North Korea and South Korea: DMZ and JSA

ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers, all black belts in Taekwondo, stand motionless in defensive Taekwandoe poses, and wear sunglasses, so as to never show emotion toward the opposition.

I've now been to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea twice, most recently three days ago: once as part of a private tour (mostly in Japanese with limited English translation) and this weekend as part of a USO tour offered by the United States military (highly recommended).

The DMZ is the only place along the de facto border between North Korea and South Korea where the two sides stand face to face, every day, all day, all night. Despite the ceasefire signed in 1953, the two sides have been at war continuously since 1950. It is sobering and surreal.

The blue buildings below belong to the United Nations. The one on the left is the Joint Security Area shared by the opposing forces North Korea and South Korea, but it is never occupied by both countries at the same time. When one side finishes with the building, usually for a tour, they will unlock the door of the opposing side, and when they exit they will lock their own door. It used to be that only one South Korean officer was stationed in this building at any given time. It is now a two-man guard after North Korean soldiers tried to kidnap a soldier from the South, on duty alone inside the building. With a military escort and prior permission, civilians from both sides of the border are allowed to enter this building, but civilians entering from the South must first sign a waiver stating they understand the dangers of entering an active war zone. The actual border is the concrete slab on the ground that appears at the end of, and perpendicular to, the left fist of the soldier near the center of the photograph. You can see the slab extends toward the center of the blue building on the left. Although he is difficult to spot, there is a North Korea soldier with binoculars surveying the scene on the steps of the North Korean building (Panmungak) in the background. He is one doorway to the left of the sign in the center of the building's second floor. The sign reads Pan Mun Gak (Panmun Hall) in Korean.

Here is the concrete slab in a closeup photograph taken during my first visit to the DMZ in January 2011. The right side is South Korea. The left side is North Korea.

Inside the blue United Nations building (Joint Security Area) a soldier is stationed on guard during our tour. The flag indicates the border. To the soldier's left (and the vantage point from where the photograph was taken) is North Korea. To his right is South Korea.

This soldier is stationed inside the Joint Security Area on the North Korea side of the building. Behind him is a door that exits directly into North Korea. Should anyone from the South, whether it be a civilian or a soldier, exit that door, they would immediately be captured and/or fired upon by armed North Korean soldiers. Not that you'd be able to get past this guy anyway.

I found ROK soldiers to be even more intimidating than any of the United States Marines I've encountered. These guys are the best of the best in a country where Taekwondo is the national sport, and where every male is required to serve at least two years in the military.

This is the military police officer, Officer Lundgren of the United States Army, who served as our guide during our time at the Joint Security Area. He told us that quite often North Korean soldiers will try to goad opposition forces into action by making childish gestures, such as throat slashing or pointing their fingers like guns, bang-bang-bang style, like little children.  At this point of the tour we were surrounded on three sides by North Korea. In the distance is a North Korean guard tower, the former village of Panmunjom, and the building where the ceasefire agreement was signed in 1953 (now the North Korean Peace Museum). You can see the top of the North Korean guard tower on the right side of the photo, peeking out from above the tree line.

The waiver you have to sign before visiting the Joint Security Area; Demilitarized Zone, North Korea and South Korea.