Arriving in Korea in early February after several months of acclimating to the heat and humidity of Thailand and the surrounding countries was a shock to my system. Shorts, even camo cargo shorts, just aren’t that great for -8C weather. I stayed inside more than I would have liked but I still made a point to get out and see as much as I could during the warm afternoon hours, many things I’d visited on previous trips to Korea like the War Memorial in Seoul, Gyeongbukgung Palace, these sorts of things, but number one on my list was the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
This would be my third visit to the DMZ, having seen it in 2005 while I was living in Korea then again in 2012 when I was roaming aimlessly around East Asia after the end of that year’s Mongol Rally. There had been differences between those two visits due to the evolving situation between the two countries but I was interested to see what it was like now – by most accounts relations had gotten worse and it became even more intriguing when the North launched a missile two days prior to my scheduled visit. I’d really expected the tour to be cancelled.
One thing about the DMZ is that its danger is often exaggerated. I’ve heard travel shows and writers call it “the most dangerous place on Earth” and similar hyperbole, and perhaps it could be argued that’s true in a global geopolitical tinder-box sense but it certainly isn’t for your Average Joe Tourist showing up to take selfies and buy commemorative stamps from the gift shop. Common sense says they wouldn’t run near-daily tours that come within metres of armed DPRK soldiers if it were true. On the other hand, shit does go down there on occasion, a number of people have been killed – although less often these days than during the Cold War – and a provocation like a ballistic missile launch by the North could be the sort of event to ratchet up the tensions in the DMZ. All this is to explain that because I expected to get an email in the morning saying the tour was cancelled and wasn’t that worried for my safety regardless, I drank a shitload of beer and stayed up way too late the night before.
I woke up and casually checked my email and no such cancellation message had appeared, so I jumped in the shower and ran down to the subway to travel one stop up the line to Hongik University station, where I was supposed to get picked up. In my beerfog I jumped on the train going the wrong direction, had to jump off and then travel back two stops and came running out of the top steps and onto the sidewalk as the bus was getting ready to pull out. We’re leaving a few minutes late apparently on my account and I’m getting some stinkeyes. “If you don’t like Party Rocking then move to North Korea ya bastards” I say, but not really.
Our bus heads north and our Korean tour guide Jenny introduces herself, tells us what to expect from each part of the tour, and gives us the history of the place. Long story short, after the Korean War the line of armistice (the Military Demarcation Line, or “MDL”) became the border and a 2km-wide demilitarized buffer was created in both directions to prevent hostilities from reigniting. This buffer became the DMZ. One thing Jenny mentioned that I didn’t realize is that the southern portion of the DMZ isn’t under the control of South Korea but rather the United Nations. The part of the DMZ that tours visit is known as the Joint Security Area (the JSA) – this is where the iconic images of North & South soldiers staring each other down are taken. To the south of the DMZ is an additional high-security buffer zone, the southern boundary of which is called the Civilian Control Line (CCL). While some Koreans do live in small villages beyond the CCL, all passage in and out is controlled by the Korean army and it’s a heavily guarded area.
Whooo, okay then. As our bus continues up the highway north the Imjin River is visible, but between us and it are multiple chain-link fences with razor wire running along the tops. There are guard towers every few hundred metres. The other side of the river, also visible although a little bit foggy, is North Korea. Kijongdong, the so-called “Propaganda Village” can also be seen from here; it’s a set of apartment buildings constructed in the 1950s to make the north appear technologically advanced to potential defectors in the south. Apparently they’re fake, however – no one has ever lived in them, the windows don’t even contain glass, and soldiers turn lights on and off simply to give a “lived-in” appearance. I try to take a picture but it’s not much use through the steamed-up bus windows.
We pull into a parking lot in a place called Imjingak, the last place where civilians can visit without crossing the Imjin River and the CCL. A rail line runs through this spot – see the bridge below – but it’s completely blocked off with multiple layers of fences and razor wire. This place is also kind of a little theme park, with sombre monuments dedicated to remembrance and reunification but also several restaurants, gift shops and even carnival rides.
A peculiarly Asian aspect of the DMZ are the attempts to “cute-ify” the situation. When I was here in 2005 there were posters around depicting two anime-style characters, one a South Korean soldier, the other a North Korean soldier, both with big smiles and ^^ eyes. I don’t see them around this time but the cartoonish vibe remains in statues like this one:
We’re here for twenty minutes but there really isn’t that much to see so I mostly just chill, suck back a coffee and try to shake my hangover.
Back on the bus we turn onto another bridge crossing the Imjin and Jenny tells us that pictures are banned from this point on until we’re told it’s okay again. We pull up to the checkpoint and a Korean soldier boards our bus, we all pull out our passports and he compares them to a list he’s got on a clipboard, then we’re waved through.
Shortly after the checkpoint I used my Adventure Detective Stealth to take a quick pic of some of the anti-vehicle defences strewn around the CCL entry. These things are all over the place (you can see more in the distance) and could presumably be used to block up the bridges for light vehicles, at least.
