Our Visit to the Scariest Place on Earth

Yesterday we went on a tour of the DMZ and Panmunjom right on the border of North Korea, one of the most socially isolated and mysterious countries in the world. Justin and I have watched multiple documentaries on the cold war that has existed between the North and South Koreans for the last fifty years, and we were both really excited to get a glimpse of it ourselves. According to our tour guide, it is the only nation in the world with racially homogenous people on either side of the border engaged in such a lockdown. And yesterday we had a chance to travel to the inside and experience the military tension between the two sides for ourselves.

Our tour began bright and early, at 7:20 in the morning at the City Hall station of Seoul. It was a very small tour group: Justin and I were accompanied by just one other couple—an American guy and a Japanese girl. The morning portion of our tour was to Panmunjom, an area of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that is off-limits to Koreans. The rule has only been in effect since 1997 when a South Korean woman and her son who were near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) were abducted by North Korean soldiers and held captive for four days. After the United Nations Command (UNC) investigated their disappearance and traced it back to the North Koreans, the woman and her son were released; however, it was decided that for their own protection, South Koreans would no longer travel so close to the Military Demarcation Line (the border between North and South), and security for tourists holding a foreign passport would be increased.

It took about an hour for our tour bus to reach the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a name that seems a bit deceiving considering the heavy military presence there. It was something like driving down a highway and arriving at a toll booth, except that the toll booth was bordered on each side by heavy barbed wire and military guards dressed in full combat gear. A U.S. soldier climbed into our tour bus and examined everyone’s passports, and then rode the rest of the way with us to the visitor’s center on the base of Camp Bonifas. He pointed out points of interest during the drive, including the fact that the ground bordering each side of our narrow street was peppered with buried landmines, and he also forbade us from taking any pictures that weren’t specifically authorized. You’ll notice that most of the pictures I share with you are views of North Korea. It is only pictures of military buildings on the South Korean side that we were forbidden from photographing, for fear that we might sell them to the North Korean military, giving them some sort of intelligence to use against the United Nations Command. The military personnel posted at different checkpoints were there to ensure our safety, but also to make sure that we obeyed the very strict rules of our tour.

At the visitor’s center, the U.S. soldier escorting us (and also acting as our tour guide), gave us a brief PowerPoint presentation outlining the history and current conditions of the DMZ. Then it was back on the bus, and he escorted us to the Joint Security Area (JSA), the point on the map where the Military Demarcation Line and the infamous 38th Parallel intersect. The Joint Security Area is home to these famous little blue buildings that Justin and I have seen in so many documentaries and pictures of visiting delegates—the UNC Military Armistice Conference Buildings. As far as I know, these are the only buildings in North or South Korea that actually sit on the Military Demarcation Line, meaning that half of the building is in South Korea and half of it is in North. Representatives from both sides can use these buildings as a neutral meeting zone if there is any discussion that needs to take place or documents that need to be signed. And on our tour, we were permitted to enter one of the blue buildings and take photographs. In fact, we were even allowed to cross to the other side of room, meaning that Justin and I have both officially set foot onto North Korean territory. (None of the North Korean soldiers were willing to stamp our passport for us though—I wonder why? However, we did receive a commemorative stamp during the afternoon portion of the tour….more about that later.)


In this photo, Justin is standing on the South Korean side of the border, and I'm standing in North Korea.

Most of the “battling” done at the DMZ these days is mental warfare, along with a lot of provocation and silliness (mostly on the North Korean side). During their long hours of guard duty, the North Korean soldiers have been known to make faces at the soldiers on the southern side, sometimes even making hand gestures to mime shooting a gun, or drawing a finger across their throat in a “you’re dead” manner. Because of their antics in one Joint Security Area observatory located on the North Korean side, UNC soldiers have nicknamed the building “the monkey house.”  There was also a situation a few years back in which two North Korean soldiers were caught on surveillance cameras entering one of the blue conference buildings and removing two national flags from the wall. One soldier used the United States flag to shine his boots; the other soldier blew his nose into the South Korean flag. This prompted UNC soldiers to remove the silk flags hanging on the wall and replace them with framed miniatures that cannot be removed.

However, North Korean soldiers do not take kindly to tasting a bit of their own medicine. If fact, we were strongly warned multiple times before entering the JSA to avoid waving our arms, gesturing or pointing to the North Korean side, or making any sort of communications, vocal or otherwise, to the North Korean soldiers. We had to keep our hands where they could be seen and leave any purses or bags on the bus. They apparently had an issue with a man on a recent tour who arrived at the JSA and began digging around in his fanny pack to pull out his camera case, which was seen by the North Korean soldiers as provocation. He could have been pulling anything out of that fanny pack—a gun or a hand grenade! The UNC soldiers immediately escorted the man off of the premises with no harm done, but they use the story as a cautionary tale for tourists just to emphasize how important it is to obey the rules they lay out.

