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Mike's Adventures in Korea 1994

Part 6: DMZ

Korea is home to longest militarized border in the world.  Although most people consider the Korean War over, the fact is that only a cease-fire was declared; both sides are technically at war.  This is a fact that becomes all-too-apparent when one visits the DMZ.

Jim and I left the base on a bus.  We went up North to Seoul on the "Unification Highway" on our way to the DMZ.  The itinerary was this: a visit to some war memorials, a visit to the actual DMZ, and then a tour of Tunnel #3, an infiltration tunnel built by the North Koreans to sneak across the border into South Korea.

Terms of the armistice dictate that all visitors to the DMZ must wear their dress uniforms.  As you will see in the pictures, I am in my dress blues uniform for the entire visit.  The uniform is very uncomfortable, especially when you consider it is about 100 degrees outside.  Besides, I would prefer to be in camouflage if I am visiting an active war zone.

We began our trip visiting a war memorial to brave South Korean soldiers.  As they were being overrun by superior North Korean forces, these brave men took mortar shells and ran up to the enemy in suicide attacks when they ran out of the means by which to fire them.  At least, that was about as much as I could understand of the story.  The main point is this: the South Korean soldiers wanted their freedom so much, they were willing to go to extremes to win it.

ROK 1st Inf Div memorial
A memorial to the brave ROK 1st Infantry Division, South Korean soldiers who all exploded bombs against themselves in an attempt to stop the North Koreans.

Then, we proceeded further north to Imjin-gak.  Imjin-gak is the farthest north a Korean can travel without entering the DMZ.  There are many memorials and museums set up at this site, as well as a shrine for separated families to participate in rituals honoring their relatives up north.

Burma Bombing Memorial
A memorial honoring 17 South Korean government officials killed in Burma in 1983 by North Korean agents.

US Memorial
A memorial commemorating the sacrifices of the American soldiers who participated in the Korean War.  There are flagpoles for each of the states.

Train Memorial
"The Train is Anxious to Run North" - the Imjin-gak area was one of the stops of the train that used to run from Pusan, South Korea all the way to Beijing, China.  The train is awaiting until the peninsula is reunited.

DMZ model
Here is a model of the DMZ.  South Korea is on the top and left, North Korea is on the bottom and right.  The collection of buildings in the middle of the left side is Panmunjom.

DMZ model
Another view of the DMZ model, this time as seen from the south.

NK Interactive Map
One of the attractions at Imjin-gak is a museum devoted to the evilness of North Korea.  This map and display shows the difference in troop strength between the North Korean Army and the UN forces.

Freedom Bridge
This is a picture of Freedom Bridge.  Freedom Bridge is an old railroad bridge that was used in the repatriation of POWs from both sides at the declaration of the cease-fire of the Korean War.  Note the barbed wire.

DMZ Wire and Warning Sign
This is the end of the line.  This is the beginning of the DMZ.  The sign says to go no further; there are active land mines on the other side of the fence.

So, after our tour of the Imjin-gak park, we again board the buses and begin our adventure into the DMZ.  We head to Camp Bonifas, the last outpost before reaching the peace village of Panmunjom.

At Camp Bonifas, we are briefed on how to conduct ourselves at the DMZ.  The briefing is pretty funny for two reasons.  One, they remind us that the DMZ is an active war zone.  As a result, if we hear enemy fire or we should fall under enemy attack, we should "remain calm and follow the instructions of our guide."  Right.  If some North Korean opens fire, I am running south as fast as I can!  (And before you call me a coward, remember - this is a DEMILITARIZED ZONE - that means, I have no weapons!)  But seriously, the reminder that we are entering a war zone is reinforced into our heads a dozen times.  I am starting to think that this is no simple tour...

