“If you look to your right you’ll see a large building. In the third window in on the fourth floor, you’ll see a North Korean sniper. His job is to watch us. Please, don’t point or wave.”
Yeah, shit just got real.
It’s 8am on a cool October morning and myself and a dozen other tourists just came to the realization that touring Korea’s DMZ (demilitarized zone) isn’t all fun and games. All that separates us from death (and the outset of a second Korean War) is the trigger finger of one doubtlessly underfed and underpaid North Korean soldier. It’s a sobering thought.
There are countless companies offering tours of the infamous DMZ, but only the USO gives access to the JSA (Joint Security Area) – which is as close to North Korea as most people will ever get. In fact, at one point during the tour, you’re actually able to stand on North Korean soil. It shouldn’t mean much, but there’s a strange rush in standing on soil that belongs to one of the most secretive nations in the modern world.
Starting out at the crack of dawn, my friends and I made our bleary eyed way to the USO Base in the heart of Seoul. In a reflection of just how isolated the city of Gwangju is from the rest of the world, I think most of us are more excited about a vending machine stocked with American soda and candy than we are about the tour itself. At 7am in the morning, nothing sounds more appealing than a handful of Jolly Ranchers washed down with a can of ice cold Dr. Pepper. The breakfast of champions.
Soon we’re bundled onto the bus and making our way through the empty streets and up towards the DMZ. On the way we’re given a brief introduction to the whole experience by the US serviceman charged with acting as tourguide/babysitter for the morning, but most of us are still preoccupied with our American junkfood/trying to snatch a few more minutes of sleep. While some of our party lived in Seoul, most of us had caught the 2am bus from Gwangju and hadn’t managed much sleep during the journey.
Our first stop of the day is Camp Bonifas, where we’re brought into a briefing room and shown a short slide show detailing the history of the Korean War and the establishment of the DMZ. With the lecture given by a hard as nails soldier rather than a tourism worker with relentless optimism, we’re immediately hit with the fact that this is a very real and potentially dangerous place to be. While incidents on the actual border are few and far between, it’s a rare year where the world media doesn’t sensationalize some melee between the South and it’s insular northern neighbors.
From there, we’re divided into smaller groups and taken out to experience the most heavily militiarized border in the world first hand. Our first stop is also the most memorable, as we’re taken past our sniper friend and into the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) building – the site where North and South Korean officials can ostensibly meet to discuss things on neutral ground. On the South Korean side of the border are local Korean soldiers standing board straight and stock still as they monitor the north. You can’t see many North Korean soldiers, but we’re assured that they’re there. The glint of a rifle scope in the window of a building across the border is all the reminder I need. If any of us were stupid enough to try and enter into North Korea, we’d be dead before our feet touched northern soil.
The room itself is unremarkable, split in two by the border between the two countries and painted in an unassuming blue. It is filled with polished tables. There are foot prints on these tables, which I am told are from North Korean soldiers who stand barefoot on them at night with their backs to South Korea in a sign of disrespect. I can’t imagine they’re not doing this on orders from higher up. The soldiers in the room with us are South Korean, but they don’t move as we enter and remain unmoving as we walk around the room and pose for photos.
“Don’t go too close to them,” our US guide informs us, “They are trained to put you down with lethal force if necessary. Even we don’t go near them”.
It’s a far cry from the carefree drunkards that you typically encounter in South Korean bars and noraebangs. These young men are, in spite of their slight appearances, capable of exerting lethal force if need be. After all, it’s these brave draftees who stand between modern South Korea and the war machine that is the North Korean military.
All too soon we’re moving away from the border and onto the areas that are accessible by other DMZ tours. I won’t lie – it was a relief to have the threat of death by trigger happy North Korean sniper lifted from above my head. We visit a variety of other sites including the Pagoda at Freedom House (which I don’t recall), and the infamous Checkpoint #3. This last site’s bloody past signalled the end of a shared DMZ after North Korean soldiers used axes to murder a pair of unarmed US soldiers who were in the process of trimming some poplar trees. While the tree under which the murders took place has long since been cut down, a monument still remains to the moment that could well have sparked a renewal of hostilities between north and south.
After that sobering sight comes the Bridge of No Return. At the time I visited, this was the sole link between North and South Korea. The tour doesn’t allow tourists to stop and look at the bridge, but a brief glimpse out my window as the bus rolled passed still painted a grim picture of the vast difference between north and south.
The tour then covers a variety of other sites. There’s a stop off at a lookout to witness the aptly named Propaganda Village – from which a massive flag and loudspeakers proclaim North Korea’s ‘superiority’ over its southern cousins. This is followed by a long (and not particularly interesting) lecture about the surrounding region. Truth be told, I spent this portion of the tour catching up on some much needed sleep.
There are also visits to the four tunnels which the North Koreans have dug in the past to access South Korean soil – including the 1.7km long Third Tunnel of Aggression which came perilously close to Seoul and could have allowed up to 30,000 soldiers an hour to march onto Korean soil had it been completed.
Touring the tunnel was certainly an experience. After descending seemingly forever, the cramped and damp confines of the tunnel really tested the claustrophobic in me. There’s only so much dynamite blasted rock and exposed piping one can see before things get a bit dull, but there’s no turning back once you’re in the crowded tunnel. Still, after a morning spent largely in a bus eating junk food, the exercise is certainly a welcome change of pace.
The day ends in the park surrounding the aforementioned tunnel. There’s artworks and various tourist things for you to check out – including a gift shop where you can buy everything from t-shirts to pieces of barbed wire salvaged from the actual DMZ. They’re all affordable too – like most things in the peninsula.
All told, the tour took about four hours and ranged from ridiculously cool (the JSA in particular) to mind-numbingly dull (the lecture towards the end). But truth is, the price of admission is worth it solely for the thrill of standing on North Korean soil and being in the midst of one of the most hostile environments in the world. Rememebr: North & South Korea are still technically at war. This isn’t some old border that no longer has any significance, and you’re constantly reminded of that as you tour the area.
If you’re looking to do a DMZ tour, contact the USO. You might find cheaper tours elsewhere, but none of them will take you to the JSA and none of them are of the same quality. It’s an early morning start, but suck it up – experiences like this are worth a little tiredness.
All photos courtesy of Kirk Murray.
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