The South Korean soldiers also go to great lengths to avoid provoking the North Korean soldiers. They have been accused in the past of making faces and/or wiggling their eyebrows at the Northern side (which the North Koreans of course will gladly use as an excuse to initiate an attack and begin World War 3), so now every South Korean soldier wears aviator sunglasses. This way, they can keep an eye on the North Korean soldiers, but the North Korean soldiers cannot actually make eye contact with them. South Korean guards make sure to keep their faces blank of any emotion, and they keep the identical pose seen in the pictures above—feet slightly apart and hands clenched at their sides. This pose displays their strength and power without seeming overtly aggressive. It is also actually a Tae Kwon Do position; each South Korean soldier stationed at the DMZ has been trained in martial arts and hand-to-hand combat.

After getting our private tour of the conference room, we left to get back on the bus. Incidentally, the South Korean soldiers were also permitted to retreat back into the warm indoors, as they were only on guard outside for our tour group’s protection. However, whether because of lack of surveillance equipment or as an overt display of commitment to the job, our tour guide informed us that there is always a North Korean guard standing on duty outside at the JSA. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, rain, snow, or shine. I was interested to see that the building we passed through on the way back to the tour bus had a lushly decorated interior, with plush sofas and crystal chandeliers. Our tour guide explained that this building is called The Freedom House, and it was built to host family reunions between family members from South Korea and family members from the North. Unfortunately, these walls have never yet seen a single family reunite.

Next, our tour guide escorted us to an observation checkpoint on a hill that was so far into the DMZ that we were actually surrounded by North Korean territory on three sides. From the hilltop, we were able to see several famous landmarks, including the Gijungdong Village, nicknamed “Propaganda Village” by the UNC soldiers because all of the apartment buildings, restaurants, and stores in that area are completely empty of any inhabitants, and exist purely for show. Interestingly enough, there is a South Korean village located not too far from Gijungdong called Taesongdong. These two villages are the only civilian residences located inside of the DMZ, and Taesongdong is likely the only one that is actually inhabited. Taesongdong has been nicknamed “Freedom Village” by the UNC soldiers. It is a small town comprised of little more than 400 people who were granted permission to stay on their land despite the aftermath of the Korean War. This village has farmland, homes, stores, restaurants, a school with about twenty-five students in attendance, and many, many surveillance cameras. Though it may seem like uncomfortable living conditions, the government really takes care of its residents. The people are provided with government housing, and they pay no taxes on their land or their incomes. The students’ education is completely paid for, including tuition to any Seoul universities of their choice. And of course, the most important detail here is that no one is forcing these people to live in this compound. If they decide that they want to move out of Taesongdong and become “normal” citizens of South Korea, no one is holding them back.

Propaganda Village

We had a great view of both of these DMZ villages from the hilltop, and we had the chance to take pictures of their famous competing flagpoles. Apparently, the North Koreans were first to build a giant flagpole in the center of Propaganda Village, prominently displaying the North Korean flag. The South Korean side saw it and thought it was a good idea, so they built a flagpole in the center of Freedom Village displaying the South Korean flag; however, they made their pole a little bit taller—about 100 meters. The North Koreans saw this as a provocation to “flag pole battle,” of course, so they tore down their flagpole and built a taller and better one. In fact, their flagpole stands at 160 meters and waves a flag the size of a house, making it the biggest flagpole in the entire world! The South Koreans declined to raise their stakes, conceding to leave their 100 meter flagpole untouched.

We were also just barely able to make out a radio tower on the North Korean side, used by the government to jam any radio, television, or WiFi signals from making it into North Korean territory.

Site of the Axe Murder Incident

We also had a bird’s eye view of the site of the gruesome Axe Murder Incident of 1976. Apparently, a tree-trimming operation went horribly awry when North Korean soldiers (despite being informed of the routine procedure) saw the axe-wielding UNC soldiers as a threat. They attacked, and a few of the North Korean soldiers managed to procure two of the axes, using them to murder two UNC soldiers. One of them was U.S. Commander Captain Bonifas, who is the namesake for the military base there now.

Later on we drove down to the actual site of the Axe Murder Incident, and we had a tense moment in our tour bus when the Japanese girl in our group took a photo of the military checkpoint located there. Our U.S. soldier/tour guide stopped speaking in mid-sentence, turned to the girl, and said, “Ma’am, there are no photos allowed here.” She quickly apologized, but he continued, saying, “You need to delete that photo now.” “Delete the photo!” her boyfriend echoed frantically, and they both looked over her shoulder, confirming that she had no more illegal photos stored in her digital camera. Phew!

