The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – Most Heavily Fortified Border on the Planet
DMZ is the most heavily fortified border on the planet, with over a million soldiers on both sides ready to pull the triggers to each other in a matter of hours. For anyone who plans to be in South Korea on business or vacation, this place is not to be missed.
All of these refer to one spot on the Korean Peninsula that very few would ever conceive to be able to visit. Why? Because the DMZ is the most heavily fortified border on the planet, with over a million soldiers on both sides ready to pull the triggers to each other in a matter of hours. The highest concentration of firepower resides along this area in what hopefully will be the last remains of the Cold War. Now, who in their right mind would want to visit an area where more than 50 Americans, 1,000 South Koreans and countless North Koreans have died in skirmishes over the past 40 years, and is still dotted with land mines, razor wire and concrete tank bunkers? Surprisingly, a lot of us would. So, if you’re looking for a little action, then this is definitely the place for you.
The DMZ is not some mere historical site where one can casually browse around at what once was. Rather, it is a mix of what was, what is, and what is to come. All along the DMZ are sites where the North and South have had confrontations in the past, while at the same time there could be confrontations at any time to come. But that is where the true excitement of visiting such a place as this lies. You know at once that you’re not at some museum when you are asked to fill out release forms informing you that your visit “will entail entry into hostile area and possibility of injury of death as a direct result of enemy action.” Every year, about 180,000 tourists are bused up from Seoul to spend a day in the clean air and wide-open spaces of the last remnants of the Cold War. For anyone who plans to be in South Korea on business or vacation, this place is not to be missed? it’s one of the most bizarre and most fascinating places you can reach in a tour bus. Sounds fun doesn’t it? Well, if you’re up to the danger, and you think it’s a good day, then the DMZ is a nice escape from the dull, sheltered lives that most of us lead.
In the middle of the DMZ, about an hour and half bus ride to the north of Seoul is Panmunjeom or the Joint Security Area. Panmunjeom is the “truce village” where the armistice was signed in 1953 ending the Korean War and splitting the peninsula into North and South. Since then it has been the scene of on-and-off dialogue between the free South and the communist North. Almost all the tourists who come up here are foreigners because South Koreans need a special government permit to visit Panmunjeom. Many of the visitors are Americans, including some who fought in the Korean War, their families, history buffs or just backpackers trekking around Asia looking for a little counterintuitive tourism.
As soon as your tour bus leaves Seoul, you start to get the idea that things are a little different here. “Freedom Road (Jayooro),” the only way to Panmunjeom, is a major divided highway that is about 12 lanes across in some places. The median strip is massive and flat, just right for a wave of tanks and artillery to head north to repel an invasion. What are those odd little structures up on almost every hill? Yes, those are machine gun emplacements. And so are those piles of sandbags on the median strip. The road stretches along the banks of the Imjingang River, which is lined with one continuous eight-foot fence covered with razor wire and dotted with hundreds of military watch posts, all manned by a solitary soldier. The river itself is filled with nets and spikes and other obstacles to prevent North Korean soldiers or vessels from coming south. Huge lighted signs bearing Korean letter face the North Korean side of the river, touting “Freedom” and “Democracy.” And at times along the way, you can hear the propaganda of both sides over the loudspeakers right next to you or far off in the distance.
Camp Bonifas Upon arrival, the bus passes a series of checkpoints, which are separated by fences and barricades that the bus must weave in and out of. Upon entering the Joint Security Area, visitors will encounter large banners and signs with the most clearest and succinct expression of the situation, “In front of them all.” First stop is Camp Bonifas, a small collection of buildings surrounded by triple coils of razor wire just 440 yards south of the DMZ. If it weren’t for the land minds and armed soldiers, the place might look like a big Boy Scout camp. About 5000 U.S. and South Korean soldiers live in Bonifas and other bases close to Panmunjeom. After unloading the bus, everyone is escorted to Ballinger Hall where a briefing and slide show are held to lay down the dos and don’ts of the area. Then everyone is scurried onto the JSA bus to start on the dangerous expedition.
From that point on, tourists in the DMZ are under constant guard by UN soldiers. They keep tourist from straying out of authorized areas, but mainly they are there to protect the visitors from enemy attack. They also make sure tourists take pictures only at authorized spots, as almost all photography here is banned. First along the way is the infamous one-hole golf course, which Sports Illustrated named, “one of the most dangerous gold courses in the world.” Next is the scene of where it all takes place. On each side of the border is a large three-story visitors’ center. Steps lead down to four blue one-story structures, which cross the borderline and are designated as the meeting place for the officials of both sides. On the side of the South, stand decoratively dressed South Korean soldiers who are also wearing sunglasses. They stand at the corners of the blue buildings, half-exposed in what is called ROK (Republic of Korea) ready position, a semi-Taekwondo stance. Their appearance is intended to intimidate the North and the reason they stand half-exposed is to have cover in case of an attack. Looking across the way, visitors will see a lone North Korean soldier standing at the doorway of “Panmungak,” the North Korean visitors center directly across from the South’s.
He rarely moves, only to occasionally view the tourists through a pair of binoculars. The only other visible soldier is the officer sitting next to a window within the building. He is the one responsible for alerting the whole battalion of soldiers waiting on the other side of the building in case of emergency. Along the borderline in either direction, are lookout towers every 100 meters, which do the same. There exists an atmosphere of high tension created by the military presence and the seriousness of the local personnel. But, there are times when one cannot escape the temptation of finding some humor in the whole situation. Tourists are warned not to make eye contact or gestures of any kind. If a tourist waved, a North Korean soldiers might take a photo that could easily end up in a Stalinist propaganda publication with a caption like, “Defector begs a glorious patriot from the Korean People’s Army to save him from Imperialist oppression.” Nobody takes this too seriously, but it’s still against the rules to wave and point. This is not London where everyone tries to make the palace guards move using any means necessary. The trick is to keep a poker face: no blinking, no smiling, no flashing a quick obscene gesture, no going cross-eyed to see if you can crack his stone-cold stare. Just don’t do it. God forbid one harmless motion from a tourist cause an outbreak of war.
Awaiting the tourists is an even bigger treat in that they are then escorted inside one of the blue buildings. Here, they will find sound booths on both ends with a long conference table in the middle of the room. Along the center of the table is a thick wire leading to a microphone being monitored 24 hours a day by both sides, so be careful what you say. This wire designates the international boundary between North and South and tourist are allowed to cross that border within these buildings. So not only can one see the North, they get the opportunity to stand in it.
CHECKPOINT 3 AND THE BRIDGE OF NO RETURN
Following the up close encounter with the North, the bus travels along a dusty trail to Checkpoint 3. Atop a hill, this seemingly plain shack is a favorite spot where one can see clear into North Korea itself. Kaesong, a major city in the North, is visible on a clear day along with the North Korean flagpole that stretches way up in competition to the flagpole in the South. This spot is quiet and serene and seems almost too peaceful to be so dangerous. At the bottom of the hill is the Bridge of No Return, named rightfully so because when crossed, there’s not much chance that one can return in one piece. You can walk about half way across until you reach the demarcation line where a UN soldier stands to prevent you from going any further. After that, it’s back to Ballinger Hall where, following a bit of souvenir shopping, the bus back to Seoul awaits.
The DMZ provides a breath of fresh air and a little excitement to tingle your senses. If you are ever in the vicinity, take a risk and visit the final barrier that stands between East and West. It will definitely be an experience you will never forget.