Yesterday, I got up and went and visited a sight that I have seen on TV more than I can remember. It is also a sight that I have spent a lot of time talking to friends with (whether they wanted to hear about it or not, but that is what they get for being friends with a news junkie). I was lucky enough to get the last seat on a tour going to the Korean DMZ, separating North Korea from South Korea. It was quite a surreal experience.
In order to even get a seat, I had to first apply to the tour company. They took down my full name, passport number and nationality and sent it along to the U.N. Forces currently patrolling the DMZ. Once approved, I met the tour guide at their headquarters in downtown Seoul. A group of about 40 of us all got on a bus drove an hour north to our first military checkpoint. Here a soldier checked our passports against a manifest he had. Once cleared, we drove another 15 minutes north. We arrived at Unification Bridge (known to the locals as the cow bridge because of the 1,001 cows that were once driven across it by the founder of Hyundai to give to the people of North Korea) was full of roadblocks that forced our bus into a zig-zag pattern. Once past those, we drove by a stockpile of spikes and anti-tank road blocks position in the center of the road, ready to be deployed at any moment.
We shortly arrived at Camp Bonifas (named after an American Captain who was murdered with an axe by some North Korean soldiers in 1976) where we had to go through another security check. Here, they not only checked our passports once again, but also looked at how we were dressed. There is a strict dress code to visit the DMZ. The DPRK has been known to take photos of visitors to the DMZ and use them as propaganda against democracy. Once cleared, we made our way into the military base. This base is a combination of Korean and American soldiers, and UN forces. We watched a presentation of the history of the area. They informed us that we would not be able to play on their golf course, which is a single hole, par-3, that is surrounded by a minefield. I also had to sign a paper that said I recognized that I was entering a hostile and potentially deadly area and that, even though the military would try to help, they couldn't guarantee my safety. The bus we boarded next was owned and operated by the Military to get us into the DMZ (that's right, we weren't even in the DMZ, yet). Five minutes down the road we were met by another military vehicle (this jeep had some mean looking dudes with weapons in it) to escort us in. This vehicle was with us the entire time we were north of the southern military demarcation line. Right before we officially entered the DMZ, we passed the three lines of defense. First was a concrete tunnel that we drove through. This was rigged to explode and collapse onto the roadway and slow down enemy tanks. The next line of defense we passed was a minefield with approximately a quarter of a million land mines within it. The last line that we passed was the simple electricrified, barb wire, chain link fence that separates South Korea from the DMZ. I was now in an active war-zone heading towards the border.
We reached an area that had three or four buildings. One was where the leaders from the three neutral countries that are patrolling and enforcing the armistice are stationed. The second was a building where NGO's can meet (the Red Cross, etc) and the third was a building that has never been used. It is a building less than 20 meters from the border that was built with the intention of using as a meeting place for families that were separated by the Korean War to meet and then go back to their respective countries. It has never been used because the DPRK will not allow its citizens to meet with their South Korean families. The entire trip so far was tense. The mood here quickly got even more tense. We passed a few guards that were at the 'ready position'. Hands at their side, next to their weapons and facing North Korea. We passed through the unused building, exited and came face to face with North Korea. Here was a small building that straddled the border. It is a place for the leaders from the two countries to meet. When they leaders are not meeting, the building is open to whatever side gets there first. Since there is no communication between North and South, the building gets secured based on whoever calls dibs and gets in the building. Since we arrived first, the North door was locked and the south was open. We walked into the meeting room where the microphones are running and recording 24hrs a day and crossed the border into North Korea. There was a South Korean guard standing in front of the north door and there were South Korean guards posted on the South side of the building in the same 'ready position' as the guards we passed on the way in. We snapped a few photos before our time in the room was up. Back outside, we were able to linger a moment. Looking back across the border, I started to notice few things. One, there were a ton of cameras pointing at us from the north side. There was a lone North Korean guard standing attention on the steps of the building on the North Side. Every 15 seconds or so, he would raise a spotting scope and scan our group. He did this until we left.
From here, we boarded the bus again and started back to Camp Bonifas. On the way, we passed a few checkpoints, including the site where two Americans were murdered with axes by the North in 1976. We passed by a village that lives and farms within the DMZ. All of the men in this village are direct descendants of South Koreans from before the Korean War. Women can marry into the village but men cannot. This village farms tea and ginseng, which is supposed to be some of the best in the world. The South Korean government buys and exports most of their products.
The land within the DMZ was pristine. Since there has been little to no human involvement with the land here in 50+ years, it has turned into an uninteded nature reserve. The landscape was absolutely beautiful and full of wildlife. It was easy to forget where we were. We headed back to Camp Bonifas, visited the gift shop where you could buy a few North Korean Products, returned to our civilian bus and exited the DMZ where they stopped us and did a head count to make sure everyone was out. From there, we went down the road to see a train that was blown up by the North during the beginning of the Korean War. It has since been turned into a Memorial. From there, we headed to a restaurant close by for lunch.