Even though Betty and I left Ming-Kyeong’s apartment well over an hour before our tour was scheduled to begin, the Seoul morning traffic almost caused us to miss its departure. Although in Asia, you have to keep in mind that traffic doesn’t mean jammed freeways – it means jammed subways. I was surprised to find that just like Tokyo, the Seoul subway system employs white-gloved employees to cram as many people into each train as possible. No matter how many times I see it I can never help but laugh as those guys smash the last arm or leg into the door as it closes. Every inch of space must be filled with person.
Fortunately we just managed make it to our bus in time, and were soon on our way to the Demilitarized Zone dividing North from South Korea. The border through the world’s only remaining divided country.
During the ride there our guide proceeded to explain the whole history of the two countries since World War 2, the Japanese Occupation, the Korean War, and so forth. Because the bus was 90% full of Japanese tourists, Betty and I got the pleasure of hearing the whole history in both languages.
It was so cold outside that the bus windows were not only fogged but covered with ice so thick that I had to scrape it off with my fingernails if I wanted to see outside. What I saw was a large highway eerily devoid of other vehicles, both sides of which were lined with tall barbed-wire fences and guard towers. The cold of winter had killed every plant and tree leaving an almost alien-looking landscape. Beyond the guard towers lie a lake frozen solid, and beyond that was North Korea.
We soon reached our first checkpoint where a South Korean soldier boarded the bus to check everyone’s passports, after which we crossed the last bridge before the entering the Demilitarized Zone. The bridge was as broad as the highway, but not a single other vehicle was crossing on it. Scattered all around the surface were huge spiked roadblocks forcing the bus to slowly zig-zag its way across. A perfect opportunity for our guide to begin explaining the rules:
All photography inside the DMZ is prohibited unless specifically mentioned otherwise. Our group must be escorted at all times by an armed escort, and because we will be passing through live minefields we are to walk single-file and stay as close to each other as possible. No talking out of turn, pointing, or gesturing of any type. Try not to smile too much or make any unusual facial expressions. Be aware that everything you say and do will be observed by the Communist North Korean government from a number of distant observation towers.
At this point our bus pulled over to the side and everyone was asked to get off for a second ID check. Armed guards patrolled up and down the tall, electrified fences. One of the guards came over to our group. I was first. He took my passport and stared me right in the eyes with a stern look for a solid ten seconds. He looked at my passport again, at me, and waved me through. I was now asked to board a different bus – the bus that would be able to take us into the DMZ.
Two army jeeps joined us from the front and behind escorting us passed one last sign: “Warning: You are now entering the Demilitarized Zone. Beware of landmines.” Then were the anti-tank fortifications: huge concrete arches strapped with dynamite that could be exploded to block the roadway. Then a minefield. Finally, we arrived at the JSA where we were given one last security briefing before signing our safety waiver.
The opening sentence: “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
We were now officially inside the DMZ, an area stretching two kilometers into both North and South Korea from the actual line that divides the two. It goes all the way across the country, from coast to coast. The JSA, our present location, is the only place where the two countries can talk to each other. A conference room rests right on the border with one door leading into North Korea and one into South. By locking the door to North Korea, we could be allowed inside – and technically, across the border into North Korea.
Our guide told us that she had to wait in the Southern side of the room – she couldn’t legally cross onto the North Korean side. Through the smudgy window we could see two communist soldiers carefully guarding their side of a thin raised concrete line marking the official border between the two countries. When I raised my hand to indicate that Betty should look out the window, my foolishness was put to a quick stop – “NO POINTING!”
The next spot we were taken to was a tower from which we could clearly see the first small town inside North Korea. Through my camera’s zoom lens it looked like any other town – except for the 160 meter tall flag pole. But our guide explained to me that no one inhabited the village; every building was empty and every window painted over. It was constructed for one reason and one reason alone: to blast communist propaganda over the border through loudspeakers during all hours of the night.
South Korea calls this place Propaganda Village. North Korea calls it Paradise Village.
The tour continued with a few similar stops (including “The Bridge of No Return” pictured here) before returning us in good time to our origin in Seoul. I had just enough time before my train back to Busan to do one of my best buddies a quick favor.
Visit the World Tae Kwon Do Federation.