Wednesday, November 17, 2010

DMZ Dtour

Yep. That's me. With North Korea. Not as good as the later picture of me actually, technically, IN North Korea. But let us rewind a bit and see how it all came to pass.

Once upon a time, I was hired here to teach history. But history teachers often end up with weird collateral duties to fill out their teaching schedule, which is why, although Justin has been only an English teacher, I have taught, besides history, Grade 9 Information Technology, IB Information Technology in a Global Society, elementary school theater, and first grade art. And, here at FIS, Model United Nations, for which, I learned rather suddenly, there is a conference in Seoul in November, a scant 10 weeks after my arrival in Japan.

So I rolled up my sleeves and got underway. Eventually, after hotels which would not accept student bookings, hotels which were actually love motels, mystery fees, and a last-minute hold on a funding request, we got there and back in one piece. To my delight, the parents unanimously opted for an extended itinerary, which gave us a full day to go up to the DMZ, which Justin and I actually never got around to doing during our Korea days.

Not that Justin got around to it this time, either. Since South Koreans can't go to the DMZ except under unusual circumstances, he stayed behind with our two South Korean students to do university campus tours. So it was me and seven 9th graders for the DMZ trip. Hopefully Justin can go next year.

We took the USO tour, booked through Koridoor. I was freaked out about getting there in time, since you have to be at the base at 7:30 AM, which meant a minimum 6 AM hotel departure, but we ended up fortuitiously. On the morning of our tour, the JSA was in use for a formal repatriation of some North Korean soldiers whose bodies were recovered in South Korea after some flooding. (No, I don't mean that it was fortuitous that they died... that's too bad. But since it had already happened, it was nice that someone could send the bodies home, and even nicer that it had to happen on a convenient morning for us, and did not result in canceling our visit entirely).

First landmark: the Unification Bridge. Note the many barriers to unification of the involuntary sort.

According to the tour guide (who, by the way, was totally enchanted to have a Japanese student group), it is often called the cow bridge. Evidently the founder of Hyundai, who was born in North Korea, brought one cow with him to South Korea when he started his new life here, and his entire fortune grew out of that cow. A few years back, he sent 1,001 cows back to his home village. According to this web version of the story, he pilfered the original cow and sent the thousand and one out of guilt.

We went to the third invasion tunnel but I left my camera on the bus. I have two dominant memories of this. First, when they say the access tunnel is steep, it is STEEP. And it's about 350 meters long, which in American terms is like three football fields. A long time to walk at a 20 degree angle!

Second, we have one student who's 6'4. I remember the melodious sounds of the rock tunnel pinging off his helmet like popcorn every thirty seconds, when he'd forget to hunch up and clonk his head on the low ceiling. Of course, we also had two girls who didn't have to duck at all.

After the Third Tunnel comes Dora Observatory. This is where you can look at North Korea through those little tourist binoculars, including their compensatory giant flag and flagpole in the Propaganda Village.

You're not allowed to take pictures up at the wall - you have to stay in this painted yellow box. So I handed the camera over to students and scooted back out for a shot.

On to Dorasan (Dora Mountain) station, where the train track runs all the way through to North Korea but the train, alas, does not. My student photobomber's face has been blurred to protect his nefarious identity.

And then we got to the real meat of the trip: the trip to the JSA (Joint Security Area) Panmunjom. This United Nations base, located within the DMZ itself, is primarily staffed by USA and South Korean (ROK) troops, all of which must be specially selected for duty, including spotless civilian and military records. We had a short historical and security briefing from our soldier guide:
... which, as a teacher, I found extremely well presented. Very impressed. Nicely selected, US Army.

If you zoom in on the picture below, you can see the dotted yellow Military Demarcation Line which separates North and South Korea passing through red (DPRK) and blue (UN) buildings. This means that if you go to the opposite end of one of the blue buildings, you are technically standing on North Korean soil. Clearly I would do this.

More contractor-era flashbacks for me in this room. Seriously, it's still 1956 on most US bases, at least as far as color scheme and decor. Somewhere, I heard, there is a Navy computer that still runs on vacuum tubes.

You take a bus through a restricted photography area to a large building originally intended to host reunion ceremonies for Korean families. Unfortunately, North Korea won't allow its citizens to cross over into South Korea for the reunions (suspecting, no doubt, that they won't get them back), and therefore the building is not much use except as a platform for copious amounts of surveillance equipment.