This morning portion of our tour was by far the most interesting; however, we saw a number of exciting sites in the afternoon as well. We were able to drive to an observation deck on a mountaintop in the DMZ to get an even better view of the North Korean side. We were able to see all the way into Pyeongyang, the second largest city in North Korea. I wasn’t able to get a great picture because photography opportunities were limited. We were instructed to stand behind a painted line on the deck for photos so that our view would be partially obstructed (though I was standing next to a girl using a fancy camera with one of those telescopic lenses—I bet she got some good pictures!). However, we were free to step up all the way to the balcony to observe, and could even pay 500 Won (50 cents) to use the binoculars.

We visited Dorasan Station, which is the last train station stop before reaching the North Korean border. The train line actually runs all the way through North Korea and into China and Russia, but it is currently only used for cargo and not passengers. As of now, this train station is fully operational and ready to be used when North and South Korea reunite and exist peacefully. In fact, tourists to the site can purchase a souvenir train ticket for 500 Won, though they can’t actually board a train or travel anywhere.  There are also buildings all around the station that are intended to be used for customs and immigration purposes, but of course, they have never been used as of yet. Justin and I didn’t purchase a train ticket, but we were able to get a commemorative passport stamp there.

Museum exhibit depicting North Korean soldiers digging an infiltration tunnel


We also learned about the infiltration tunnels that were built by the North Korean soldiers to sneak across the border into South Korea. Where the Demarcation Line isn’t heavily guarded with military, it is littered with scary barbed wire and hidden landmines. Apparently, the North Korean soldiers were instructed to dig tunnels starting on their side of the DMZ reaching depths of seventy-three meters beneath the DML (and the accompanying landmines) and onto the Southern side. The four tunnels that have been found so far were unfinished, but appear to have been heading toward Seoul. When confronted with the discovery of the tunnels, the North Koreans first denied digging any tunnels, and claimed that the South Koreans were the ones digging toward the North Korean side. When evidence was provided to the contrary, the North Koreans feebly planted some coal deposits in the tunnels and claimed that the tunnel was simply an old coal mine, though no coal was found to be naturally occurring in those locations.  Four of these infiltration tunnels have been discovered so far, but the UNC soldiers suspect that several more may exist and they are trying their best to find them.

Our tour group was able to actually go down inside of the third infiltration tunnel. It wasn’t actually as exciting as we thought it would be. It was a lot of tough exercise! We first descended down a steep incline tunnel that was about 400 meters long (built by the UNC soldiers) leading to the infiltration tunnel. Then we walked (or in our case, stooped) through the tiny cave-like tunnel until we reached a barrier erected by UNC soldiers to keep North Korean soldiers from crossing to the southern side. Photographs were prohibited inside of the tunnel and wearing a hard hat was required, which I was actually grateful for because I hit my head more than once on the low, uneven cave ceiling. Our hike back up the long, steep incline to the top left my legs feeling like rubber!

The Bridge of No Return

I think the thing that hit me the hardest on this trip is the emotional impact that all of this has had on the South Koreans. For me, the cold war with the North Koreans is intriguing; I’m intrigued by it like one might have a morbid fascination with the sinking of the Titanic or some other long transpired tragedy. However, for the Koreans, this cold war is personal. Many of them have family members that have long been trapped within the confines of North Korea, and they have no way to communicate with them or even know whether or not they are still alive. We saw two bridges on our trip; one was called “The Bridge of No Return” located in Panmunjom, and the other was called “The Bridge of Freedom.” Both served similar purposes after the Korean War. Koreans were told to choose whether they wanted to live in the North or the South; however, once they crossed the bridge, they would never be able to go to the other side again. There is a memorial barrier standing on the south side of the Bridge of Freedom, and it’s completely covered in pictures, messages, and prayers for the day that Korea will be unified again and the North Koreans will be permitted to cross that bridge into freedom. I hope I have the chance to see it happen during my lifetime.


6 thoughts on “Our Visit to the Scariest Place on Earth

  1. Rachel and Justin,
    You neglected to say when you would be safely home. Still praying for your safety. Such an interesting post, Rachel! You always seem to capture the “feel” of the location you are describing so well-thank you for sharing your journey! Godspeed.
    Aunt Debbi

  2. I’m glad you all enjoyed reading my post! I know it was a long one….

    Aunt Debbi, we’re not exactly sure when we’re getting back–we’re just kind of playing it by ear. We don’t have to be back at school until February 13th, so we’ve got plenty of time! I guess we’ll head home when we run out of money, haha. 😀

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