Quin's Progress


Jewelry Shopping On The 38th Parallel

Who Split Korea In Two?

Well, basically, we did. With the Soviet Union’s help. Let me back up…

Poor Korea has been repeatedly invaded by various neighboring countries as far back as chronicles exist. Japan and Russia had themselves a little war over control of the Korean Peninsula in 1904-1905, which Japan won. Japan then annexed Korea in 1910. Japan occupied Korea for several decades after that – a time that leaves Koreans bitter to this day.

The Allied powers dismantled the Japanese empire after World War II. At the Cairo Conference in 1943, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-Shek agreed that, when the war was over, Japan should lose any territory that it had conquered by force, including Korea. In 1945, Japan surrendered, and the United States and the Soviet Union took control of Korea as “trustees,” with their respective zones of control separated at the 38th Parallel.

The original intention of the trusteeship was to establish a provisional government that would eventually become independent through free general elections supervised by the United Nations. Instead, the Soviet Union established a Communist state in the north, later ceding control to China, and the USA installed an anti-Communist leader in the South. In 1948, the two separate Korean Republics were formed, and the 38th Parallel became the de facto border.

Two years later, North Korea invaded South Korea, took Seoul in just three days, and then very quickly claimed most of the rest of the peninsula. The USA responded immediately; President Truman sent General MacArthur to move the line of control back up as far north of Seoul as he could—all the way to China, if possible. The United Nations marshaled the troops of 16 nations, with the USA in charge, to fight the “police action” that lasted until 1953. When the war finally ended, the division line was right back where it started, at the 38th Parallel.

On July 19, 1953, in the abandoned village of Panmunjeom (now the location of the Joint Security Area), the Armistice Agreement was signed. The agreement declared only a “ceasefire,” and established the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – a 2.5-mile wide buffer zone, roughly along the 38th Parallel, at the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) where the two sides actually confronted each other at the time the Armistice Agreement was signed. Thus, North and South Korea are still, technically, at war.

I’ve never been a fan of group tours, mostly because I’m a slowpoke, and I don’t like the rushed pace of most tour itineraries, but also, because there is always at least one person the group that I end up so wanting to throat-punch with a roll of quarters in my fist, that it distracts me from what I’m there to see.  But, I wanted to visit to the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”) between North and South Korea, and the only way to do it was to join an escorted tour group.  So, I sucked it up, mentally set Saint-Saëns’ soothing cello masterpiece “Le Cygne” on a loop in my head, and got on the bus.

The thin black line is the border--the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)--and the red zone on each side is the Demilitarized Zone. (Image from wikipedia.org)

The thin black line is the border–the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)–and the red zone on each side is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). (Image from wikipedia.org)

Why is an escorted tour required?  Well, if you don’t want to go to the Joint Security Area (“JSA”) right on the border, I suppose it isn’t.  But, that’s the most interesting part, in my view, and you can only go in there from the South Korean side from Camp Bonifas, in a United Nations’ vehicle, escorted at all times by a soldier—usually American—under the UN command that oversees the area.  You have to arrange clearance for your visit from the UN in advance—most foreigners have to apply at least 48 hours beforehand, but South Korean citizens must request permission up to 90 days in advance—and the tour companies handle all that red tape.  Access to the JSA from the southern side is, apparently, prohibited for citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Libya.  Read into that what you will.

So, since I had to join a group tour to see the JSA, I just picked a tour with an itinerary that covered all the DMZ’s greatest hits, including some stops at places accessible by the general public.  I’m so glad I did.  It was a truly fascinating day.  The tours are grouped, as much as possible, by the language of the group, for the practical reason of reducing the number of translators needed.  Except for me and a couple of Dutch guys, my group was all Japanese and Chinese tourists.

Mongolian soldiers touring the DMZ

Mongolian soldiers touring the DMZ

The Korean guide spoke passable English, and because I hadn’t noticed that the tour forms had the name boxes in the Korean style, with the surname placed first, she addressed me as “Marshall-ah” instead of Quin.  (Koreans have a tendency to add an extra vowel syllable at the end of English words that end with certain consonant sounds.  Think “chees-ah-cake-ah.”)  All day long, if I strayed from the group, or dawdled somewhere when the bus was loading up to leave, she would holler “Marshall-aaaaAAAAAHHH!” at me, until I came trotting back to the pack.  By the end of the day, it had begun to have the same effect on me as when my mother would call me by both my first and middle names as a kid.  Uh-oh, snap to, I’m in trouble!  Very effective.  (Strangely, she was not the one I wanted to throat-punch by the end of the tour; that honor went to a Chinese woman who seemed to be narrating the entire trip to someone back home on her cell phone.  She only put the damned thing away when a soldier at Camp Bonifas threatened to confiscate it.)


