November 14, 2012

DMZ: Joint Security Area

The Joint Security Area (JSA) is a high security area within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea. Also referred to as Panmunjeom, it was the spot where the historic armistice agreement between the Communist forces and the United Nations Command  (UNC) was signed in 1953. Negotiations between the two sides of the divided nation take place here. International visitors, but not Korean civilians, can take a tour of the area under the auspices of the USO, a non profit organization that aims to boost the morale of American troops stationed around the globe.

 I had checked in with my passport at the Yongsan Military Base in Seoul and then boarded the tour bus. The American guy sitting beside me turned out to be a startup founder working out of his laptop and also seeing a bit of the world at the same time. The bus rolled into Camp Bonifas in the afternoon after stops at the Third Infiltration Tunnel and Dorasan. Outside the bright blue meeting rooms of Panmunjeom, South Korean guards in traditional taekwondo poses stared down their North Korean counterparts.

We watched an informative presentation on the history of the JSA by an American soldier, and heard stories about North Korean axe murderers and defectors. The "Axe Murder Incident" took place when several American soldiers went out to cut down a poplar tree that was blocking the line of sight between a checkpoint and a guard post. The North Koreans objected to this unilateral decision, and attacked the Americans en masse. The camp is named after Arthur Bonifas, one of the two men killed in the skirmish.

We passed by some landmarks within the JSA like the Daeseongdong Freedom Village and the Bridge of No Return. Used for prisoner exchange, the infamous bridge is so named because this is where Korean soldiers had to make an irreversible decision of which side they wanted to go to - the North or the South. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) dividing the two states intersects the bridge. Every once in a while North Korean soldiers try to nab an UNC soldier and drag him over the bridge to the other side.

The residents of the Freedom Village enjoy the highest average earnings in Korea since they are not taxed on the income they generate from farming. The men of the village are also exempt from fulfilling the two years of military duty that is usually mandatory for Korean men. The village men can marry ladies from outside the village, but men are not allowed to marry into the village. Like Korean beauties who live with their parents, the villagers have a strict curfew and their movements are closely monitored.


"At the end of the day, we must go forward with hope and not backward by fear and division." - Jesse Jackson