If you’ve read this far into my DMZ recap, thank you, and also: congratulations, because you made it to the last one! The Joint Security Area was hands down the most exciting, exhilarating part of the entire tour. After leaving the Dora Observatory, we drove to a military checkpoint where we went through one last passport check by our new guide, a US soldier named “Gould” who I liked immediately because he had a wonderfully biting Bradley Walden-meets-Chris-Pratt personality that really helped to take off some of the edge. I was so anxious and nervous on the bus ride to the JSA that my ears were ringing and my face felt all flushed. I was fairly certain we were going to be safe….but, you just never know.
We had to wait for the “all clear” to take photos, at which point we were encouraged to snap away from the bus windows. Obviously not the greatest quality but hello, when will I ever be in this situation again? I have a ton of blurry pictures on my camera roll from this day and I will not delete them!
On our way to Panmunjom, we passed by the Unification Village, which is located inside the DMZ and only several hundred people live there. It’s under United Nations command so residents don’t have to pay South Korea taxes and are exempt from mandatory military service.
But they have a midnight curfew and are subject to military check-ins at their homes, so I’m not sure how great that trade off is, dot dot dot.
Gould told us that the reason the name tags of the US and ROK soldiers (KATUSAs) only include their surnames and no rank is to protect their identity in case DPRK soldiers look for them online and try to harass them on social media.
“I don’t care if they find me,” he said. “Bring it.”
On the bus, he also told us that the DMZ, since it’s largely uninhabited, has grown to be something of an accidental refuge for endangered species over the years. There are literally lions and tigers and bears that have migrated from Russia, just chillin’ up in the landmine-riddled demilitarized zone.
(Someone asked if the animals set off the landmines, which is the question Chooch and I both fearfully had on the tips of our tongues, but he assured us that the landmines are so old, he can’t imagine that any of the animals actually set them off. I guess there was a landmine clean-up project at some point, too. Ugh, it scares to me to think about things like that.)
We arrived at Camp Bonifas, the UN Command post at the JSA, received a security briefing and watched a short informational video in an auditorium, where I cried. Camp Bonifas was once known as Camp Kitty Hawk, but the name was changed in the 80s to honor one of the two victims of the Korean Axe Murder Incident of 1976, CPT Arthur Bonifas. The US soldiers were partaking in tree-cutting duties, when they were ambushed by North Korean soldiers who murdered them with their own axes.
This is a really interesting article about the incident, which I don’t remember ever learning about in school.
Afterward, our group and two other groups combined and split up onto two new coaches. I was happy when Officer Gould chose our bus! We made a short drive deeper into the military area (I don’t know much army terminology!) until we reached the JSA, where we watched the South Korean soldiers do their thing before going outside to take their posts.
Once we walked through the doors, we were facing the iconic baby blue conference buildings which run right across the border, so meetings can take place between diplomats from each side on neutral ground, so to speak.
We were instructed to not make any contact with or gestures toward any North Korean soldier if we saw one, and were warned that they would be watching from the building back there.
It was chilling (even in the 100 degree heat) and wildly exciting to stand before these buildings that I’ve seen numerous times on the news (and Conan, lol).
Our fearless guide, Gould! He’s been stationed in South Korea for the past year and told us that he absolutely loves it, has had amazing times in Seoul, and said that the South Korean soldiers he’s worked with have been awesome and extremely funny, but I thought it was weird that he didn’t also mention how attractive they, but OK Gould. We all know.
Everyone was quiet. All you could hear was whispering among families and the shutter-clicks of cameras. I mean, that was North Korea right on the other side. I didn’t see any of their soldiers, but shit—anything could have happened!
I told Chooch he should write an essay about this for school and he was like, “Yeah ok but no.”
Honestly, I was impressed with how interested he actually seemed — it was a long day in the sweltering heat, but he handled it like an adult and didn’t bitch about being bored not even once. I was happy to be able to provide this educational experience for him but also extremely sad that this place even existed.
