DMZ tours offer insights into tensions then, now
CAMP BONIFAS, SOUTH KOREA -- It's been six decades since the Korean War of 1950 -- 53 left the peninsula charred and devastated. But the Demilitarized Zone that has ever since divided the two Koreas, and the troops -- North Korean on one side, South Korean and U.S. on the other -- that stand guard there, remain an abiding and visible reminder of the hair-trigger tensions that persist.
The Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation in Korea offers regularly scheduled trips to the DMZ, and a group of 41 Soldiers, civilians and family members from Warrior Country boarded a bus Aug. 4 and went to see the famous place for themselves.
The Joint Security Area at the DMZ draws more than 100,000 tourists from around the world each year, according to U.S. military officials there.
"Why would you come to South Korea and not go to visit the line between North Korea and South Korea?" said Rachel Barlow, wife of 1st Sgt. Frank Barlow, first sergeant for the 2nd Infantry Division Band. "I was curious as to what was there."
One of the tour's stops was the Joint Security Area, or JSA, where American and South Korean Soldiers work across a courtyard from those of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In this courtyard, straddling the Military Demarcation Line, are buildings that are used for direct talks between the two Koreas.
Tourists are taken into one of the buildings, and can step beyond the point that takes them across the dividing line and thus into North Korea. But they have to leave the same way they came in -- on the South Korean side.
One of the stops within the JSA was Checkpoint 3, a building on a hill that is faced on three sides by North Korea.
It was an "interesting" feature of the tour for Sgt. Mario Smith, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud. "You look to your left, you see North Korea. You look to your right, you see North Korea. You look in front of you and you see North Korea. And if you look down you can see the concertina wire and the fence going around you."
From Checkpoint 3, visitors can see Gijong-dong Village, also known as Propaganda Village, in the North's part of the DMZ. The village was built in the 1950s to encourage South Koreans to defect. Despite massive loud speakers that once broadcast the virtues of North Korea, the village consists of buildings that are mere concrete shells, no windows or doors.
Next stop on the tour was the Bridge of No Return, which was used for repatriation of refugees and prisoners of war. A U.S. Soldier who briefed the tour explained that prisoners of both sides were given the option of being returned to their side or remaining with their captors. But the prisoners were also told that once they crossed over they'd be forbidden to come back.
The Barlow's favorite part of the trip was the vantage from Dora Observatory, which affords a view of Mount Songhaksan and other North Korean mountains. It reminded them of the mountains in their home state of West Virginia, they said.
At Dora visitors can, for a small price, use binoculars to get a closer look into North Korea and can see as far as the city of Kaesong.
The tour included a stop at one of the infiltration tunnels leading into South Korea that authorities have discovered over the years.
Smith went inside the tunnel for a look and found it "awesome."
"I have heard people talk about it, but until you walk through it yourself you will never believe the work that they put into it to construct it," he said.
The next tours to the DMZ are Sept. 8 and 22. For more information on the tour or to sign up, visit your Area I Community Activity Center.