Inside the DMZ
Mr. Crab recently had a rare opportunity to work inside the DMZ for several days, during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to South Korea.
Despite its name, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North & South Korea is one of the most fortified borders in the world, replete with observation posts, soldiers and thousands of landmines. Both sides also maintain their own "peace villages", where a small number of civilians live and farm. More on that later.
Probably the most well-known site in the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as Panmunjeom for the old village that once stood here. The JSA is the only place where North & South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face, and where the only place where both countries officially communicate.The area is administered by United Nations Military Armistice Commission (UNMAC).
Ironically, the DMZ has become one of South Korea's most famous tourist attractions...no wonder why some soldiers refer to the DMZ as the Disneyland of Korea. When visitors arrive to Camp Bonifas, the South Korean side of the JSA, the first place they are taken is the DMZ Museum and Visitors Center, which even includes a souvenir shop where you can buy cheezy trinkets like DMZ T-shirts and mugs:
North Korea also runs tours on their side of the border, as we observed on a few occasions, as in the photo below of a Western visitor sightseeing on the North side of the JSA:
Within the JSA, each side has a large imposing building -- Freedom House in South Korea and Panmungak (Panmun Hall) in North Korea. The buildings are mostly empty and only used for ceremonial purposes. In between the two buildings is the border between North & South Korea. And straddling both sides of the border is "Conference Row" - a group of blue and silver structures. The silver buildings are exclusively for use by North Korea. The blue buildings are jointly-used buildings. Here's a look at Conference Row and North Korea's Panmungak building, as seen from the roof of South Korea's Freedom House:
Above: North Korean soldiers photograph a South Korean soldier and Western visitors to the DMZ. The unassuming concete slab at the foot of the DPRK soldiers is the border between North & South Korea.
Inside the main conference room is a typical conference table, set up so the Korean border runs down the middle. There is no border line within the room, but the flags and microphones on the table are arranged so they straddle the border, and the tiled floor breaks at the border too. Within the conference room, visitors can walk to the north end of the room...the only place where one can freely (and safely) walk into North Korea.
Republic of Korea (ROK Army) soldier stands guard inside the MAC conference room:
When officials from either side are visiting the conference room, soldiers/officials from the opposite Korea cannot enter the room. But that doesn't stop them from peeking into the windows and photographing visitors! (In the photo below, I'm actually standing in North Korea.)
Above: North Korean soldier peers into window while South Korea soldier stands guard inside the UNMAC conference room.
Outside, it's a cat & mouse game as both sides watch each other closely. But the North Korean soldiers are much more obvious in their tactics.
Over the years, the JSA has been the site of several bloody skirmishes between North & South Korea. The most infamous of these was the Axe Murder Incident in 1976, when North Korean soldiers bludgeoned to death two U.S. Army officers who were cutting down a tree that was blocking their line of sight. The memorial below now stands at the location of the incident.
Another famous site near the JSA is the "Bridge of No Return" that was used for prisoner exchanges after the Korean War. The bridge has been featured in numerous South Korean and Hollywood films including "Die Another Day" and "Salt". It's now quite overgrown by weeds and barely standing.
One of the most surprising aspects of the DMZ is the fact that there are two villages where people live and work -- Kijong-dong in North Korea and Daesong-dong in South Korea. Kijong-dong is known as "Propaganda Village" because most of its buildings are actually empty shells. The most visible landmark within this area of the DMZ is the giant North Korean flag atop the third largest flagpole in the world. Just north of the Propaganda Village, and just outside the DMZ, is the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint North-South Korean venture.
But apart from the JSA, the two villages and military observation posts, the DMZ is void of development - completely untouched since 1953. And that's made the DMZ a de facto nature reserve, 4km wide and 250km long.
A North Korean observation post surrounded by nothing...
A desolate farm house in North Korea:
Abandoned village in North Korea:
A farm just outside Daesong-dong village on the South Korean side of the DMZ:
If Korea is ever united, the DMZ would make a heck of an awesome national park!