That was our tour guide's advice on Saturday. Maybe I'd better back up.
Our friends Joe, Tara and Nate are here visiting us this week. They came on Friday night, when I picked them up at the airport after an excruciating bus ride spent in traffic. It was great to see them, and that night we stayed up late talking and being generally silly in the hostel. It was great fun, but it didn't make the 6 am wake-up any easier.
Saturday morning we had reservations for a DMZ tour. We got up at 6 am and stumbled our way to the USO office by 7. We were loaded onto a bus, full mostly of US military personnel, and driven up to the DMZ. The tour guide was a very enthusiastic Korean man who was under the impression that he spoke much better English than he actually did. So, he babbled on and on, and all the people on the tour came to the joint conclusion that we could understand maybe 40% of what he was saying.
The JSA-- inside the DMZ. The blue buildings are UN Conference rooms where talks are held. The white building is North Korea's "Welcome Center"...from back when they tried to get people to defect by walking across the border. Not possible anymore.
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is a buffer area of about 2.5 miles between North and South Korea . The actual border is within the DMZ, and it's called the Military Demarkation Line. It's actually not technically the border, since there is still technically a war since there was never a truce signed, just a ceasefire agreement. There is one place, the JSA (Joint Security Area) where any crossing takes place, and it is where talks are held, humanitarian aid is sent across the border, etc. The JSA is administered by North Korea and the UN Command for the DMZ (mostly South Korean and American forces...in 2004, control was handed over to the South Koreans while American forces remain in support positions).
Another view of the JSA at the border.
Since we went on a USO (United Service Organizations- a non-profit that supports the troops with programs and goods overseas) tour, we were able to enter the DMZ and the JSA. We went to Camp Bonifas, the base closest to North Korea. It's inside the JSA, on the South Korean side. It was fascinating. I've never been on a base before to begin with, but this was surreal. There were barbed wire fencing surrounding it, we drove by fields of land mines, but inside the camp were basketball courts and a temple. The most iconic thing we saw was what Sports Illustrated dubbed "The World's Most Dangerous Golf Course." It's one hole, and is surrounded my landmine fields. Our tour guide pointed out, "It's not a good idea to go get your ball out of the woods."
Our guide was a ROK (Republic of Korea-- South Korea) soldier who spoke excellent English. We drove around with him inside the DMZ on UN buses--bright blue and flying the UN flag. After talking to him a little, we found that he went to Cornell University for two years, and was on academic leave to do his compulsory 2 years of military service. All Korean males have to do 2 years, and he figured he should get it over with, instead of waiting until he graduated from Cornell and potentially have to turn down job offers. He studied political science and economics, and though a little quiet at first, turned out to be an entertaining and informative guide.
Our ROK Soldier Escort/Guide
We were perfectly safe throughout the whole tour-- there were armed soldiers all around and plenty of cameras watching for any sign of conflict or problem from the North. That said, tensions have been mounting a little lately between the Koreas. This is because the ROK and the US are set to start joint military exercises this week, which the North always condemns as 'invasion practice.' Actually, the day before we went, there were talks at Panmunjom (the JSA area where talks are always held) held about the treats from North Korea. Don't worry, this is routine sabre-rattling, but it was really cool to me that there had been talks there the day before we went.
Inside the UN Conference Room in the JSA...aka where it all goes down.
Most talks are held in the UN Conference Room in Panmunjon that straddles the border between the Koreas. It's basically a blue trailer, with guards on either side. The ROK guards stood in a "modified taekwando stance," basically with clenched fists and at alert, the ones closest to the border half-hidden by the building in order to "present a smaller target."
ROK Soldier on guard, half hidden.
See the raised part on the ground just past the door? That's the border.
They also all wear sunglasses for added intimidation. That seems a little silly...they're heavily armed and surrounded by guard towers and cameras and more artillery than I care to think about, but sunglasses are going to make the difference. But I must admit, they looked pretty hardcore. I wouldn't mess with them.
A South Korean soldier looking intimidating
The conference room is small, with a table that sits 8 people-- 3 from each side and 2 interpreters on the ends-- with UN flags. There were ROK soldiers guarding it, but the border runs right through the middle. We were informed of this when half of us, myself included, were standing on the far side of the room. Our guard pointed out the border (which is set in concrete on either side of the building) and said "Those of you on that side of the room, you're in North Korea." It was crazy!!
The tour was fascinating for me, because I'm an international relations dork, and because Korea is the only country in the world that's divided. It's eerie how they're technically at war, but still there's groups of tourists hanging out on the frontline. Only the USO tour can go into the DMZ, but when we went to the other sites, including an observatory still used by ROK guards, there were busloads of people. It's strange to see soldiers on high alert next to tourists joking around. We were informed that under no circumstances may we point, gesture or attempt to communicate with any North Koreans. And we did see some, in the JSA, standing guard on their side. I also saw a group walking on a hill to a guard tower, maybe 200-300 meters away. Even when we couldn't see them, we knew they were watching our every move.
A North Korean soldier on the other side of the military demarcation line.
What we could see of North Korea consisted mostly of mountains and fields, though there were a few villages visible, one of which was the Propaganda Village. This was built by the North to blast propaganda at the South over an extremely strong loudspeaker 24/7, trying to convince them to desert to the North. This stopped in 2004, when the South Korean government got tired of it and started blasting their own propaganda and K-Pop 24/7. (K-Pop being Korean Pop music) Having heard enough K-Pop blasted from stores around here, I'm not surprised the North gave in.
Propaganda Village and huge North Korean flag...
The North claims there are 200 farming families living in the village, and that there are functioning hospitals and schools, but the South claims to have seen very few people in the village. In fact, apparently you can see through telescopes that there is no glass in the windows and no rooms in the buildings. There is also a HUGE flag flying over the village. I mean huge. It weighs 600 pounds and is 160 meters tall.
On the South side, there's also a propaganda village, though they call it a "Freedom Village." In it live a few hundred farmer families who live there for free, farm on tracts of land much larger than the average farmer elsewhere in the South, and don't pay taxes. They are heavily guarded, though, being in the DMZ. They even have armed guards standing with them while they farm. They have to be in their houses at sundown, and lights out at 12. It also has a huge flagpole and a huge flag, though not nearly as big as the neighbors to the North.
Propaganda on both sides. The juxtaposition of high military alert and cheap souvenir shops. This trip was fascinating. Something to think about, especially to my politics and sociology-enthused mind.