Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Nose to Nose with the North - A DMZ Tour: Part 2

Click here to read Part 1 of this post if you haven't already.

After lunch, we went to Camp Bonifas, a UN Command post located a few hundred metres south of the DMZ.

After watching a presentation on the history of the Korean War and the DMZ, we were escorted by an American soldier to the Joint Security Area, which is comprised of a series of buildings located directly on the demarcation line between North and South Korea. It is the place where negotiations and diplomatic engagements between the two countries have traditionally been held. In the photo above, an ROK soldier stands solid as stone (rather appropriate since ROK can be pronounced like "rock"). When taking the photo, Angela and I were standing on the north side of the diplomats' table. In other words, we technically stood in communist North Korea for several minutes.
While we were there, a group of North Korean soldiers wandered past, chuckling to each other about something or other. Pity I didn't manage to get a very good photo.
Me, standing next to another ROK soldier, still on the North Korean side of the building. Apparently these guys are trained black belts in taekwondo, so we were told not to get too close!  
Afterwards, we were allowed to get a better view of the blue conference buildings from outside. We faced the north for several minutes, taking photos as a distant North Korean soldier eyed us with binoculars.
Apparently North Korean guards like the one in the distance are often posted for 12-hour-long shifts. I wonder how boring it gets looking at fat western tourists all day long. 
The JSA is the only portion of the DMZ where North Korean and South Korean guards stand face to face. The reason some of the ROK soldiers stand cusped on the edge of the conference buildings is to minimise the risk of getting caught in bullet-fire whilst still maintaining visual contact with the North Koreans.
This North Korean building was apparently filming our every movement.
We took a short bus ride to a nearby observation point located on a small South Korean "peninsula" jutting into North Korean territory. We were surrounded on three sides by the DPRK.
We had a good view of the North Korean settlement of Kijong-dong, otherwise known as the Propaganda Village. No one actually lives there, and many of the empty buildings are mere slabs of concrete with windows and doors painted on. The North Korean flag hanging from the tower in the middle of the town is one of the largest in the world. 
Just like at Dorasan, you can easily tell where South Korean territory ends and North Korean territory begins by looking at where the trees stop. The broadcast tower in the picture apparently blared communist propaganda for many years, though it was silent when we visited.
Our guide points out various points of interest across the North Korean vista.

Back on the bus, we passed a memorial to the Axe Murder Incident, in which two US army officers were killed by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers in 1976. The officers were killed for attempting to cut down a poplar tree that was obscuring the line of sight between a UN command building and an observation post. One of the officers killed was Captain Arthur Bonifas, after whom nearby Camp Bonifas is named.
We also briefly saw the Bridge of No Return. At the end of the Korean War, when an armistice was reached between North Korea and South Korea in 1953, prisoners of war from both sides were exchanged at this bridge. Prisoners who chose to go to North Korea instead of staying in the South were unable to later change their minds, hence the nickname: The Bridge of No Return. Our guide also shared with us an interesting anecdote about Bill Clinton's visit to the bridge back in 1993. Apparently, the then-US President was having photos taken by the south side of the bridge when he decided to walk across it. US and ROK soldiers had to tackle him and drag him back in order to prevent him from being fired upon by the north.
Back at Camp Bonifas, we toured one last gift shop before our journey home.
A photo of Barack Obama's visit to the DMZ in March, 2012.
Angela tries on a mask. I don't know what kind of mask it was, but let's assume it was a traditional North Korean mask so that it earns its place in this post.
I don't usually buy souvenirs, but I decided to purchase some North Korean currency just in case I ever really get to spend more than a few minutes in the country.
Soon we had to bid farewell. Catch you later, North Korea!
As we exited the DMZ, we crossed a bridge lined with South Korean flags, overlooking a river frozen to ice.
Finally we arrived back in Seoul, a city which seems so far removed from the peculiarities that lie less than 30 miles to the north.
This DMZ tour was one of my favourite experiences I've had since arriving here. The whole thing felt like a highly immersive Cold War history lesson in a surreal open air museum. Except the DMZ is not just a relic of the past, but a modern day conflict zone, in which bitter, unresolved politics of a bygone generation continue to tear a culture in two. One thing that doesn't come across in my photos is just how regimented and strict the tour was, with our American soldier-guide forming us into orderly single-file lines and forbidding us from gesturing or waving to the North Korean soldiers that watched us inquisitively from the other side of the border. And did I mention that we had to sign a form essentially absolving the USO of any blame in the event that we be killed by soldiers? These sorts of details constantly reminded me of the serious, sombre and utterly unique nature of this 150-mile-long land border, which remains the most heavily militarised border in the world, despite the Korean war ending sixty years ago.

If you're interested in visiting the DMZ yourself - and in case it's not clear, I consider it a pretty essential experience for anyone visiting Korea, whichever side of the border you're on - you can book a tour through the USO via their website.

1 comment:

  1. Wow that was nice! :) you girlfriend looks great modeling also.
    You should post the link from the videos you makes and Post it in YouTube.
    You Blog is interesting because in YouTube you never find this area you show us.
    Very well and described adventure. For sure some day you grand sons will admired it like me.
    Peace and Blessings
    Alex Jorge :D