And now, a little photo essay of my trip with some colleagues back to the DMZ.  When I blogged a few weeks ago about my first trip, I wrote that 170 meters was the closest I’d ever get to North Korea.  I was wrong.  This time we traveled right into the heart of it, to the village of Panmunjeom and the Joint Security Area where soldiers from North and South face off.

First, there was the stop at a really cute little coffeehouse; I’m still amazed at the fanatical proliferation of cafes throughout Korea.  It’s almost as if it’s an addictive substance!  Yeesh, awkward…

 

 

 

After a quick lunch, it was off to Imjingak, a park dedicated to remembrances of the Korean war and the enduring hope for reunification.

 

This memorial includes a bronze incense urn in front of a stone altar; Korean families come here regularly, light incense and leave food and other offerings on the altar, and pray to family members still in the North (standing in front of the altar you are facing the border).

 

I couldn’t get close enough to take a good picture of this stunning sculptural installation, but trust me, it is tremendously impactful.  The four statues depict a father, mother, son and daughter, walking single-file to the crest of the hill.  They are looking for family members lost to the North.

 

Many Korean sites have a Peace Bell, and Imjingak is no exception.  The bell rings out hope every daytime hour of every day.  I can only imagine the symbolism of the teardrop that stands nearby.

 

And then it was on to the epicenter of the Korean conflict.  Throughout this part of the tour we were under military escort at all times, and had strict regulations to avoid inadvertently provoking the North Korean soldiers.  We were not allowed to carry anything but a camera (not even a camera case); one man was not allowed to bring his because it looked like a camcorder.  We were kept in two single-file lines and moved swiftly from spot to spot.  We were told when we could and could not take pictures.  We were not allowed to point at anything, to wave or communicate in any way with a North Korean soldier.  All in all, it was pretty intense.

First, our bus drove us past the Bridge of No Return, where thousands of POW’s have been exchanged over the last 60 years.

 

Near the bridge is the site of the famous Axe Murder Incident: in 1976 a couple dozen North Korean soldiers attacked a half-dozen South Korean and American soldiers who were attempting to trim a poplar tree that blocked the view of one of their checkpoints.  Northern soldiers grabbed the tree-trimming axes and murdered two American soldiers.  Nothing remains of the tree; only a plaque.

 

At the Joint Security Area we were lined up on a landing overlooking the place where North and South actually meet.  These blue buildings sit on the border, so half of each building is in North Korea and half in South Korea.

 

The South Korean soldiers hold this position, standing absolutely stock-still as far as I could tell, for how long I don’t know.  As you can see a bit better in the picture above (on the right), a soldier guarding the border stands with half of his body hidden behind the blue building.  This is apparently so the soldier has a better chance of getting cover in case of gunfire.

 

Only one North Korean soldier showed himself while I was there.  He surveyed us through binoculars.

 

It seemed quiet enough, but the tension was about as thick as frozen butter.  Sometimes North and South soldiers stand face-to-face, right at the border.  We were told that North soldiers will spit in South soldiers’ faces, kick dirt onto their shoes, and engage in verbal aggression.  Numerous incidents have taken place over the years, and we were told that our tour had a 95% chance of happening but could be canceled at any time if aggression broke out.  We were told that South Korea’s stance is to maintain composure in the face of all provocation from North soldiers, and to maintain a strong but peaceful front above all.  South soldiers have all been issued sunglasses to be worn at all times, to prevent from engaging North soldiers in “eye-fighting”.  Seriously.

After the photo op from the landing, we were all ushered into the blue building on the left of the above picture.  T-2, as it’s called, contains the conference table where North and South meet for negotiations.  The room was being guarded by two South Korean soldiers when we were there.  United Nations Command flags were removed somewhat recently, after a North Korean soldier blew his nose into the American flag and shined his boots with the United Nations flag.  South soldiers stand with fists clenched and arms bent – their constant stance of readiness for combat.

 

I looked out the window, and lo and behold: I was in North Korea.

 

Strange and really sad.  I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so aware of the silliness of borders and the purely human illusion that this earth is anything but one living, synergistic organism.  Of all my experiences in Korea, this will stick with me the most and the longest; South Korea will stay in my prayers as they continue to face such tenacious toddler-tantrumming from its dark half, and with such grace, composure, and enduring hope.

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