Along with our bus a few regular cars are in line and showing identification to the guards – I assume these are people who live inside the secured area. We pass by one of the villages and I’m kind of blown away to see a sign that says “DMZ Youth Hostel”. Not sure what hoops you have to jump through to stay there – I know the secured area has strict curfews and things like that.
There’s a gift shop next to the Third Tunnel entrance selling t-shirts, jackets, stickers and such, but one thing I notice missing from my visit in 2012 are North Korean products like brandy, wine and chocolate. When the gang comes out of the tunnel I ask Jenny about it and she says that since relations have deteriorated the amount of NK products coming across as novelty items has pretty much gone to zero. She says the gift shop at Dorasan Station still has a few bottles of alcohol but it’s not something that’s easy to get anymore.
Back on the bus we head to Dorasan Observatory, a vista for looking across the border towards Kaesong. I can’t help but laugh as there’s K-Pop blasting around us – Jenny explains that prior to 2003 the two sides would blast propaganda at each other (I’d heard of this but never witnessed it) but that was suspended until 2015 when a land mine was placed directly in front of a South Korean fence gate to the DMZ, injuring two soldiers. Since then the South Koreans have resumed playing propaganda, news and apparently K-Pop. Blasting K-Pop, a sort-of-secret guilty pleasure for me, at the soldiers of an oppressive communist regime really, really makes me happy.
Walking up to the observation platform I cross over a yellow line – in previous visits, photography was banned on the far side of this line. The line’s still there but I double-check with Jenny and the rule’s been tossed.
It’s a really hazy day and it’s hard to capture much happening in North Korea proper, but to the southwest is the line between the CCL and the DMZ, and what used to be a busy road from the south to the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the north. As part of the early-2000’s detente known as the Sunshine Policy companies from the south opened factories in the north to build economic links between the two countries. The previous times I’d seen this spot trucks were moving back and forth but as the Kaesong experiment had been cancelled a couple years ago – and all assets confiscated by the north – it now seems to be abandoned.
Also stationed on the hill to our left was a military observation post:
Access to some buildings on the right was blocked off but I could see soldiers moving around so I went to take a gander and noticed this sticking out over a fence:
It might be surprising if you’ve never visited South Korea but unlike most of East Asia it’s a very Christian place, something like one-third of the population are down with Jesus and most of them aren’t shy about their beliefs, proselytizing at crosswalks and singing hymns in front of shopping malls. The skyline of virtually any town includes at least one neon red cross, and they’re ubiquitous in some places like my former home of Gunsan – and that’s what this cross is, except it looks to be pointed towards North Korea. I don’t share the same kind of affection for Christianity (or for that matter any religion) as I do for K-Pop but this feels like a middle finger to the north, and I certainly appreciate that.
I’d mentioned cartoonification earlier; more evidence here (and here):
Our next stop was Dorasan Station, a train station. Getting off the bus we were allowed to take pictures but only facing certain directions, “No Photo” signs were all over the place.
- Civilians are allowed to have cameras and phones in their hands. Anything other than cameras and phones will be viewed as a weapon.
- Phones cannot be used for phone calls.
- Phones cannot be used for internet / texting.
- Pictures should only be taken in the direction of North Korea, taking pictures of US/Korean facilities could be considered espionage.
- Do not communicate with North Korean soldiers in any way.
- South Korean and American soldiers wear special armbands to show their status in the DMZ.
- North Korean soldiers are also supposed to wear armbands but usually don’t as “they don’t care anymore”.
- There are landmines everywhere. Two million of them. Only walk where you’re supposed to walk.
- Do not touch the ROK soldiers (ROK = Republic of Korea, aka South Korea, pronounced like “rock”) or they will touch you back, and they are all taekwondo masters.
Before we can board special military buses we have to sit through a briefing and then sign disclaimers saying that if shit goes bad in there neither the ROK or the US soldiers are responsible. There’s a delay though, we wait over half an hour for another soldier to come and get us and as he does I see several large black cars with South Korean flags on their fenders leaving – some kind of diplomacy is maybe the cause for the delay?
The new soldier introduces himself as Martinez and apologizes for the delay, he seems like he’s about to give an explanation but cuts himself off and then apologizes again. “Is anyone scared?” he asks, everyone kind of chuckles. “Is anyone planning to defect today?” he says as he raises his hand. Funny guy. “We have to wait a few more minutes – does anyone want to sing karaoke?”
We go through the briefing which is conducted simultaneously in four languages and makes it really hard to listen to – and visibly hard for the soldier giving the briefing to deliver. We’re then loaded onto one of the military buses and into the DMZ proper. We drive past Daeseongdong, aka “Freedom Village”, a small farming community that’s within the DMZ. It’s main feature is a massive flagpole hoisting up a suitably massive South Korean flag that was one the largest flagpole/flag combo in the world, at least it was until the North Koreans raised an even larger counterpart on their side. This latter flag remains the largest in the world, with a 160 metre flagpole and a weight of 240 kilograms.
Martinez is taking questions from everyone and hamming it up. Most of his responses are either jokes or “I can’t talk about that” (about half of the questions get this response). I ask what the status of drones in the DMZ are and he says they’re not allowed.
