“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.”
“Det är så roligt!” (That is so funny!) Laughed the blonde long-bearded-Swede.
“Så mycket roligt!” (So very funny!) Giggled his blonde friend.
The people I am talking about are the loud, laughing ones you generally find on a group tour. Sometimes annoying but kind of infectious with their giggles and raucousness – they type that make you smile, even though you don’t know what they are talking about (however I expect it was a version of what I have transcribed). Although we were getting closer to the border, the most heavily guarded in the world, where a misconstrued political word or act from either side could flare into war, their laughter helped relax the tension and hey, why shouldn’t they? – The neutral Swedes play an importance role in keeping the dialogue open, here, between these two nations, still officially at war.
Continuing on from Parts 1 & 2, we boarded the coach at the restaurant for the last part of the trip and 5 of us who ate lunch together were given seat numbers by our new tour guide and directed to sit in the seats we were assigned, the last 5 seats at the back of the bus. We drive for a few minutes into the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, the original village the peace armistice was signed at which is no longer inhabited.
Tour groups (visiting the border from the south) enter the Joint Security Area at Camp Bonifas which is the United Nations Military Camp about 400 metres south of the border. Photo’s are pretty much banned and we are told when we can and when we cant take a snap before we exit the bus. The first place we visit is the JSA Visitors Centre and watch a short slide show on the war and the United Nations, South Korean and the American role here at the DMZ.
As we leave the building ready to head to right to the ‘front line’ we are asked to sign a form which reads: “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.”
An American soldier, boarded the coach with us, he is watch over us as we head past coils of razor wire, closer to the physical border inside the DMZ. He keeps a stern eye on us, this young solidly built, mid-west looking boy soldier and barks “NO PHOTO’S” at one person who dares try to take a picture. Pretty soon we pulled up at another large grandiose building, known as The Freedom House. Before we were allowed to leave the coach we were sternly warned not to point, wave or make obscene gestures to the heavily fortified North Korean soldiers and to do exactly as instructed by our escorts.
We disembark the bus and timidly make our way through the building and are instructed to stand on a set of steps on the other side. In front of us are the famous Blue Buildings – the conference rooms where the North and South, or countries speaking on eithers behalf, occasionally meet. Three South Korean soldiers stand guard, with a threatening Tai Kwan Do stance fronting the North. They were facing Panmumgak, the 3 story command centre of the KPA (Korean Peoples Army) where a lone North Korean soldier stood guard..
This lone KPA soldier was not really alone, as he paced between the blacked out main doors and another set of binoculars in the bottom corner of the window, I looked around to see there were other sets of ‘eyes’ all trained on our group of 50 or so western tourists gawking back at him. Apparently there were several snipers aimed at us as well, my guide smilingly threw into conversation when I tuned my back to the building for her to take a picture of me with the North as the background. This quite young soldier, with a slight build, accentuated by the ill fitting long coat and oversized Russian-esque fur hat, had me wondering. What must he be thinking, while watching us looking at him, nervously smiling and taking pictures in an “OMG there’s one!” tourist like way. I doubt his well-army-trained mind had him longing to join us camera wielding, materialistic, filthy rich westerners – in his mind he was looking at a group of people whom had paid almost the North Korean equivalent of a months wage to come here and take photos with cameras worth anything from that to a few years worth of income. While snapping away with our fancy-pants cameras with composed trepidation, I realised he was probably just as nervous and just as uneasy as we were.
The blue conference buildings stand equally on each side of the border, There’s no Berlin-like menacing wall and we had passed the few fences that separate the two countries, the actual physical border was simple line of concrete known as the Military Demarcation Line, indicating each sides sovereignty. Beyond that and past the few North Koreans watching us was a battle trained nation who’s army of around 9.5 million represent approximately 40% of the population – add to that the might of the South with support from from U.N, there was no need for a wall, the invisible line was there with enormous, almost hypnotic, tension on both sides.
Our burly US soldier checked with the soldiers on sentry and indicated to us which blue building we could visit. After entering quietly in single file through the southern door, our group found a rather sparse room painted in the same U.N blue as on the outside. There was another door at the northern end with a soldier standing guard and a table straddling the exact centre of the room with a U.N flag located in the middle of the table where the two side would sometimes meet.
The northern door was of course locked and a South Korean Soldier stood guard in that threatening stance with fists locked tightly. The two South Korean soldiers are again in their stiff, threatening, Tae Kwon Do stance, fists clenched, staring straight ahead with sunglasses on so not to make eye contact with anyone, especially a soldier from the North. It was at this door and taking pictures of this fresh-faced soldier that I realised I was standing in North Korea. Suddenly this inane thought came over me – why cant I just scoot past this soldier unlock and open that flimsy old door and walk outside, Hey wasn’t I already in North Korea? Abruptly, a large deep loud grunt came from the soldier at the table as his martial arts bearing changed from threatening to aggressive as a young boy had tried to cross in front of him at the table. Everyone gasped, the boy started to cry, the mother grabbed him and held him tight uttering apologetic words. There was silence. The feeling of how very real, how very dangerous and how very quickly things could change at this place, this border between two nations still officially at war, again washed over us all.
As we left the JSA, Panmunjom and Camp Bonifas and headed out onto the highway back to the metropolis of Seoul, my seat neighbour, the young backpacker from England and the group of giggling Swedes and I discussed how surreal the whole day had been. The past terrors, the real threats, the invisible tensions, the continually idol propaganda and the unbroken hope that one day these two nations of one people may reunify.
The coach dropped me and my new found group of international friends, whom had all gone through mix of emotions on this day, at the large glitzy LOTTE shopping mall in the centre of downtown Seoul. As I made my way through the throngs of people shopping, getting take away, making their way home and going about their business, that very close threat seemed so very far removed. It wasn’t until a few moments later, in an underground station, I came across a sterile closet of ready gas masks and medical equipment waiting for use in the event of an emergency, making the surreal again extremely real.
I highly recommend a visit to South Korea and in particular the wonderful city of Seoul where a day trip to the DMZ is a must along with many other wonderful historic sights to be in awe of.
To see more of my Korean Adventures:
FreakyFlier.com – South Korea