The most (in)famous tourist attraction on the Korean peninsula is definitely the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom. Panmunjeom is the village where the armistice which established the ceasefire for the June 25th war (a.k.a. the Korean War) was signed. The Joint Security Area was established by the armistice, the one place where South Korean, American, and North Korean military forces are permitted to interact with each other. All official meetings between South Korean officials and North Korean officials take place here.
Tourists can only visit the Joint Security Area as a part of an organized tour, so that’s exactly what I did. Our military escort was a teenager (19 years old) from Wisconsin who had just enlisted in the U.S. military months before, and had been posted at Camp Bonifas, near the Joint Security Area.
While we were sitting in the bus he answered questions. Some people asked him about life in South Korea. He says he hasn’t seen much other than the base – he hasn’t even been to Seoul yet, even though it’s so close. He says the worst thing is that there is ‘nothing to do’ when he has free time. He can’t even use cellphones because North Korea jams the signal. He said that if any of our cellphones worked inside the Demiliterized Zone (DMZ, we should tell him what our service provider is, so that he could sign up.
He’s too young to drink alcohol – since it’s a U.S. Army Base, the legal age is 21 years old. However, even if he could legally drink alcohol, all U.S. military personnel posted in the DMZ are forbidden to ever get drunk, and there is a strict maximum limit on their blood alcohol levels at all times. He said that in the previous year they hadn’t been so strict about the blood alcohol levels, but that this year they were being very strict, so he feels that not being allowed to drink alcohol at all doesn’t make much difference.
I asked him why he joined the U.S. Army. He said that, after graduating from high school, he had nothing to do with his life, so he decided to join the Marines. For some reason, that didn’t work out, but a local army recruiter approached him and said ‘Let’s do this’. He says it’s the best decision he’s ever made in his life.
We all had to watch a presentation about the history of the JSA before entering the area where we could see the North Korean side. Our escort warned us that the presentation would be really boring and that it would be okay to sleep through it. In fact, the presentation – which covered the armistice, establishment of the Military Demarcation Line and DMZ, and the Axe murder incident – was not boring, and several of the other people on the tour said so. ‘Well’ he said ‘after you’ve seen it over 20 times, it’s pretty boring’.
He said that the highlight – that is, the border with the North Korean side of the JSA – is only interesting when the KPAs are out. KPA = Korean People Army, i.e. North Korean soldiers. He says that at least Bob would be there. ‘Bob’ is a KPA who is generally stationed out there to see the tour groups which come from the South Korean side. Our army escort says that he feels sorry for Bob because he has such an incredibly boring job.
And indeed, when we came out of the ‘Home of Freedom’ to see the blue buildings where talks take place and the North Korean Panmon Hall, Bob was there.
I asked our escort what is the largest number of KPAs he ever saw at one time. He said ‘ten, but it’s very rare for there to be that many’. He said that he got into a staring contest with one of the KPAs. It only lasted a few seconds, but he said it was intense, and that it was the best moment of his life.
Those soldiers in green clothing are ROKs – Republic of Korea (i.e. South Korean) soldiers. The ROKs who are posted in the JSA are the cream of the ROK army. They are all required to have a black belt in Taekwondo or Judo. They stand absolutely still, in a stance which is supposed to intimidate the KPAs. They often stand partially behind a building, as shown above, because it offers a lower profile should the KPAs decide to shoot.
However, compared to these intense ROKs, the KPAs seem pretty relaxed and ordinary. Our escort said that this ROK guys are really tough, and that he heard about an ROK getting into a fist fight with several KPAs and beating the hell out of all them. He believes the ROKs can do that.
When it was our turn, we were able to entire one of the build conference buildings.
The South Korea / North Korea border runs straight through these buildings, and this is the only place where it is safe to cross the border into North Korea without a North Korean visa.
I, of course, got someone to take photos of me while I was (technically) standing in North Korea next to one of the ROKs (no, I am not going to post the photos online). The fellow tourist took two photos of me. My posture changed between the two photos – but the ROK had not budged a centimeter. When my parents saw the two photos, they had an argument. My dad thought the ROK was an actual human being, and my mom though that the ROK was a mannequin because she didn’t believe a human being could stand so still.
When we went out through the ‘House of Freedom’, we had a little time to see a museum and gift shop. The gift shop sold North Korean wine, but unfortunately, they didn’t have any North Korean post stamps or the Pyongyang Times, which I would have been interested in seeing.
In the museum, there is a live cam showing the blue buildings and Panmon Hall. It turns out that a tour group from the North Korean side was coming (many tourist groups in North Korea also visit the JSA). On the cam, I could see that a few more KPAs had come out, and I just managed to see the group. It looked like it was about as big as our group – about thirty people, and almost everyone was dressed in black clothing. Unfortunately, just at that moment, I had to go because my bus was leaving. I wish I had had a couple more minutes to watch the tourist group coming from the North Korean side.
In the next part, I will continue to describe my visit to the Joint Security Area.