We reach a set of buildings and unload into one of them, forming a double-file line on a staircase. Martinez walks us through the rules quickly again and tells us what to expect when we pass through some doors ahead. We move forward and we’re out into open air with the iconic DMZ scene in front of us.
Those are ROK soldiers staring towards the north. When tour groups are visiting from either side (North Korea runs their own DMZ tours, amazingly) the other side usually pulls their men back to keep the peace, with the exception of one guy way in the back to make a point:
When tourists aren’t there, the troops are sometimes inches away from each other, staring each other down. More about that later.
Martinez points out some of the buildings and the features of the buildings around us. He refers to one as the “recreation building”, the joke being that it isn’t a recreation building. He tells us soldiers will often make throat-slashing gestures to the Americans from that building and he likes to respond by blowing kisses. He gives us the lowdown on the lone soldier standing in the back, referring to him as “Bob”. This guy’s a fantastic tour guide, smiling while he’s telling us all this.
He starts taking questions and when one woman asks about making a run for it to defect, he tells her very matter-of-factly he’d shoot her and everyone starts laughing. He kind of raises his eyebrows to indicate that wasn’t a joke. “I’d shoot you and so would the ROKs.” No one really laughs this time.
Everyone is standing pretty still but I’m at a bad angle so I sort of shuffle around a little bit to see if anyone will say anything but they don’t, at least until I move a little further to the left than anyone else is standing and Martinez stops himself in mid-sentence: “If you move any further to the left you will have hands laid on you.” I move back a little to the right.
My eyes dart to the doors where Bob is standing — Three North Korean soldiers are coming out and down the stairs in our direction, holy shit!
When they reach the bottom of the stairs they turn to their right and start poking around at some kind of box over there. Martinez casually looks back and tells us they’re adjusting surveillance equipment and he doesn’t seem too concerned. During neither of my previous two visits here did any more Bobs come out, so I have to admit it did get my adrenaline pumping a little bit.
Martinez heads toward the middle building, opens the door and we follow three ROK soldiers inside. Selfie time! The ROKs are completely still, no words or facial expressions and people start selfieing all around them. Martinez warns us not only not to touch them but also to give them a good 8 or 10 inches of space, I’m not sure if he’s serious or if he’s messing with us, or maybe even messing with the ROKs to try to make them laugh.
One half of this building is on the South Korean side and one half is on the North Korean side, the negotiating table is split precisely down the middle and Martinez says the microphones are left on 24/7 – I meant to ask him whether there’d be any repercussions to saying something like “Kim Jong-Un loves the cock” into a live mic later but it slipped my mind. Martinez does tell us in a rather strict manner not to get behind the ROK on the North Korean side, as then there’s nothing between us and the door into North Korea and we could get “snatched”. This seems absurd so I think he was joking but it’s hard to tell with this guy, more likely they don’t want us doing it because it would increase the chances of a successful defection.
That’s one of the “ROKs” in the centre, with Martinez to the left of the picture.
We don’t stay long until we’re being shuffled back out and to the front. I was going to ask Anya to snap a pic of me with one of the ROKs but she’s out the door already so I do a wide-eyed slide and shoot (selfies are hard on a point + shoot):
Not great, so here’s a better one of me and my buddy Matt from 2005:
Back on the bus Martinez informs us that usually there’s more to the JSA tour than this but today because of a “security situation” that he can’t explain we aren’t allowed going any further. If my memory serves me correctly the main things left were Checkpoint 3 and the Bridge of No Return, a small bridge across the MDL where POWs would be taken and given the choice between the North and the South. Amazingly, some American POWs chose to head north and ended up living in China.
We head back to where we were briefed and Martinez points us in the direction of the gift shop, telling us to buy ice cream because if we buy enough he gets a free one. “I’ll be standing around out here if you want to ask me any questions, or take a picture with me cause I’m cool.” After a quick look in the gift shop I go stand around him while he’s answering some other questions. He’s got a vape hidden up his sleeve, every so often pulling it out as he turns away, and he’s talking about being face-to-face with the North Koreans back in the JSA. “Tell me you blow that in their faces,” I say. He laughs and says “Oh man I wish!”
He tells us that while there’s a lot he can’t talk about, he’s got two stories about confrontations with the North Koreans that he can:
- Communication between the two sides goes via the JDO (I’m not sure what this is) but an intimidation tactic used by the north is to send a death threat to specific soldiers serving in the JSA, e.g. “If you don’t give us this information we’re going to kill Martinez next week.” This has happened to Martinez and he gets pulled aside and asked if he’s okay with this – if not he can be reassigned. While he’s telling this he’s kind of rolling his eyes and shrugging and says “Of course you say you’re okay with it, cause whatever right?”
- Standing inches away from a North Korean, the Korean spit in his face, right in the eyes. (ROKs and Americans in the JSA wear sunglasses at all times so it just got his glasses and his face.) He isn’t allowed to respond to that though – “They pretty much have to shoot at us before we can do anything.” The Korean then escalated by sliding his gun partway out of the holster and cocking it and just standing there with his hand on the gun. Martinez did nothing and nothing came of it.
Pretty crazy shit. It was time to leave so I thanked him and shook his hand, we piled onto the bus and I headed back into Seoul.