(I’m going to tell you about this part first, even though it was last on our itinerary, because I know some of you with shorter attention spans won’t read the whole post, and this was the best part.  You’re welcome.)

guest passThe JSA is a roughly 2600 square foot neutral area bisected by the Military Demarcation Line (“MDL”), aka the border between North and South Korea, at the former village of Panmunjeom.  It’s more complicated than I can explain here, but basically, the JSA area is overseen by two commissions established by the 1953 Armistice Agreement: the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, now comprised of representatives of Switzerland and Sweden, and the Military Armistice Commission (“MAC”), which officially supervises performance of the Armistice Agreement.  Security on the southern side is supplied by US and South Korean soldiers under UN command.  From the South, the JSA is reached through Camp Bonifas, a UN command base.

Sgt. Martinez

Sgt. Martinez

The wide highway up to Camp Bonifas is dotted with military checkpoints, and covered with barricades that require vehicles to do a slow, elaborate slalom into the DMZ.  The bus had to stop multiple times, so a soldier could come through and individually check all our passports, to make sure no one from a prohibited nation was entering the zone (see above).  Photography is prohibited along the road.  At Camp Bonifas, we had to leave all our belongings, except cameras, watch an orientation film, and sign a declaration that we understood the requirements and dangers of entering the JSA, including that it was possible that we could be shot, and assumed all the risks of entering.  That was comforting.  Then we got on a blue UN bus, had our passports and clothing (there’s a dress code) checked one last time, and were escorted into Panmunjeom by Sgt. Martinez of the U.S. Army.

On the way, we were admonished not to point, wave, or otherwise gesticulate, and to keep a straight face while anywhere near the JSA, because the North Koreans would be watching and photographing us the whole time, and would make propaganda materials out of any gesture or expression that could be portrayed as disrespectful or antagonistic, especially if you look American.  Even the guides were prohibited from pointing, so all explanations used the “clock system” of locating things, i.e., saying something is located at two o’clock or eleven o’clock, etc.  The UN bus stopped in front of a the “Freedom House,” a big modern hall with a grand staircase that you ascend to access the main attraction.  On the other side of the doors at the top of the staircase is the JSA.  For some reason, although we couldn’t photograph anything anywhere else, we were free to take pictures to our hearts content inside the JSA.


That big, gray concrete building in the center is in North Korea.
The soldiers with their backs to the camera are in South Korea.

There are four small buildings built directly on top of the MDL.  The border runs right down the middle of these structures, and they have doors to either side, so no one has to cross over the MDL to gain access.  There is a concrete slab over the MDL between the buildings, so the soldiers know exactly where the line is.

The grey building is the "Monkey House"

The grey building in the foreground is the “Monkey House”

The only one of the little buildings right on the line that is not painted UN blue is supposedly a recreation hall for North Korean soldiers.  Apparently, they only go inside to make goofy faces and threatening gestures at UN command duty officers having meetings in the building next door.  As a result, the soldiers on the southern side have nicknamed the building the “Monkey House.”

In the space at the center of the four buildings, soldiers from the respective Koreas stare each other down.  South Korean—or, ROK (Republic of Korea)—soldiers can only serve in the JSA if they are at least 170 cm tall and have at least one black belt in Taekwondo or Judo.  They stand in a modified Taekwondo stance called “ROK Ready,” in black sunglasses, so as to avoid making eye contact, and to be as intimidating to the North Korean soldiers on the other side of those concrete slabs as possible.

Only Half Exposed

Only Half Exposed

While on watch, they stand with their noses at the corner of the buildings, half obscured, so as to give the North Korean soldiers facing them a smaller target to hit if they decide to start shooting.  This way, they can also signal to other southern-positioned soldiers with the obscured hand, if necessary.

Inside the MAC Conference Room. The table in the foreground is ON the MDL.  That door in the back exits to North Korea...if you can get past that guy guarding it.

Inside the MAC Conference Room. The table in the foreground is ON the MDL. That door in the back exits to North Korea…if you can get past that guy guarding it.

One of the three blue buildings is the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Conference Room, where meetings between diplomats from North and South Korea take place.  There is a long conference table in the center of the room, right over the MDL, so that the North Koreans can sit in North Korea, and South Koreans can sit in South Korea during the meetings.  We got to go inside this building.

ROK Ready!

ROK Ready!

When visitors entering from the south are inside, the room is guarded by South Korean soldiers in ROK Ready stance—one blocking the exit to the North Korean side, and one straddling the MDL.  They stand silently, still as statues, and Sgt. Martinez advised us that we could photograph them, but if we tried to touch them, or to go near the door to the North, we should expect to be put down with swift and powerful force.

