Thursday, March 28, 2013

DMZ with my parents

One of the classes I am teaching this year is East Asian Studies and this includes Korean history.  I knew a fair bit about Chinese history, and enough about Japan to be comfortable teaching it in a high school. But moving here and teaching Korean history to Korean students made me nervous, so I have been reading a lot since last summer.  And now, I'm not an expert, but I am knowledgable about events in modern Korean history.  And recent tensions have led me to read more news and analysis, again I'm not an expert, but knowledgable.  (I'm more worried about traffic accidents and lightening strikes than I am about an attack from the North.)

So, for as long as we've been here I've been curious about going up to the DMZ.  The USO runs a tour that everyone seems to recommend.  Our school is taking a big group up there in a couple of weeks.  But with my parents in town I decided to take them- a little worried that all my efforts to convince my mom that we were safe would be undone by taking her to one of the most fortified places in the world. 

We had to be on the bus at 7:30 in the morning, and it takes at least an hour to get up to Yongsan, so I met my parents in the dark at 5:30.  One bus ride and three train transfers later we made it with about 15 minutes to spare.  There were at least thirty other people on the tour, and a woman named Clara was our tour guide.  She was very nice, and her English was solid, but I kept hearing how hard it is to say "demilitarized" when Korean is your native language.  

It takes about 90 minutes to get up to the area near the border.  Leaving Seoul, traffic started thinning and as we followed the Han river north we started seeing barbed wire, and then guard stations.  and Clara told us we were seeing North Korea across the river.  It didn't look any different across the river, but it felt strange recognizing the shift from massive urban area to highly defended border area. 

Barbed wire and guard station on the river

Much more barbed wire, and soldiers, and road blocks.  Definitely not in Seoul anymore. 

There are a lot of abbreviations associated with this area. We were ultimately headed to the Joint Security Area (JSA)- this is often called Panmunjeon, or the truce village.  The JSA is the only place North and South Korea come in contact.  At the end of the war the line that was drawn is called the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)  The Demilitarized zone (DMZ) is two kilometers north and south of the MDL, so 4 km total width, running all the way across the peninsula.  The southern border of the DPRK is at the top of the DMZ, the northern border of the ROK is at the bottom of the DMZ.  Except in the JSA where there two meet inside the huts on the border.  

The first gate we passed was going into the Civilian Control Zone (CCZ).  This comes before the DMZ and as the name suggests most civilians aren't allowed in this area, though a small number of Koreans live and farm in the "freedom village" which is different from the "propaganda village" in the north (one difference is the enormous flag pole in the north is taller than the enormous flagpole in the freedom village)

At the edge of the DMZ is Camp Bonifas.  When we got there our passport were checked , more than once.  We saw a slide show and presentation from an American soldier who would be our escort,  giving a broad outline of the war and the armistice. Then we switched busses and after a short drive past a highly electrified fence and tank defenses, and through a live mine field we were at the Freedom House.  Walking through we came to the huts where negotiations have taken place, with ROK soldiers standing guard and on the other side of the huts a single North Korean Soldier facing us from their building that mirrored the Freedom House.  Our escort told us the North Koreans were taking pictures of us so we should go ahead and take as many pictures back as we wanted.

North Korean soldier standing guard

My mom, looking very suspicious

My parets holding their central Pennsylvania newspaper.  (they publish pictures of people holding the paper  at landmarks when they travel- I think this one should get in)

Inside the hut we there were two South Korean soldiers standing guard perfectly still.  All of the ROK soldiers had their fists clenched, we were told it was the first position in Tae Kwon Do, they appeared ready for some hand to hand combat if it came to that.  The Military Demarcation Line runs through the middle of the hut, so as we walked in and walked to the far side we were technically crossing into the DPRK.

me in the north

We were told the microphones on the table were on and being monitored by the North Koreans. 

I was the last one to leave.  The soldiers still hadn't moved a bit. 

After the JSA there were several more stops.  We saw the site of the Axe Murder incident- which was just what it sounds like- two American soldiers were axed to death when they tried to cut down a tree that was blocking a line of sight.  The tree eventually got cut down with a massive amount of military back up.  Near there was the Bridge of No Return. At the end of the war in 1953 POWs were exchanged across this bridge, and once you crossed, as the name suggests there was no return.

Bridge of No Return

Propaganda village and the ridiculously huge flagpole.

 The last stop before lunch was the 3rd infiltration tunnel.  There are four tunnels that have been found, the most recent in the 1990s.  They were dug by the North Koreans under the border, they said they were looking for coal, and apparently even sprayed coal dust to back up the story. We were not allowed to take pictures, so below are ones from a google search.  My leg injury continues to heal, but it turns out a long walk down a steep incline was not the best idea.  It was 350 meters down to get to the tunnel, and then another 300 meters of walking in the tunnel, which was shorter than I am tall, so I was hunched over the whole time.  Fortunately we were given helmets because I kept banging my head. My parents gave up and turned back before the end of the tunnel but I pushed on.  At the end was a big door and through a window we could see a barrier the North Koreans had built, and a large water container, which Clara the tour guide told us was there to "flush back" anyone who tried to use the tunnel. After looking through the window I turned around and shuffled back to the beginning where I could stand up straight then climbed the long hill.  It was a claustrophobic and tiring experience.

It felt steeper than it looks here, and went on for too long.
I hit my head a dozen or so times
Finally we got lunch, my dad and I had bulgogi- he is getting better with the chopsticks after less than a week of practice, my mom had bibimbop, and said she enjoyed the seaweed, just like her grandson. 

And then, I thought we were returning to Seoul, but there was one more stop, at a train station, built to eventually connect Seoul and Pyongyang, but for now not doing much.  There was a big sign commemorating a speech given there by George W. Bush.  I'm pretty sure the speech was about freedom and evil doers and freedom from evil doers.  I didn't read it all. 

Sign for the train to Pyongyang, sometime in the future

A picture of me, taken by me, on train tracks where I'm not likely to be hit by a train.

After the train station we were done. 90 minutes drive back to Seoul.  The same hour long subway ride in reverse, then a short bus ride and we were home at Good Morning Hill a little before 5. 


  1. What a day!! A very interesting experience to be sure and thanks for sharing!Jane Sullivan

  2. Very interesting & keep up the great writing- I'm learning more now than ever.