Categorized | Korea, Travel

Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), South Korea Part 1

Perhaps the most interesting place I traveled to in my first year in Korea was the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. The DMZ is the strip of land (160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide) that runs across the Korean Peninsula to serve as a buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is the most heavily militarized boarder in the world and one of the biggest tourist attractions for foreigners.

To visit you must book a tour with a tour group, and you must do so weeks in advance because they fill up. A couple other teachers and I booked a trip for late October just before I was to leave the country, and I am glad I did.

The tour takes you to several different places including the Joint Security Area (JSA or Panmunjeom), the Third Infiltration Tunnel, Dora observatory, and Dorasan Station. Each place is full of history and intrigue.

After a brief 20 minute briefing by the US Military, we took off to tour the JSA. This is perhaps the most exciting place for me. Here we were able to see where talks take place between the two countries directly on the boarder. This used to be the only connection between the two countries before a railroad opened up in 2007.

The first place we visited were the buildings in the JSA where talks take place between the two countries. Prior to entering the building we stood and listened to our tour guides (US Army personnel) who were fantastic. The pointed out buildings where North Koreans would be watching every move we made. We were told not to point or make any jestures toward the Northern side. As we waited to go into the building, we could see several South Korean soldiers standing at the ready. They stood with half of their bodies behind a building as a precaution. It was a sobering thing to see just how serious they were. You read about the DMZ, but until you see it you really can’t get a feeling for what its like.

They are always on guard there since there have been several incidents in the past. We only noticed 1 North Korean soldier who stood outside their building very nonchalantly. It was a stark contrast to the soldiers on the Southern side who were very serious and ready at any moment.

JSA - Panmunjeom

The Joint Security Area (JSA or Panmunjeom) - the grey building in the distance is North Korean

JSA - Panmunjeom

The South Korean soldiers are always ready.

JSA - Panmunjeom

To the right of the blue buildings - we were told that we were under surveillance by the North from the smaller building at the top of the picture

We were able to tour the building where talks were held between the two countries which was very interesting. Inside we saw the table where talks are held as South Korean soldiers stood guard. At this point we were actually able to stand in North Korean territory. The building is split along the boarder and the only visible sign of a boarder is a concrete line running between the buildings. It’ s an interesting place and its filled with history which greatly interests me. To be able to stand in a spot where two countries have held peace talks for decades is a sobering feeling. As guards stand on guard we are told stories from out guides. We were even able to take pictures with the soldiers only we were not allowed to touch them. They never moved. We were told jokingly but frankly that if we touch them while they are in their ready position (notice their hands) that they will hurt us. Nobody dared test out this theory.

South Korean soldier on guard in the JSA building

JSA - Panmunjeom

Inside the building where peace talks are held

JSA - Panmunjeom

The concrete line is the boarder outside the buildings

JSA - Panmunjeom

The table where peace talks are held

JSA - Panmunjeom

Me posing with a South Korean soldier. I am standing on the North Korean side of the building. (I like how the lady couldn't wait her turn like everyone else)

There have been several incidents here as well. The most famous perhaps is the Ax Murder Incident in August 1976.

There was also an incident where a Soviet citizen on a JSA tour operated by the North ran across the boarder yelling he wanted to defect. North Korean soldiers chased after him firing the entire time. The South responded by returning fire. The Soviet was able to make it across but not after 3 North Korean soldiers and 1 South Korean solder died in the fight.

The Ax Murder Incident involved the attempted trimming of a poplar tree during which 2 American soldiers lost their lives. The 100 foot poplar tree obscured the view of a checkpoint on the boarder. Checkpoint #3 (CP#3) was only visible from another checkpoint during the summer months. There had been numerous attempts by North Korean soldiers to grab and drag South Korean personnel across the boarder since they were in very close proximity to to CP#3. This led to the attempt on August 18, 1976 to trim the poplar tree.

As the trimming started North Korean soldiers appeared and told them to stop, but they continued and within minutes a truck appeared with more North Korean soldiers. Within a short time, after they once again refused to stop trimming, the North Koreans attacked. Picking up axes dropped by South Korean soldiers, the North Koreans took down two US Army officers.

In response, the UN Command decided to chop down the tree with overwhelming force instead of trimming it. That led to Operation Paul Bunyan on August 21st. A convoy of 23 American and Korean vehicles, along with support from visible attack helicopters and aircraft (bombers and fighters). A group of engineers armed with chain-saws proceeded to cut down the tree. There was no further incident, and there is now a monument honoring the two soldiers who died in the incident – Captain Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett.

Ax Murder Monument

Monument that stands where the poplar tree once stood honoring those who died

Ax Murder Monument

The Ax Murder Monument - the concrete circle below is how big the tree was

The Bridge of No Return - DMZ

The Bridge of No Return - Next to CP#2

Part 2 coming soon…..

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About Eric Bynum
I taught ESL for three years in South Korea and now I am looking to set out on a new journey after just finishing my teaching certification in the US. I hope to continue teaching and traveling and you can follow his journeys here.

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