This ROK soldier is straddling the MDL.   That's Sgt. Martinez on the left.

I was standing in North Korea when I took this picture of the ROK soldier straddling the MDL running down the middle of the room.

I didn’t doubt him for a second.  (Although, I couldn’t help but think that, especially with hot pants, those uniforms would make very popular costumes in the Castro at Halloween.)  The most exciting part was, I took these photos from the North Korean side of the room.  That’s right.  I was about 12 feet inside of North Korea for approximately 15 minutes.  That’s enough for a Century Club point!

After the excitement of our brief visit to North Korea, we were herded back onto the blue bus, and returned to Camp Bonifas to collect our belongings.  Before we got back on the tour bus to leave, we were given access to this weird silo-like building to use the facilities and peruse the gift shop.

The Gift Shop

The Gift Shop

Yes, the gift shop.  There is a gift shop in the DMZ!  You know, even after I found out about the gift shop at San Quentin Penitentiary, this one still surprised me.  A gift shop at the mother-effin’ DMZ.  Of course, I had to have a look.  There were military-themed t-shirts and caps and stuff, UN Command armbands, some typical Korean tourist tchotchkes, an impressive inventory of Red Ginseng products, and…an amethyst jewelry counter.  A big one.  How random is that?  Amethyst rings, earrings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets, brooches…you name it, they had it, and lots of it.  They had big natural amethysts on display stands, too.  Amethysts-R-Us, it was.  You know…because when you want amethyst jewelry, you think “North Korean border.”  I know I do.  Well, I will from now on, anyway.

Incidentally, in 2000, the genius South Korean film director, Park Chan-wook (of the Vengeance Trilogy fame) made a gripping, touching film called “JSA: Joint Security Area,” about an investigation by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission of a fatal shooting incident inside the JSA.  I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I’m not going to tell you anything about it, except that you will be glad you spent 90 minutes of your life on it.  The twists!  The turns!  The humanity!  It is, at once, terrifying, sweet, chilling and funny.  It’s not on Netflix (yet), but someone has uploaded a fine quality bootleg on YouTube, with English subtitles:

Watch it sometime.  You won’t be sorry.


Paju is an area just south of the DMZ.  You can visit most of the locations of interest in and around Paju on your own.

This was printed on the hard hats they make you wear when you go down the tunnel.

This was printed on the hard hats they make you wear when you go down the tunnel.

Our first stop in Paju was the “Third Tunnel of Aggression.”  Since the establishment of the DMZ, South Korea has discovered four tunnels, dug under the border by North Korea to infiltrate the south.  It is believed that there are as many as 20 tunnels, but only four have been found.  The “Third Tunnel” was found in 1978 when a North Korean defector told South Korean officials about it.  He could only identify the general location of the tunnel by its proximity to a big Poplar tree on the south side of the border.  So, they went and bored a bunch of holes in the ground all over the place by the tree, and then flooded the area with water, and waited to see where the water drained the fastest.  When the water disappeared as if down a drain, they knew the tunnel was underneath that hole.  The South then blocked the tunnel with concrete barricades at the approximate location of the MDL.

Weird mock-up traditional village at the mouth of the tunnel

Weird mock-up traditional village at the mouth of the tunnel, and more statues of woodland creatures.

The Third Tunnel was never completed, but it extends almost 500 meters south of the MDL, and is big enough for 30,000 lightly armed soldiers PER HOUR to move through.  (Well…North Korean soldiers.  They are small.  Everyone else is too tall and fat from all the plentiful food to go through in anything but a crouched single-file.)  When it was discovered, North Korea insisted first that it was South Korea that had built it, but when the slope and dynamite blast marks proved it had been constructed from the North, they said it was a coal mine, going so far as to smear coal dust on the tunnel walls for added evidence.  But…there’s no coal in the earth there, so….yeah.

The Tram

The Tram

Anyway, there’s a groovy little tram you can take the 240 feet down into the tunnel to look around.  Photography was prohibited inside, so I can’t show you what it looked like, but if you’ve ever been on the Log Ride at Disneyland, imagine the tunnel was narrow enough to bump your head and elbows, and the logs moved at a pace of about one mile per hour.  At the bottom, you get off the tram, and march, single-file, down the tunnel almost to the concrete barricades.  Then, single-file, all the way back to the tram.  I am only 5’3”, and I had to bend slightly to get through the tunnel without knocking my head on the granite.  I can’t imagine 30,000 armed troops running through there.  But, that’s what the plan was, apparently.  It’s eery, especially because they have placed little bronze statues of woodland creatures down there, for no particular reason.  I mean, I could almost understand figurines of gophers or…I don’t know…dwarves.  But, deer and squirrels?  It was just weird.



