants of Kijongdong are a small staff of janitors and maintenance workers. Reports indicate that the lights turn on and off according to a set schedule, and furthermore, the lights are brightest at the top floor and grow dimmer as you descend. This indicates the structures are hollow and lit by a single light source on the top “floor.”
Tours of the DMZ used to include an additional stop at the North Korean-run Mount Kumgang resort, but that part of the tour was indefinitely suspended when in 2008 a North Korean soldier shot and killed 53-year old tourist Park Wang-ja after she wandered into a poorly-marked restricted area. North Korean authorities refused to acknowledge or apologize for the incident.
Make no mistake about it– while visiting the DMZ you’re under the protection of some of the best the world’s military forces have to offer, but you are still very much in an active war zone. Some people think it’s all just theater at this point but the North Koreans don’t fuck around when their sovereignty is challenged.
The Ax Murder Incident
There are those who speculate that the DMZ has become a theater show, but the North Koreans have proven time and time again to refuse to cooperate, outright renege on standing agreements without warning or just do things that are flat out crazy. The Ax Murder Incident is one of the latter cases.
In this photograph, the viewer has a clear line of sight to a small blue building in the distance. That building is United Nations Checkpoint 3. Directly behind it is a small bridge, known as the “Bridge of No Return.” The photograph is taken from Observation Post 5.
In 1976, this view was only possible during the winter months. For the rest of the year, a poplar tree blocked visibility of Checkpoint 3 from OP5– a fact that the North Koreans exploited by making multiple attempts to capture the personnel stationed at Checkpoint 3 and drag them over the bridge into North Korean territory. On one occasion, JSF personnel were held at gunpoint and Joint Security Force Company Commander Captain Arthur Bonifas was responsible for negotiating their release.
On August 18 of the same year, Captain Bonifas led a detail consisting of himself, ROK Captain Kim and 11 enlisted men to Checkpoint 3 with a mission to trim the tree. While this was happening, they were confronted and attacked by North Korean forces who picked up some of the axes dropped in the melee and hacked Captain Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett to death, injuring most of the others as well.
Three days later, Operation Paul Bunyan (no kidding) was launched as a show of overwhelming force. That goddamn tree was going to be pruned with extreme prejudice.
The amount of military infrastructure that was leveraged in this mission is both admirable and mind-boggling. DEFCON 3 was declared and the entirety of South Korea was put on alert in the event a full-scale war broke out over the destruction of this tree. Aircraft carriers were stationed off the coast and fighter jets and bombers staged to provide air support for the 800 soldiers actively involved in destroying the tree, with 12,000 more en route to Korea from surrounding Korean and Japanese bases as backup.
The North Koreans knew none of this, so when a underwhelming team of engineers were dispatched to the tree and resumed its pruning, a contingent of North Korean troops showed up to thwart the effort. As they approached, the helicopters were summoned, jets screamed over the horizon ready for a sortie, Kenny Loggins started blasting from hidden loudspeakers and a dozen bombers lined up to wreck North Korea’s day. The North Koreans watched in silence as the JSF finished the work Captain Bonifas’ crew had started.
In place of the tree, there now stands a memorial to Bonifas and Barrett just a few yards from the Bridge of No Return. Camp Bonifas was renamed to such as a result of the incident.
This bridge is called such because anybody who enters North Korea via this bridge, does not return.
This is not a hard rule though. When negotiations were favorable and North Korea decided to release hostages, they would be remanded to the UN via this bridge. The actions of North Korean leadership are not always predictable, however, and thus it is presumed that if you cross the bridge going north, there may not be a return trip.
Tour groups used to disembark at the Bridge of No Return and let visitors see the memorial and get close-ups of the bridge, but in 1993 then-U.S. President Bill Clinton insisted on walking across it, stopping just a few yards from setting foot on actual North Korean territory. Nowadays everybody must stay on the bus.
