Wednesday, June 8, 2016

In the JSA and the DMZ

I decided to visit the Joint Security Area and the Demilitarized Zone while I was in Seoul. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the Orwellian name for the demarcation line between North and South Korea, and the several-kilometers-wide buffer zone that was established to keep both sides from easily invading each other. It is an ironic misnomer, because it is actually one of the most militarized zones on earth, with massive numbers of troops on each side, but ostensibly acting as UN peacemakers.

To get to this area, you have to go with a tour that has been approved by the UN. And there are some additional requirements for visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is a region jointly administered by both sides for any meetings or negotiations between the two sides. You have to apply 72 hours in advance, so they can do a security clearance on you. You also have to adhere to the dress code required in the JSA, which requires men to wear a button-down shirt, long pants, and close-toe shoes. Luckily, I brought one button-down shirt with me; it is insulated and also serves as my light jacket, so it will be a little warm, but I was able to take it off and wear my t-shirt underneath after the visit to the JSA. In the entire DMZ, you have to follow all commands that you are given, and if you fail to do so, you could be expelled, fined, or imprisoned, and your tour guide could be blacklisted. It is a serious place. They also let you know that this is an actively hostile area, an if any hostilities broke out between North and South Korea, they might not be able to protect you. Hostilities have definitely broken out, but not too often, luckily. But they get ugly fast if they do. Camp Bonifas, the first major stop, is named after a South Korean dude who was axe-murdered by a party of rampaging North Koreans who decided to come over the demarcation line and stir up some shit. But the Americans and South Koreans showed them, by gum. In response, they launched “Operation Paul Bunyan” in which they forcefully and aggressively cut down a tree that obscured their view. Take that, DPRK.

And you might think that North Korea would be the ones who would be starting all the shit in the area. But you would be wrong. Former Texas Governor Bill Clements, when he was Deputy Secretary of Defense, reported to Henry Kissinger in the 1970s that hundreds of secret sabotage raids of the North by the South had taken place. And who knows what hasn't been declassified yet. But I digress.

Our tour by bus left Seoul in the early morning and headed straight for the JSA, though we stopped briefly at Camp Bonifas near the border of the DMZ first. Shortly before crossing the Unification Bridge, which was the entry point to the DMZ, pictures were strictly forbidden most of the time, though they told us they would allow some photo opportunities later. And they were not kidding around. When we entered the DMZ, a soldier boarded the bus to make sure nobody took any pictures, and at one point, he confiscated someone's camera when he suspected them of taking pictures. I don't know if they actually took pictures or not, but they ended up getting their camera back.

After the brief stop at Camp Bonifas, we arrived at the JSA Headquarters, after passing through Daeseong-dong, a tiny village that is the only civilian community wholly contained within the DMZ. The JSA is in both North and South Korea, and the demarcation line runs right down the middle of the light blue buildings where any negotiations between the two countries takes place. When we got off the bus, pictures were still prohibited. We had to line up getting off the bus, and stay in the line while they told us which way to go. Then when we were facing the actual demarcation line, they allowed a photo op for just a couple of minutes. We had to line up in double file, and were not allowed to cross a line on the ground. We were also not allowed to take any pictures to the side and had to face forward. There was a gray building in the background behind the light blue buildings, which was the North Korean post. There are soldiers constantly facing each other down on each side of the blue buildings between the North and the South sides of Korea.

Then they allowed us to enter one of the blue buildings that straddled the demarcation line. Half of these buildings are in the South, and half are in the North. There are entrances to the buildings on each side of the building from both countries. They brought us in, gave us a brief talk about the rules, and then also allowed two minutes of pictures and an opportunity to cross the demarcation line into North Korea, but only within the building. So I actually got the chance at this point to cross into North Korean territory, briefly, and get my grinning mug photographed by another tourist while I was standing next to a dour security policeman.

Once we returned from the demarcation line, we passed by the Bridge of No Return, which is a bridge directly between the two countries. It has barriers in the middle so no vehicles can cross, and technically, pedestrians could cross but for the fact that they would probably be immediately shot at, as one defector guy found out once (though he did make it across without getting shot). They stopped the bus briefly near there so we could take pictures of the bridge; it was one of the few areas where we could take pictures. Then we headed to the visitor center of the JSA, they were looser about letting us take pictures there, and let us wander around within bounds and take photos fairly freely. But you definitely don't want to wander out of bounds anyway, because if you do, the area is pretty heavily peppered with land mines. I bought a couple of bottles of North Korean wine at the visitor center. It was bloody awful...I ended up abandoning it at the hostel when I left Seoul with a sign on it indicating it was free to any taker.

We then headed out of the JSA and DMZ for a lunch break in the village of Imjingak, safely back in South Korea. There is a little park there, and a cluster of restaurants, and our lunch was provided along with the tour, and was magnificent, consisting of a huge variety of Korean dishes, mostly vegetables but there was also some meat dishes. We all shared from among the bounty of food, and there was plenty to eat. There was an opportunity to walk around the little park and the group of monuments there, and when it was time to go, we changed buses. Some of us went on one bus, and some on another, because apparently all of the people going to the JSA were on two different tours, so the tour group split into two groups to go their separate ways.

Then we headed back into the DMZ again, but not near the JSA, so I was able to take off my button-down shirt and strip down to my t-shirt. We headed through a different checkpoint, and once again, pictures were prohibited for most of the journey. This time we entered a North Korean infiltration tunnel. The North Koreans bored several infiltration tunnels into the South so that soldiers could secretly invade the South. The tunnels were painted black so the North Koreans could cling to the facade that they were coal mines. As of now, four of these tunnels have been discovered, and the one we entered was the Third Infiltration Tunnel, also known as the Third Tunnel of Aggression. Apparently this one was discovered when there was some sort of explosion while they were making it. No pictures were allowed in the tunnel, although people were taking pictures at the visitor center for the entry to the tunnel. There was a steep descent to get down to the tunnel, and then the tunnel far below the surface was so short that I had to stoop to walk through it. Luckily, they issued us hard hats, because I banged my head repeatedly on the ceiling due to the fact that it was so low. Also, there were huge numbers of gas masks lining the walls just in case. You never know what those wild and crazy North Koreans will send through the tunnel...soldiers, gas, flames...many possibilities. After making our way through as much of the tunnel as they would let us into on the tour, we made the steep climb back to the surface.

Then we headed to Dora Observatory, which is on top of a mountain in South Korea, directly overlooking North Korea. You could hear North Korea playing propaganda music through huge speakers down below. They had binoculars up there that had stunning views of the North Korean towns below, but I tried taking pictures through the binoculars, and couldn't get it to work. You could take pictures and videos, but not of a full panorama because South Korean soldiers were standing over everyone's shoulders, making sure nobody took pictures of a fortress compound on the left, because they would have confiscated the camera and blacklisted the guide who brought us up there.

We next visited Dorasan Station, which is the northernmost railroad station in South Korea, and the railroad used to keep going north of there before the Korean War, but stopped running into North Korea once the hostilities happened. This was the last stop on the tour, and after that, we headed back to Seoul. The bus that I was on apparently had some shopping thing going on as the last stop, at some mall in Seoul, but I really didn't want to shop, so I abandoned the tour at this point and just took a subway back to the hostel.

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