I’m not really sure what to make of my trip to the Korean DMZ (De-militarized Zone), and actually standing a few feet inside of North Korea for a few minutes. The best analogy that I can come up with is being taken to a zoo, and watching the lion cage.
You’re impressed at seeing these hulking fierce beasts that you’re led to believe are vicious killers who will stop at nothing to tear you limb from limb. They feed you stories of how the North Koreans kidnap people in the neighboring village of Pamunjon, of how South Korean border soldiers are black belts in taekwondo and wear big intimidating sunglasses, and can’t wear name badges for fear that the North Korean agents will threaten them and/or their family.
After being paraded around the MDL (Military Demarcation Line), you realize that it’s really not that dangerous, given that you rolled up in a giant tour bus, and that there are highly-trained soldiers all around, each armed with at least a pistol and probably a knife, and maybe other hidden weapons. Our US Army tour guide, Sgt. Naumenkov, repeatedly cited his marksmanship as one of the reasons why we’d be safe.
The tour begins at Camp Kim in downtown Seoul. There, the United Service Organization (USO) leads tours of the DMZ for the low price of $42, payable in dollars or won. From what I gather, nearly any nationality can go up to the DMZ, that is, provided that you’re not a South Korean citizen yourself. On our tour group, we had two Croatians, a British couple, a Canadian or two, a few American military personnel and a bunch of us civvies.
The waiting room area at the USO office at Camp Kim is like an oversized living room, complete with lounge chairs, a coffee table, and a giant television showing Fox News. But instead of Wired or The New Yorker like I have on my coffee table, the USO office has various military newspapers like Stars and Stripes.
We checked in, boarded the bus, and in about an hour’s time, found ourselves entering Camp Bonifas (“In Front of Them All”), the American and Korean military base closest to the Joint Security Area. It has a fire station, a gym, a baseball field, a tennis court, a par 3 one-hole golf course, and yes, a gift shop. The world’s supposedly most dangerous border has a duty-free gift shop.
Our first stop was Bollinger Hall, where Sgt. Naumenkov passed out waivers that we all had to sign, specifically stating that we could not photograph the waiver. I managed to copy down the first paragraph, which reads:
The visit to JSA (Joint Security Area) at Pamunjon will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. The JSA is a neutral but divided area guarded by United Nations Command (UNC) military personnel on the one side south and Korean People’s Army (KPA) personnel on the other. Guests of the UNC are not permitted to cross the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) into the portion of the JSA under control of the KPA. Although incidents are not anticipated, the UNC, the US Army and the Republic of Korea Army cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.
Once signing my life away to these two servicemen, a soon-to-be Sgt. Han gave a very rapid slide-show presentation of the Korean War and the DMZ. It was clear he’d done this many, many times. There wasn’t much room for ad-libbing, and his rythym got thrown off by one camera flash going off.
Then it was back on the bus and we headed for the MDL. En route, Sgt. Naumenkov reiterated that when we arrived there we were not to make any kind of gestures, motions, or verbal or non-verbal communication to the KPA soldiers. Apparently even a simple wave would be photographed and put in Noth Korean propaganda as a way to say “If South Korea is so great, why do they want to talk to us?” I didn’t ask if they had any proof of this happening.
We drove up to a large glass, modern structure that Sgt. Naumenkov said was built by South Korea in 1998 as a place where families divided by the war could meet, but that North Korea would never allow people to cross the MDL. Today, it serves as essentially a large entrance hall where tourists get to view “Freedom’s Frontier.”
Soon-to-be Sgt. Han took one group (the other bus), and Sgt. Naumenkov took our group. While Han’s group went into one of the UN conference buildings that straddles the MDL, our group stood on the steps of the modern building, getting our first look into North Korea.
Sgt. Naumenkov was quick to point out that during our few minutes of standing just in front of the MDL that we had been photographed a few hundred times and probably videotaped as well. The US Army has nicknames for the soldiers that hang out on the balcony of the opposite building “KPA Bill” and “KPA Bob.”
Our group was flanked on either side by a single ROK soldier, probably so named because not only are they Republic of Korean military, but that they stand like rocks — fists clenched, no motion whatsoever. Their aviator glasses apparently hides their face a little bit and keeps their anonymity. We were to not get closer than about six inches from them.
Once Han’s group was done with the UN building, in we went. Sgt. Naumenkov explained that this building was where North Korea-South Korea and North Korea-United Nations meetings are held. The building is built to be a mirror image of itself. There are doors on each side, the same number of table and chairs on each side, and each side has a translator booth (although apparently they’re no longer used). The MDL goes straight down the middle of the room, and straight down the middle of the conference table with microphones placed in the middle.
I found myself on the North Korean side of the building for a few minutes without even realizing it until Naumenkov pointed it out. Guarding the door to the DPRK was an ROK soldier, and there was another ROK soldier was stationed next to the conference table. We were allowed to take as many photographs as we wanted, but again, we weren’t to communicate or gesture or point to the KPA soldiers.
He also said that should we want to defect, and manage to get past the ROK soldier in front of the door, that we’d find a KPA “greeting party” of two soldiers who are always stationed there. Apparently when the KPA leads tours from their side the ROK doesn’t enter the building and vice versa. They can come up to the building if they want, right up to the MDL, but not past.
Naumenkov said that once he was about to enter the building with a tour group, and the ROK soldier near the DPRK door moved his head a little bit, a rare event indeed. He found out later that the ROK soldier apparently had seen the door behind him open just slightly and then quickly shut. He probably wanted to see if anyone was in there, but it was enough to spook the ROK soldier.
Also during our stay in the UN building, Sgt. Naumenkov pointed to a small flag case on the ROK side of the building that holds miniature plastic flags containing the flags of the alliance during the Korean War. Apparently, those used to be actual full-cloth flags that were posted on the ROK side, but those were replaced after a certain incident a couple of years ago.
According to his account, when President Roh Moo-hyun was meeting with President Bush in Washington a couple years ago, at the exact same moment, two KPA soldiers entered the building, and one blew his nose into the US flag and the other shined his boots with the DPRK flag. So because of that, the flags were replaced with plastic versions.
As we were milling around the conference room, some KPA soldiers started coming closer to the building, posting at-the-ready, while others paraded along the MDL with their high leg-kick.
That was when I realized that the MDL is really all a charade — the US Army and the ROK put on a show, and the KPA does the same. There was no perceivable danger of any kind, even though at one point, I was standing (through a window and building) about four feet from a KPA soldier.
The lion stands and growls.