Tattered Flag

Like a twisted scar, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is a living relic of the war that divided the peninsula and on a larger scale, it epitomizes the Cold War.  The DMZ is the literal flashpoint for something that weighs heavily in the Korean psyche.  Since a peace treaty was never signed by both parties, the two states remain in a technical state of war.  The DMZ represents, physically and emotionally, the national traumas of the past and now with the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombing of Yeonpyeong island, the present and future security situation of living next to an increasingly violent neighbor.

To visit the DMZ, you must be in a tour – independent travel is prohibited.  The UN, manned by around 95% South Korean soldiers (the remaining are US troops), has jurisdiction over the southern side of the Joint Security Area (JSA).  Called Panmunjom, the JSA used to be a small area where soldiers and negotiators from the North and South would move about freely in an albeit small area.  Due to the Ax Murder Incident in the 1970s (captions explain), the JSA exists in name only.  Instead, it is a harshly demarcated area where the opposing soliders stare at each other behind opaque glasses, where the border is drawn to the centimeter, and where every move is recorded, literally.

The entire area weaves together a story of something that perhaps is hard for an outsider to grasp, myself included.  Guns are not drawn and bullets are not whirling through the air.  Sunlight peaks from behind clouds as the spring breeze lazily wafts across the landscape.  In an odd way, the DMZ is at peace.  However, it would be a mistake to confuse topical calm for a deeper halcyon root.  In the same way that violent sites of the past, such as Nazi concentration camps, are tranquil but evoke strong and palpable emotions, the same idea can be applied to the DMZ.  But in Korea, the conflict still rages.  Through the relative calm, there is urgency and discord, tension that is part of Korea and the Korean people.

The weary flag limps on…

There will be a a larger post on Seoul itself, but the captions with these pictures tell the story pretty well.

These blue houses, set up by the UN for face-to-face dialogues between the two sides, straddle the border to the centimeter. In the foreground, South Korean soldiers are only 20 meters from their North Korean counterparts. The building in the background is in North Korea, and according to our guide, is full of soldiers taking pictures of us from the upper floors.

Another view - South Korean soldiers face North Korean soldiers in the background. Here you can see the top of a tour group on the North Korean side, probably from Russia.

Yup, a Russian your group on the North Korean side. It was odd being in a tour on the South Korean side and seeing another group in the North taking pictures of us.

Inside the blue houses, a South Korean solider guards the opposite door. Behind him is North Korea.

South Korean soldier

Me with a South Korean solider, literally 5 feet from North Korea

Though the blue houses (where I was for this picture) are technically UN territory, I was on the North Korean side of the border. This concrete barrier is the exact line of demarcation, with the North being on the left and South Korea on the right.

Before we could actually visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) with the two sides' soldiers facing each other, we received a briefing of the current state of the conflict by UN soldiers.

The badge

The outside of the UN briefing building near the actual JSA and line of demarcation

This monument honors the spot where two American soldiers were killed in 1976 in what is called the Ax Murder Incident. Instead of the current situation in which the JSA is clearly and harshly divided between the two sides, it used to actually be a joint security area. Both North Korea and South Korea had operations throughout this area. However, a tree was blocking one of the South's observation posts. Two soldiers began to chop it down as North Korean soldiers observed. Suddenly, they were attacked with axes by other soldiers from the North. This led to a serious deterioration of relations between the two Koreas and led to the current arrangement of the split JSA.

Within the DMZ, there are two villages with large flags on both. The largest, which is the second-largest flagpole in the world, sits on the North Korea side. The South calls this a propaganda town, as the North Korean regime plays positive sayings about Kim Jong-Il and says the town is paradise. Instead, it is merely a facade of empty buildings (and in my opinion, old Soviet-style buildings don't exactly exude images of grandeur). This picture I found online as taking pictures on the bus is nearly impossible, but it was really eerie to see the North Korean flag flying in the near distance. Oddly, in order to counter the propaganda messages spewing from the North, the South drops empty ramen canisters from the air.

The Bridge of No Return - in 1953, the two sides agreed to exchange prisoners of war. The only stipulation the captives were given was that if you cross this bridge, you will never be able to return.

The town of Imjingak located directly outside the DMZ is now dedicated to providing visitors with information but more importantly, personal stories, about the Korean War and the zone

A monument dedicated to those who have lost their lives defending the border

Ribbons with messages of hope for reunification line the chain-link fence


The most militarized place in the world, the Korean DMZ, is over the fence.

From an observation post, we were told that taking pictures past this line was not allowed. Also from our guide: at almost all of these sites, we were being watched and recorded by similar North Korean observation posts.

From behind the line, North Korea hazily appears in the distance

One of our final sites was the Third Tunnel. In the 1990s, the South Koreans discovered four tunnels dug by the North Koreans under the DMZ in order to facilitate a large and secret attack on Seoul. The North Koreans covered the walls in coal and said it was a mine, though the Korean peninsula has almost no coal. Presumably there are more clandestine tunnels that have not been found. We descended into the 3rd Tunnel to see how they were built and how an advancing North Korean army would proceed in invading the South. Here, an statue at the entrance to the tunnel shows the world pushing the two Koreas together.

Our final stop was the Dorason Train Station. Built in the early 2000s during a relative thawing of relations between the North and the South, and visited by former US President George Bush, the train station is the northernmost train station within the South Korean side of the DMZ with plans to link Seoul and Pyongyang. It's strange to walk into a modern but completely deserted terminal with signs for "Trains to Pyongyang." Times surely have changed...

I love signs

A sign showing the proposed train reunification across the DMZ linking Seoul and Pyongyang

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1 Response to Tattered Flag

  1. jml says:

    great post…thanks for the historical overview!!

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