The soldiers explain to you how you have to walk in two straight lines, without making any attempt to communicate, verbally or Top Gun style, with the North Korean guards. Your image is constantly documented (hence the DMZ tour dress code, lest you make the West look bad) and could, at best, turn up in propaganda, or at worst provoke an incident. It's very sobering to stand there with our soldier guide and realize that he had met me about ten minutes ago and would nevertheless be prepared to die to bail me out if I did something stupid. Mighty people, those US Army soldiers.

I snapped this picture really quickly on our way into the conference building:

In the zoomed version, you can count at least eight North Korean guards on the rooftop. The Korean guide told us that was very unusual; normally, there is only one guard. Lo and behold, when we came back out, all those extra guards had vanished. So I'm glad I took this shot.

You can see the Korean guards, who appear to be standing, strangely, half behind a building, staring at a wall:

Our soldier guide explained that this was to minimize their exposure and time to take cover if shooting broke out.

Finally, in the conference room, the shot you've all been waiting for: one foot in the free world, and one foot in the DPRK: TheSenseitions brings you... North Korea!

It's my right foot on the Communist side. I could feel it, imbued with class spirit, inciting the left foot to rise up against being so downtrodden. To which the practical capitalist left foot replied, "I'm a foot. What's she supposed to trod on, her hands?"

I'm on the DPRK side in this picture with the South Korean soldier, as well:

You're allowed to take pictures with them as long as you don't interfere with their duties. It is a bit weird to try to decide what facial expression is most appropriate for a semi-war zone photo with a soldier. I settled for this awkward half-smile.

The ROK soldier's awesome sunglasses are intended as a facial expression blocker. The posture is called, if I remember correctly, "ROK-ready," and is a modified Taekwondo stance. I was so busy looking at stuff that I missed the first half of a story about the North Korean end of the conference room. I believe it had to do with watching a door, or running equipment; I'm not sure. Anyway, for some reason, when individual South Korean soldiers had to go down to that end of the room, North Koreans would grab them and try to pull them out the door into the North's territory. They are only allowed down there now in pairs, with one doing the job I didn't hear and the other holding on to him so he can't be pulled out.

There are miniature UN country flags in glass cases on the wall, apparently because North Koreans used to disrespect the full-size flags with nose-blowing, boot-polishing, butt-wiping, and the like. (No word on if this was actual butt-wiping, or pantomime... hopefully pantomime). The conference tables also have footprints on them, which the US soldier said was from North Koreans jumping up on the tables. This makes the DMZ conference room sound a lot like a monkey house at the zoo, and way more interesting than any meetings I ever sat through when I worked for the government.

There have not been violent incidents at the DMZ in a very long time, but they have happened. The most notorious is probably the Ax Murder Incident of 1976. A UN detachment, out to trim branches off a tree obscuring visibility between two guard posts, were attacked by North Koreans with the tree-trimming axes. American Capt. Bonifas and Lt. Barrett were both killed. You can read more about North Korea's eminently predictable propaganda response on the Wikipedia article (hint: it involves the phrase "American imperialist aggressors"). You can also get the details of the UN follow-up, Operation Paul Bunyan, in which the tree was cut by two eight-man teams, with two 30-man security backups, with a 64-man special forces squad, under the supervision of attack helicopters, B-52s, and an aircraft carrier. When America sets out to trim a tree, it trims a flipping tree.

This monument commemorates the spot of that erstwhile poplar.

A few parting shots. First, what the actual border between North and South Korea looks like:

Pretty much like a ravine in Southeastern Ohio, actually. I remember when I first got to China as an exchange student, I felt vaguely disappointed that it felt just like the US. My students walked around the conference table into North Korea before the soldier guide explained that it wasn't South Korea anymore, and were quite startled to realize they'd gone over without even noticing it. Somebody should do something about this.

Finally, the Bridge of No Return.

After the war, North Korean and South Korean POWs were allowed to choose which side to be repatriated to. Southerners who went North were notified that this was it; they would not have a chance to change their minds: hence the "No Return" part. It's been sixty years since the war now, so some of those soldiers might still be around to see a day when they can go back over, but that window closes all the time.


  1. Nice write-up, Nana! That part about being grabbed and dragged out a door sounds scary - glad they have a buddy system now. I hope there are bathrooms on both ends of the conference room though! What an intense place.

  2. I knew the American General who met the US troops who had been prisoners of war on their return across the bridge when at the end of the "police action" both sides exchanged prisoners. He was still moved by the expressions on those young men's faces when he described them to me 25 years later.
    And of course I well remember the awful action surrounding the tree trimming. What an experience you have had! mommy