Sunday, June 27, 2021

This Is What North Korea Looks Like

I just got back from a half-day trip somewhere I never imagined I would set foot: the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea. As a Korean American, I definitely knew about the DMZ growing up: that's where the two sides who had an armistice but never truly ended the Korean War would meet and sometimes seem like they made progress and sometimes seem like they took a few steps back. There have also been a number of scary security incidents there, including those that resulted in lives lost on each side of the demarcation line. Thankfully, my group was in good hands visiting under the auspices of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC).

First we stopped at a visitor center in Camp Bonifas with small, museum-style curated displays. There were a lot of details I didn't know. For example, the region around the Joint Security Area (JSA) separating North and South is called Panmunjom (판문점). The 2018 inter-Korean summit between Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae-in and Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un resulted in what is known as the Panmunjom Declaration. What I didn't know is that the name Panmunjom comes from the name of the well-known tavern in the surrounding village.

Camp Bonifas is named after one of two U.S. soldiers killed in what is known as the Axe Murder Incident of 1976. U.S. Army Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett were trimming some trees in the DMZ when a group of DPRK soldiers led by Senior Lieutenant Pak Chul came up to them, observed them for a while, demanded they stop, and then bludgeoned the victims to death with their own axes. The UN Command chose to respond with Operation Paul Bunyan, a demonstration of overwhelming military force to cut down the tree without any additional escalation or loss of life. The photo above is the site where the Axe Murder Incident and Operation Paul Bunyan took place.

Then we went up a hill to get a good vantage point to see North Korea across the border. We could see the infamous Kijong-dong (기정동) in the distance. North Koreans refer to it as Peace Village, but we call it Propaganda Village because several of the buildings are only facades and with binoculars it's obvious that even some of the windows are painted on to give the impression more people live there. Current best estimates are that several hundred people do live in Kijong-dong, but it's much fewer than the DPRK government attempts to present.

After that, we got to check out the site of a famous 2017 defection from the North of a DPRK soldier. The New York Times has a great video explaining the footage from that incident, but it was amazing to stand exactly where the chase happened and see the bullet holes from the incident up close. What the video doesn't say but we learned from our guide is that the defector survived being shot five times and is still living in South Korea today. In the same area, we walked past a building called Freedom House that was designed to host reunification meetings of families separated by the division of North and South. Unfortunately, it has never realized its original purpose due to the DPRK's fear that North Korean families will defect if they are allowed so close to the demarcation line.

One of the coolest stops of the trip was the actual room where negotiations between the two sides happen. We were even allowed to cross the halfway mark and technically set foot in North Korean territory! In normal times, there would have been DPRK soldiers there, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic they have not been as visible. I heard that on the rare occasions they do come out for meetings these days they are wearing head-to-toe orange hazmat suits. It will likely be a while before things are back to normal - at least, as normal as they ever get on the DMZ.

We also got to see the famous view of the large building on the DPRK side that always shows up in news stories about inter-Korean conflict or negotiations. I had the first photo of this post taken where President Trump crossed over to North Korean territory during his official visit in 2019. A short walk away, we saw the blue bridge, also known as the Bridge of No Return. They built an extra section of the bridge in 2018 so that the ROK and DPRK leaders would have somewhere to share tea and cigarettes, but since then that portion of the bridge has begun sinking into the swampy terrain below.

I learned so much on this tour and I would consider a visit to the DMZ a must for anyone visiting South Korea who is able to arrange it in their schedule. This is such an important part of not only world history but world politics and military relationships today, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to see it up close for the first time. And of course I hope that someday the hopes and goals of so many generations of Koreans and allies and friends can be realized and the peninsula can experience peace and reconciliation once again.

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