A USD $40 million facility that opened in 2002, the tracks connect North and South, but it has yet to run a single commuter train. Surrounding the complex are empty warehouses, parking lots and other facilities, all completely unused.
The only people around were the other members from our tour group, a few military guards and a lone souvenir vendor.
Not only is there no life here, there is no evidence that there ever was.
That’s the part that makes it creepy.
One thing we noticed a lot during our DMZ tour were uniformed recruits exploring all the same exhibits we did. It must be part of the mandatory military service requirement– after all, what better way to show draftees why their service is important than by showing them the threat that looms on the horizon and everything they have done (or not done)?
Leaving Dorasan, we stopped at Dora Observatory for a view into Kaesong Industrial Complex, North Korea. The view was way too foggy to see anything, but we did learn a bit about North Korean industry.
North Korea currently has some tenuous agreements with industries in South Korea whereby 100 or so South Korean companies can outsource certain types of work to North Korean factories at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. It’s a win-win situation; South Korean industries get cheap labor, and North Korea fosters some economic development. North Korean workers earn a whole USD $2 to $3 a day for their work and the government takes the bulk of their wages in taxes.
To achieve these ends, North Korea does permit certain South Koreans vehicular passage to Kaesong, though this is limited to those working in supervisory or executive positions.
Yep, if you’re a factory supervisor for, say, Hyundai, your commute may find you traveling into North Korea every day. At least, that would be the case if North Korea didn’t keep changing the terms of existing agreements.
Your commute may take you to North Korea, but whether you’ll be able to go back home (or whether your home even exists anymore) is always going to depend on the whims of Kim Jong-un himself.
The Third Tunnel
The Korean War was ended with the signing of an armistice agreement between the UN, North Korea and China. 25 years later, a North Korean defector brought to light the fact that North Korea was actively digging as many as 20 tunnels from various points along the DMZ to Seoul itself, through which it intended to launch surprise attacks.
They tried to deny it, claiming they were digging for coal and painting the walls black, but apparently simple geographic surveys show this area is known more for granite.
To date only four of these tunnels have been discovered. We got to tour one of them.
Well, I did. It was a pretty steep descent and a long, low-ceilinged walk, followed by an equally grueling climb back up but I am in peak physical condition (if not sunburned to hell) so it was no challenge for me.
- If you are not the corporeal manifestation of a god with the endurance of one to boot, you can still enjoy this tour. There are benches and rails along the main descent for you to rest on as you descend.
- If you are claustrophobic, you can still enjoy this tour. The tightest parts of the tunnel are still wide enough to fit 2-3 adults side by side. The ceilings are consistently low though. Expect to bump your head often.
- If you get winded easily and you are claustrophobic, do not go on this tour. You have to climb one hell of a hill and a lot of the underground parts are humid, both of which will exacerbate your anxiety.
Bring water to stave off dehydration. There is none below, nor restrooms.
Do not bring a coat. You will either die wearing it or get tired of carrying it. The tunnels are warm and humid and you will work up a sweat as you ascend.
Photos are not allowed in the tunnel, but it’s not exactly a military secret. Both the North and South know about its existence and specifications…
At the end, you’ll see the portal through which 30,000 North Korean troops per hour were intended to pour through to invade Seoul. The MDL is behind the second of three sets of blast doors similar to this one, and North Korea itself behind the third, though tourists are no longer allowed to even approach the first one. The entire tunnel is outfitted with video cameras monitoring traffic coming from the door (but not heading toward it, go figure).
I’m not sure which side built the blast doors, but I’m guessing it was the South based on the fact that the doors open from their side. This was never explicitly stated or implied, but I’m convinced the entire tunnel is rigged with C4 to cause a collapse if the North Koreans ever breached it.
After that we got back on the bus and dozed on and off as we headed back to Seoul.
What an experience! South Korea just can’t catch a break. If they aren’t being invaded by the Japanese, they’re being threatened with annihilation by the North.
They seem to take it in stride though. Their daily lives go on as though nothing is happening. More power to them.
(Happy birthday, baby!)