The second thing about the briefing is the reminder that we are entering a war zone, and as such, we must make no gesture to the enemy that can be construed as threatening.  We are reminded that under no circumstances are we to joke, make boastful statements, or anything else that can be seen as a provocation of war.  Also, the DMZ is under constant surveillance by both sides.  All nametags are viewed and documented.  All conversations are recorded.  Everything that goes on in Panmunjom is constantly monitored.  To that end, anything we say or do can be used against us in enemy propaganda.  Even something as simple as pointing is forbidden.  Our guides tell us that North Koreans have been known to doctor images of people pointing and making them appear as though they are pointing a gun towards North Korea!  Some of these are pretty humorous, I am told, because one was of an African-American who had a white hand with a gun in it; apparently, the North Koreans have not discovered Adobe Photoshop yet.  But, the best part is at the conclusion of the briefing, when I spot a picture of President Clinton on a tour of the DMZ pointing north.  "What about that?" I asked.  Apparently, he got the same briefing, but as Commander-in-Chief, he has the executive privilege to disregard that part of the briefing...

So, we board buses and head into Panmunjom.

South Korean Peace House
The South Korean "Peace House" at Panmunjom.  This is where former President Carter spent some time just a few weeks earlier before crossing the border into North Korea.   The Sunken Peace Garden can be seen at left.

Mike in front of Humvee

Here I am in Panmunjom.  The buildings behind me are called "Freedom House" and houses the Red Cross.  The structure in the center is the Pagoda used to view North Korea.  (The Pagoda has since been replaced by a newer structure.)

Peace Pagoda
A view of the Pagoda.

Sunken Peace Garden
A view of the Sunken Peace Garden from the Pagoda.  This garden was the scene of a shootout in 1984 when a Soviet interpreter defected during a visit to the DMZ.

Mike at DMZ
Mike at the DMZ.  Although you can't see it in the picture, there are two North Koreans inside the building behind me.  One looks at us through binoculars reading our nametags, while the other writes down all our names.  I don't know what purpose the list serves.

DPRK Administrative Building
The blue buildings in the front are the UN buildings.  They are "no man's land."  The large building in the background is the North Korean administrative building.  Although it is tall and wide, it is only about ten feet wide from front to back.  It is meant to be intimidating, but it is mostly a facade.  (I have been told that they added a third story to this building in response to the new Pagoda.)  Between the two blue buildings in the foreground a line can be seen; this is the actual border between North and South, and is a small strip of concrete.  Prior to 1976, the entire area was declared to be "no man's land."  Following the Tree Cutting/Axe Murder Incident (some American soldiers went to prune a tree that obstructing their view of the North; they were murdered by North Korean soldiers who butchered them with axes), a permanent border was imposed that clearly defined the North and South portions of the DMZ.

UN Buildings
Another view of the UN and North Korean buildings.  The South Korean soldiers are trained in Tae-Kwon-Do and Judo, and although unarmed, are still very lethal.

DPRK Guard Tower
A North Korean guard tower.  The posts show the border between North and South.

Conference Table
Although you can't see it very well, this is the conference table where both sides sit down to discuss the armistice.  There are some microphone cables that run down the center of the table denoting the North and South sides.

Mike and Guard in North Korea
Here I am with one of the guards.  I am standing in North Korea at the moment at which this picture was taken.  The South Korean guard is all that stands between me and the godless communist hordes on the other side of that door.  He is preventing me from making a run toward North Korea.  Don't worry, dude, there is NO WAY I am going anywhere near that door!

The view from North Korea
The view south from North Korea looking at the South Korean guards.  Unfortunately, no North Korean guards came anywhere near the UN building.  We had been told that because of budget problems, the North Koreans don't come as close as they used to.  In the past, when Southern forces went into the building, North Korean guards surrounded the outside of it to keep an eye on what was going on inside (and likely also to intimidate the building's occupants).  It was probably a good thing for us; I would likely say something smartass and sarcastic and start a war.

So, at this point, following our brief visit into North Korea, we boarded the buses.  The next stop was the Bridge of No Return.  This was the site of the Axe Murder.  When the Americans were slaughtered by the North Koreans, the Americans stormed in and, instead of pruning the tree, chopped the whole thing down - and they were back up by orbiting B-52s ready to kick ass against anyone who stood in their way.  The stump still stands as a reminder of the incident.  The bridge is the site of repatriation of POWs and also of the crew of the USS Pueblo.