Gould took us inside one of the conference buildings and one of the Korean kids in our group asked when we got to cross over to the other side, and Gould was like, “THANKS FOR RUINING MY MOMENT” lol.
But yeah, the moment we all were anxiously anticipating – stepping over to the other side of that conference table where we would officially be standing in North Korea. Since there’s a current travel ban to North Korea, this is the closest us Americans can get at this time to saying that we crossed the border. I recently watched a video about an American girl who wanted to be the youngest person in the world to have traveled to every country in the world, and she had to take a JSA tour in order to cross off North Korea.
Here we are, fake-smiling and hissing for Henry to hurry up and take the damn picture.
The door behind us leads out to the other side. Officer Gould said anyone who chooses to exit through that door is 100% on their own and no longer under the protection of the US military.
I’m sure that door is locked (I hope?) but that’s still a really scary thought.
Officer Gould told us that he truthfully believes that the room we were standing in was going to become obsolete sooner rather than later and that people will be able to freely pass back and forth over the border. He explained that just from being there for the last year, right up against it, he has sensed a healthy level of optimism and communication between the two sides, and he fully believes that unification is going to become a reality.
Granted, the North started shooting off their missiles again right after this, so who knows! I want to have hope!
People from our tour – I loved them all so, so, so much even though I had next to no interaction with any of them. It was just good vibes all around, OK?!
This is the same bridge that South Korean President Moon and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un recently met for a peace talk:
Chooch and Henry need to sit down for a nice peace talk too, really.
This little tree back there was planted by Moon Jae-In and Kim Jong Un in 2018.
From this article:
A mixture of soil from mountains in each country was used for the roots. Kim poured water from a South Korean river over it, while Moon poured water from the Taedong River in North Korea (which also gives its name to the country’s beer). Next to the tree, a stone plaque bears the phrase “Peace and Prosperity Are Planted.
Image: Vietnam News
The Peace House, a neutral building where peace talks take place.
This is the spot where a South Korean officer was killed after a Soviet defector was chased down by the North Korean army into South Korean territory, inciting what became known as the 40 Minute Korean War.
On this somber note, the tour was wrapping up. Officer Gould took some time to answer questions for us and the guy with crutches asked if he was around when the North Korean soldier famously defected last year. Gould said that he was indeed stationed there at that time and even pointed out where it happened!
After this intimate Q&A session (this guy was such a great speaker and was so knowledgeable!), we got back on the bus and headed back to the parking lot outside of Camp Bonifas welcome center, where our original tour bus was waiting for us.
A closer view of the South Korean flag I mentioned in my last DMZ post.
We returned to the parking lot where our original bus was waiting, and Lee gave us time to use the restrooms, etc. Chooch and I sniffed around this beautiful peace bell for a bit and then freaked out when it began to ring, because we didn’t want to be accused of striking it, but then it turned out some decidedly non-hoodlum guy did it and we learned that there is a mallet there specifically so that anyone can ring the bell for, you know, peace. We were still too nervous to do it though!
And then we made the hour long trek back to Seoul. Lee advised us that because of the ongoing Japan-related protests, there might be traffic, but we managed to make it back by 6. I almost cried when we said goodbye to Lee and I blurted out that she was the best tour guide ever because I’m so weird when it comes to these fast-growing attachments that I get on strangers in travel settings.
I’m not much of a history buff or a war aficionado, but this whole experience had made me want to learn about the Korean War. Especially because I have grown to love the South Korean culture and people so much, I just think that learning more about the history of the two countries is important, especially when the United States played such a huge role in it.
If you are ever in South Korea, I highly, 100%, would book again, recommend you to take a tour of not just the DMZ, but the Joint Security Area. Make sure that the tour you’re booking includes the JSA! Not every DMZ tour does and I hear that a lot of people make that mistake and wind up like Pee Wee anxiously awaiting to see the basement.
Meanwhile, if anyone wants to come watch some war movies with me, hit me up.
P.S. I either lost my fucking DMZ magnet or left it on the bus, so how will I ever prove that I visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone?!