“For your own safety,” the lieutenant colonel explained, “several of our soldiers will be accompanying you to the border.”
Statements like this are to be expected when visiting the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea, but when that announcement is coming from an impeccably dressed officer from the North Korean People’s Army, rather than one from the South Korean or U.S. Army, you have reason to be wary. Were the soldiers there to prevent us from wandering into some minefield, I wondered, or would they protect us if the “U.S. Imperialists” and their South Korean lackeys decided to randomly open fire? I wasn’t quite sure. Nevertheless, our tour group now had our very own North Korean soldiers to watch over us as we visited a place once described by former President Bill Clinton as “the scariest place on earth.”
We left Pyongyang around seven that morning for the three hour drive south to the demilitarized zone. Our bus traveled down the empty six-lane “Reunification Highway” at breakneck speed, passing by the occasional military checkpoint, tank barriers, and village. I spent most of the trip south downing Pepto Bismol (I think the meat from the previous night’s dinner was slightly undercooked) and writing postcards that would hopefully be approved by the censors and sent onwards to my friends in the US and Europe. (“Great trip so far. Beer is delicious. Highly recommend visiting. Cheers, Lindsay”)
A few scenes from the drive south. More photos in a later post.
Our American guide told us these were anti-tank barriers that were rigged with explosives. In case of invasion, the North Koreans would set off the explosives, creating obstacles for American tanks along the Reunification Highway.
Once we arrived at the staging area just outside of the DMZ, we hopped off our bus and stood around a large map of the DMZ while the North Korean officer gave a short talk on the surrounding area. We were then instructed to form a single file line and walk past the gated area, where our bus had pulled forward after being searched and cleared by several soldiers. We got back on our bus and drove past electric fencing surrounded by strips of landmines. We had officially entered the Korean demilitarized zone, a 2.5 mile wide buffer zone that divides the Korean peninsula in half. Home to over two million soldiers, the DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
Farm inside the DMZ
Because everything’s bigger in the DPRK, the country is home to the world’s tallest flagpole, which sports a 600lb DPRK flag. The flagpole is situated at the entrance to the “village” of Kijŏngdong, which is really nothing more than a Potemkin village built to extol the luxurious living enjoyed by DPRK citizens
Our bus stopped at the site of the former village of Panmunjeom, which is now just a set of buildings in which the North Koreans and United Nations negotiated and eventually signed the armistice agreement in 1953.
Entrance to the building where the armistice was signed. It is now home to the “North Korea Peace Museum”. The sign reads “It was here on July 27, 1953 that the American imperialists got down on their knees before the heroic Chosun people to sign the ceasefire for the war they had provoked June 25, 1950.”
The officer explained that the United States wanted to sign the agreement in a tent, but the North Koreans insisted that it occur in a building so that there would be a permanent monument to their victory over the United States. Apparently they constructed this building the night before the agreement was signed.
The officer also claimed that this is the original North Korean flag that was present when the agreement was signed.
See how much better the North Korean flag has fared compared to this discolored UN flag? Hmmm…
The “museum” consisted mainly of photos depicting Americans surrendering.
The axe from the “Axe Murder Incident” in which two US Army officers were killed by North Korean soldiers.
Ensuring our safety
Approaching the Joint Security Area (JSA)/Panmunjeom. More electric fences and landmines.
We arrived at the Joint Security Area (JSA)/Panmunjeom, where North and South Korean soldiers stare at each other from their respective sides. In the middle of the JSA are several blue buildings where diplomatic talks are held. I was disappointed to discover that there weren’t any South Korean or American soldiers visible in the South Korean side of the DMZ. In fact, the place appeared to be downright deserted.
Inside the conference room, sitting in the translator’s seat, with one leg in South Korea and the other in North Korea.
Before the officer began his lecture on U.S. Imperialism and whatnot, our North Korean guide said “I apologize in advance. I will say ‘American Imperialists’ several times.” I was pretty floored when she said this. A North Korean apologizing for calling us imperialists? Never in a million years would I have expected that.
Two guards posted at the door leading to South Korea to ensure you don’t attempt to run away.
Two North Korean soldiers standing on the North Korean side of the Military Demarcation Line. When I took this photo, I was technically in South Korea.
Our time in the conference room was limited. After the officer’s lecture, we only had a few minutes to take photos. The two soldiers stationed at the door leading into South Korea soon began clapping loudly and shouting in Korean while moving towards us. I guess that was our signal to leave the building.
We then entered the large building on the North Korean side so that we could have a nice view of the JSA. I have read several accounts of tourists who toured the JSA from the South Korean side and were told that the North Korean building is nothing more than a façade. I can assure you, it is indeed a real building.
Smile, you’re on camera. The Freedom Building in South Korea.
Of course I had to have my picture taken with one of the soldiers
Our visit to the DMZ complete, we headed back north for a visit to Kaesong. First, though, we stopped at the staging area right outside the DMZ to hand out cigarettes. Specifically, genuine American Imperialist Marlboros straight from the good ol’ US of A. One of the things you are told before coming to North Korea is to bring along a few gifts, specifically cigarettes for the male tour guides and soldiers at the DMZ. We pooled together our packs of cigarettes, handed them to the American guide, and watched as she quickly passed them out to the North Korean soldiers. At first, some were reluctant to take them, but they eventually gave in and sheepishly accepted these small tokens of thanks for ensuring our “safety”.