Looking south on the border from North Korea
KOREAN DEMILITARIZED ZONE — Even on the South Korean side of the border — the sane side, right? — actual facts can sometimes be difficult to come by.
On a tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, the facts tend to differ from tour guide to tour guide, dates and distances and time spans, ticking up in intensity as the border grows closer to the tour bus.
Of course, stories aren’t needed to tick up the intensity. The view outside does that well enough as the bus motors past buzzing military installations, idling armored vehicles and drilling platoons of soldiers.
“What’s in that line of bunkers?”
“Can’t answer that,” replied U.S. Army Private Jeremy Earp, one of the day’s tour guides, one who didn’t ask to be here, explaining the complexities of the Korean conflict to Australians, Europeans and Americans each paying $130 to look back in time at the Cold War.
He didn’t join the Army to give tours, he said, though he’s taken to it well enough and admitted his mom’s fine with it.
“You can guess,” he offered.
“Is it artillery?” someone asked.
“That’d be a good guess. I mean, they are right there for people to see.”
Scariest day on the job?
A visit from a dignitary required Earp to stand guard outside the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, the village with the long blue buildings that represent the DMZ and the border in the minds of many. He put his toes up against the one-foot-wide concrete rise that marks the border, then stared eye to eye with a North Korean counterpart 12 inches away.
A close second for “scariest day” was the time when a North Korean soldier defected across the border last December right in the area the tour visits, “just by the wall,” Earp said, gesturing to a spot about 20 yards away as wide-eyed tourists craned their necks to see.
The soldier who tried to defect was shot five times, and it became an international incident, but the real problem, at least in Private Earp’s world, was the loyal North Koreans who also crossed the border in chase. They only took a few steps, quickly turning back, but that’s where a real incident was avoided.
Earp salutes the South Korean guards who ever so briefly held their fire when they’d had a chance to kill.
He wasn’t on duty that day, at least not initially, but was called away from his workout in the base gym and spent most of the day sitting ready for battle several miles away from the actual action — all of which was concluded long before he was even in position.
There was something funny that day, Earp said. Multiple North Koreans gave chase to the defector, but only a few actually fired. What gives?
By studying camera footage of patrolling North Koreans — everything that can be seen seems to be taped — some on the South Korean side suspect many of the North Koreans actually carry wooden pistols. Even those who do actually carry weapons do so with very little ammunition.
“I’d hate to be in the middle of it with a wooden pistol,” Earp said. “I’m glad my country’s never done that to me.”
With fake guns and loose facts, little on the Korean border is as it seems.
Duck, squint and wine
A tour of the DMZ starts safely enough in a hotel lobby in Seoul, but it doesn’t take long, rumbling north by bus, to get a glance of the other country, the forbidden one, North Korea.
At first, it’s just on the other side of a wide river, one dominated by huge blocks of ice in early February, but one North Koreans are known to brave every so often. So, guard shacks and razor wire await on the South Korean shore.
That’s as close as $130 will get a tourist for the first two-thirds of the Holiday Tours & Travel Korea LTD tour.
There are interesting visits, but nothing mind blowing.
There’s a tunnel, the “Third Infiltration Tunnel,” dug by North Koreans in the 1960s and uncovered by, depending on who’s telling the story, South Korean engineers or a defecting North Korean. It took years to actually discover thanks to the extensive land mines that covered the area. (Don’t get too far off the tour route, by the way…)
Visitors climb down to the tunnel, then can walk with it for several hundred yards. It requires a hard hat, not just to please an insurance company but because American after American banged their heads on rock as they hunched over and made their way along.
Another stop offers a distant view of North Korea through a pair of binoculars from the Dora Observatory.
There’s plenty to see.
The city of Kaesong, one of North Korea’s larger cities, is visible in the distance. A propaganda village is closer, and there, at least from the tour guides, details can differ. It’s not inhabited now but has been or features a few residents now but never a significant amount because, as a careful study of the shadows in buildings’ windows show, most of the buildings are little more than walls, entirely without floors to mark each story.
There’s a huge North Korean flag, too, perched atop a towering flag pole. It’s taller than a South Korean version it faces across the DMZ, and that’s no accident. The Korean DMZ has no shortage of flag-pole measuring exercises.
Finally, the tour takes visitors to Dorasan Station, a railway station that will one day connect North and South. One highlight there includes a “To Pyongyang” sign above the railway.
Another highlight is North Korean wine, for sale without any real explanation as who’s doing the selling, who’s doing the providing and who’s doing the wining. The price has gone up, tourists are told, because it’s not as plentiful as it once was.
A lunch break separates the group, those who paid the extra to go to the Joint Security Area and Panmunjom and those who took the trip to see a tunnel, binoculars and an empty train station.
The drama ratchets up as the bus turns north.
Hot border, cold day
The Korean DMZ is just 2.5 miles wide, and it stretches from coast to coast, the remnant of a cease fire that, for all practical purposes, ended the Korean War in 1953.
The village of Panmunjom is the site of the Joint Security Area, the place where soldiers stand eye to eye with their counterparts, where North and South Koreans meet when they absolutely have to and where tourists simply gawk, at least before trying to quickly snap a selfie at what’s presumably one of the most dangerous spots in the world.
The actual border between North and South Korea is not quiet, and a tour quickly reveals as much.
The U.S. Army facility is Camp Bonifas, named after Captain Arthur G. Bonifas, one of the soldiers killed in the 1976 axe murder incident.
It’s not the only JSA location with a back story — everything seems to have one, down to the lawn in front of the Freedom House. North Koreans chased a Soviet defector to that lawn in 1984, and a gun battle ensued.
The entire situation is tense, with careful rules established for tourists.
They must wear pants, not shorts or skirts or dresses that cover the knee. Sandals and flip-flops are a no-no, and sneakers are recommended. T-shirts are not allowed, and collared shirts are required. Don’t even think of coming with “shaggy or unkempt hair.”
It’s worth noting no dress code check was implemented on a tour on a cold February afternoon when nearly everyone was bundled in a coat, though it was mentioned by a guide at least once.
The tour winds through a series of camps and facilities, past a set of bunkers that you’re allowed to assume contain artillery and eventually, ends at the Freedom House, a large, modern building just on the South Korean side of the border.
Head up a set of stairs, through a wall of glass doors, and the border awaits.
Visitors are given a chance to visit one of the long, blue buildings intended for meetings between the two nations. Drift to the north side of the border-straddling building and the view out the window is of the border, except from the other side, looking into South Korea.
Stern South Korean guards man every station, ensuring no one’s insane enough to try to open the door on the North Korean side, no one gets too out of hand with photos and no North Korean units offer trouble.
The South Korean guards stationed outside the building stand with half their body protected by the structure, anything to give their enemies less of a target.
The tension is palpable, the moment intense and the experience far more memorable than a small tunnel, a distant view or a useless train station.
But even face to face with the surreality of North Korea itself, not everything is as one would assume.
There were no North Korean guards on duty outside keeping their eyes open for shaggy-haired Americans, no visible snipers looking for a reason to shoot, no one on the North Korean side doing anything visible at all.
And once the tourists left, the steely faced South Korean guards left their posts, as well, to return inside and warm up, allowing one of the most dangerous points in the world to return to peace and quiet.
Even here, at the border where East meets West, where Communism meets Capitalism, where history meets today, no one’s crazy enough to stand outside in the cold without a good reason.
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Sunday June 20, 2021