There was no wandering around topside, though.  The area was surrounded by mines.  Mines, and a festive native village mock-up.  Go figure.

Next up was the “Freedom Bridge” over the Imjin River.  At the end of the Korean War, thousands of POWs returning from the North walked over this bridge to freedom.  Hence the name.  (Not to be confused with the “Bridge of No Return,” where POWs were forced to choose a side-North or South-and whichever way they crossed, there was no going back.  That’s a different bridge, elsewhere in the DMZ.)

Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge

Freedom Bridge is also sometimes called “Cow Bridge,” because in 1998, as part of a deal to provide economic assistance to the North, the founder of the Hyundai Corporation—who had come to Seoul from the North before the division, and was separated from his hometown and family for the rest of his life—delivered 1,000 head of cattle to the North Korean people over this bridge.

Wishes for Reunification on Ribbons

Wishes for Reunification on Ribbons

On the south side of the bridge, South Koreans have developed Imjingak, a sort of memorial park, where Koreans separated from family and friends in the North because of the division could go and console themselves with the illusion of being close to their lost loved ones.  There are restaurants and art exhibits, even an amusement park, that give this somber place a somewhat schizophrenic feel.

At Imningjak

At Imjingak

Imagine, if Imjingak had been built before the end of the war, the first thing POWs returning from North Korean prisons would have seen, is a Popeye’s Fried Chicken.

The best place to look at North Korea from the southern side, though, is Dora Observatory.  From a large platform on top of Mount Dora, you can look across the DMZ into North Korea.  Even without binoculars, you can see sentry posts along the DMZ, and a few villages along the border.

No photography beyond the yellow line--and nothing to photograph on this side of the line.

No photography beyond the yellow line–and nothing to photograph on this side of the line.

Photography, again, was prohibited anywhere close to the viewing platform.

Just 350 meters south of the border, inside the DMZ and visible with binoculars from the Dora Observatory platform, there’s a tiny, agricultural village called Daeseong-dong.  It’s inhabited, and its few residents are South Korean citizens, but they are exempt from taxation and national service duty.  They are, however, constantly watched, restricted in where they can go, and subject to a curfew.

On the other side, in the northern part of the DMZ, is the North Korean “Propaganda Village” (or “Peace Village” according to the North Koreans) of Kijong-dong.  Built in the late 1950s, the official North Korean account is that this town is a 200-family farm collective, with schools and a hospital.  But, it’s deserted, and always has been.  It was crafted to convey an appearance of Northern prosperity and plenty to a then very impoverished South Korea, and encourage defections to the North.  Until recently, propaganda broadcasts were blasted at the South from loudspeakers mounted on the buildings.  Without the aid of binoculars, you can see the ghost village in the distance, marked by a massive North Korean flag on a towering flagpole protruding from its center.  As of 2011, it was the third tallest flagpole in the world, at 525 feet.  The flag alone weighs about 600 pounds.  The flagpole was erected in the 80s, after the South Korean government had built a 323 foot tall flagpole in Daeseong-dong.  The North Koreans considered that antagonistic, so they responded by building a much taller, more impressive flagpole, so that anyone looking at the area from the Dora Observatory is crystal clear on who won the Korean flagpole version of “¿Quién es más macho?”

dorasanNearby is Dorasan Station, the northernmost railway station in South Korea.  There has been some cargo rail traffic across the border since 2007, mainly serving the Kaesong Industrial Region about 10 miles north of the DMZ.  dorsan buildingThat came to a screeching halt in April of this year, when North Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Region in the fracas that ensued after the enactment of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2087 prompted Kim Jong-un to declare the United States the “sworn enemy of the Korean people,” and announce plans to commence nuclear testing and development of long-range missiles.  But, there has been no passenger rail traffic across the border since the war.

Gates to the Pyongyang train platform...just in case.

Gates to the Pyeongyang train platform…just in case.

South Korea built the new, modern Dorasan Station to be ready to go as soon as Korea is reunified.  There are state of the art passenger platforms for yet-to-be-built rail lines to Pyeongyang, with signage already in place.  The ticket counter is already manned, and you can even buy a commemorative ticket to Pyeongyang, which gives you access to the platform.  But, no train is coming.  The station sits idle, except for two commuter trains per day from Seoul, for workers in Paju.



Dorasan Station is the only place we visited on the tour that did not loudly convey the palpable distrust between the two Koreas.  On the contrary, Dorasan Station was hopeful; a monument to the South Korean wish, if not optimism, that reunification really will, eventually happen.