Does this topic feel like it’s been dragging on to you? I feel like I’ve lost my oomph with it. This post has been sitting in my drafts folder for a few weeks and I just can’t seem to figure out how to make it better. But alas… I’m going on a short vacation from the interweb (hello, camping!) so I’m unloading it on you anyway. Sorrynotsorry, but actually, I really am sorry.
After about a 10 minute drive through the DMZ, we arrived at Camp Bonifas, located on the JSA. There we were boarded by an American Military Police Officer (UN trained and sanctioned) who checked our passports against the list and proceeded with us as our guide for the JSA portion of the tour.
When we entered Camp Bonifas/the JSA, we were prohibited from photographing anything from the bus for security reasons. They are very strict about it and I am deathly afraid of authority, so I complied. No way was I endangering my chances of the full tour/arrest and deportation. (FYI< those two things are equally mortifying to me.)
Just a couple hundred yards inside the gate the bus dropped us off in front of this building.
Turns out that “what we had gotten ourselves into” was quite a lot of uncertainty. Probably my mom shouldn’t read the fine print too closely. In summary:
Dear Visitor, It is dangerous here. Follow the rules. Don’t point at anything (more on that later). Don’t address any North Korean soldiers. We’re sorry if anything happens to you, but it won’t be our fault. XOXO, the UN
At this point, my emotions had definitively shifted from grief to alertness. The tension everywhere was palpable. No one messes around in the DMZ. You walk in single file lines and go where you are told. Not so much because the North Koreans will get you, but more so because there are American soldiers who do not hesitate to put you in your place. After the briefing, we
hopped filed back on the bus for yet another ride. We drove past trees, tanks, guard posts, mine fields, and lots and lots and lots of barbed wire, no photography allowed. So… still very alert. We also drove past the entrance to the only South Korean village in the DMZ, Daeseong-dong. This village, along with it’s North Korean counterpart, Kijong-dong, are so interesting to me that I’m going to have to dedicate a full post to them. (Did you know you were getting a Part 3? Maybe you suspected it just a leeeeeetle bit? Well, you’re very smart, in case no one has told you that already today.)
Here’s the part you’ve been anxiously awaiting. We arrived at Freedom House, another donation by the Hyundai corporation, and made our way single file up the stairs and out to the infamous conference room row.
Here is our guide explaining some history, and enforcing the rules. The three soldiers facing away are ROK (South Korean) soldiers. They stand in a moderately aggressive modified Taekwondo stance, fists clenched. (Our guide told us that most of the ROK border guards are black belts in Taewondo.) If you look at the gravel in front of the soldiers, you will see the border. It looks like a black line in the picture above, but it is actually a concrete slab 17 inches wide and 5 inches tall. The gray building in the background is in North Korea. At the top of the stairs towards the left, you can see the only DPRK (North Korean) soldier we saw during our trip, although there were many watching us from behind the glass here and in one other location. Up to this point I had been ultra cautious about all the rules. (I’m deathly afraid of authority, remember?) Imagine my mortification when I… wait for it… broke the Cardinal Rule of the DMZ and pointed at a building in order to ask a question. I almost died. Oh, not by gunfire or anything. Just mortification, plain and simple.
(Incidentally, the reason they tell you not to point is because the DPRK photographs everyone who visits the border, and they’ve Photoshopped many a tourist into looking like they’re flipping off the North. They then use it as propaganda for their own citizens.)
We entered the conference room to the left…
The table that is perpendicular to the others is “on the border.” We were allowed to move freely throughout the room, but there were specific directions as to where we could photograph. In the room there are 2 ROK soldiers posted.
One stands on the border:
And yes, that does mean that I’m on the border, too. I’ll pause for just a moment while you digest that.
And one stands on the North Korean side, preventing anyone from exiting into North Korea. As if.
(Photo tip: if you want to look like a behemoth, stand next to a relatively trim and short man and then take 4 steps forward. Have someone take a quick pic and – Voila! – enjoy looking large and in charge!)
But here’s the important thing. I was standing on North Korean soil here!