Bridge of No Return
Barely visible (hey, I had a crappy camera), but in the center of the picture is the Bridge of No Return.  Just in front and to the left of the bridge is the guard shack that was obstructed from view by the tree.  Directly in front of the guard shack stands the remains of the stump of the tree.

Mike at the Bridge of No Return
Another view of the bridge and tree.  The building to the left of me belong to the North Korean propaganda village.

North Korean Propaganda Village
The North Korean Propaganda Village.

When the armistice was declared, each side was ordered to back up two miles and maintain that position.  The remaining 4 mile stretch was declared to be the DMZ.  At that time, the village of Taesong-dong was located in the middle of the DMZ.  Since it was on the South Korean side, it is maintained as a South Korean village, complete with inhabitants.  However, all the inhabitants are strictly regulated.  They have a regular curfew, and according the terms of the armistice, only those people who have ancestral ties to the village can live there.  They are supported by the South Korean government.

But, since South Korea has a village in the DMZ, North Korea wanted to have one also.  So, in the armistice, they are allowed to have a village.  However, the North Korean village has no inhabitants; there are only a few caretakers who come and turn on and off lights.  How else do we know that there are no inhabitants?  The fact that all night long, loudspeakers in the village blast propaganda across the DMZ to the inhabitants of Taesong-dong.

The South Korean government built a large flag pole in Taesong-dong that is 100 meters high.  Not to be outdone, the North Koreans built a flagpole in the propaganda village that is 160 meters high.  The North Korean flag that hangs on it is 30 meters long, and it is so heavy (about 600 pounds), there is no wind that will unfurl it, so it just hangs mostly limp against the pole.

All around the Propaganda Village are huge signs in Hangul that spout all sorts of propaganda in Korean.  These signs look like the Hollywood sign, and I am told that one of them reads "South Korea is an American puppet" and another reads "Come North to Prosperity and Paradise."

After our quick trip into Panmunjom, we again boarded buses and headed over to an observatory.  The observatory is painted all in camouflage and offers a view into North Korea.  It's kind of funny, though.  I found several sites about it on line, and it does look like a concrete building with camouflage painted on it.  Who are they fooling?

Camoflagued bunker
Building?  What building?

So, after some more views of the DMZ and North Korea, we again boarded a bus and went to visit Infiltration Tunnel #3.  The North Koreans decided to blast tunnels under the DMZ through which they could infiltrate agents and also through which they could send masses of troops.  We went to view a movie about the tunnel, complete with the ominous music that played whenever images of North Korean troops was shown.

Anyway, when the tunnel was discovered, the North Korean miners just dropped all their tools and ran.  You can see where they had started drilling holes in which they would insert dynamite.  The North Koreans spray painted the walls black and claimed that it was a coal mine.  Yeah, right...

Infiltration Tunnel
Infiltration Tunnel #3.  The photo is from a Korean pamphlet, since actual photos are not allowed.

Anyway, we took a trip down into the tunnel.  Very interesting.  To imagine the lengths that these people will go, we can't rule out any possibility, which is what makes the prospect of North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons rather frightening.  In fact, Kim il-Sung said that a single tunnel was worth ten nuclear bombs!

As you can tell from the photo, the tunnel is very slick, and I can imagine much better attire for spelunking than in my dress blue uniforms.  Still, it was very interesting to go into the tunnels.  Imagine the balls it takes to tunnel directly under Panmunjom!

Then, it was back onto the bus and back to freedom.  The trip to the DMZ was a very, very sobering experience. 

The really frightening part?  The next day, we read in a small blurb on page 12 of Stars and Stripes that the North started firing into the DMZ and the South returned fire.  It happened the day we were there and only a few miles from where we were.  However, we were told that the exchange of fire is an almost daily occurrence along the DMZ, which is why it rated so little press...

Still, after visiting the DMZ, I have gained a new respect for the brave men and women who put themselves in harm's way along the DMZ.  And I hope that one day, the DMZ, like the Berlin Wall, comes down.  When it does, I hope that it too happens peacefully...

Continue on to Part 7: The Incident