En route from Seoul, there are numerous large war monuments, which is hardly surprising, since technically the war still hasn't ended. Fortunately, most of the major ones are collected in one big depressing park, great for your getting-dispirited-about-the-human-condition convenience.
Here's one commemorating the "Ten Human Bombs":
I probably don't need to explain how the Ten Human Bombs met their end.
I also hope you don't see any resemblance to the overwrought posing of 1980s power-rock bands. That would be disresectful. Humming anything by Night Ranger, Twisted Sister, or Whitesnake while looking at this picture would be just wrong.
When you get up close to the border, the first thing you hit is Imjingak, where the Freedom Bridge is located.
That old railroad bridge is where 13,000 POWs were released by N. Korea and allowed to walk south. Thus the name.
The walkway to the bridge is now closed off, for obvious reasons. But if you peek through the coin-operated tourist binoculars, you can actually make out patrols in huts on the far side of the bridge.
There's a goofy sculpture of an armed peacekeeper at the beginning of the walkway, so it seemed fun to get my picture with it. Little did I realize where I'd be posing shortly.
Imjingak is as as close to the North as most South Koreans have ever been. Beyond here, foreigners need to jump through a few minor hoops to continue; locals are generally forbidden.
As a result, numerous shrines and monuments have been built here dealing with the country's separation and the permanent ripping-in-half of families on both sides. This site and a corresponding one on the other side are often used for ceremonies to honor ancestors, lost loved ones, fallen soldiers, etc.
Which explains the scores of busses in the parking lot. (There are nearly 100 in this partial image alone.)
With so many people flooding in on tour busses, it feels weirdly almost like a tourist trap.
Wait. Skip the "almost."
Unless every international flash point has a giant swing in the shape of a pirate ship.
I almost started thinking maybe this whole deal was overblown. After all, pretty much anybody (except South Koreans, and people from a few dozen countries where you need to go through a bunch of paperwork) can sign up, fork over some cash, and go peek at the DMZ. How tense could it really be?
Next thing you know, after showing my passport at three checkpoints, I'm in a military briefing at Camp Bonifas at the edge of the DMZ, and handed a form to sign agreeing to (if I remember it all):
• No smoking, no gum chewing, etc.; you're now entering a military area, so you gotta abide.
• No heels, no sandals, no unconventional shoes; if shooting breaks out, you gotta be able to run.
• No baggy jeans, no sleeveless shirts, conservative attire only; we are about to be monitored by the North Koreans, and any remotely questionable clothing could give them useful propaganda footage; entry without proper clothing will be barred in advance.
• No photos for the vast majority of the trip into the DMZ. A sergeant wearing a sidearm will be with you at all times, and if you attempt an unauthorized photo, your camera will be confiscated on the spot. Violation of this rule ends the tour.
• No gesturing of any kind, especially pointing at things. This could be mistaken through binoculars on the other side as the presence of an unagreed-upon weapon, and could provoke live fire. Violation of this rule ends the tour.
• No smiling, attempts at communication, or even eye contact with North Korean soldiers. This can be misunderstood and provoke a confrontation. Violation of this rule ends the tour.
• No unauthorized movements of any kind, including even turning around to look at something behind you you've already passed. This can also provoke conflict. Violation of this rule ends the tour.
• You do understand that you are entering a dangerous area, and that the possibility of injury or death is real.
Next come tank traps, concertina wire, live exercises, and a whole bunch of highly active history.
Apparently North Koreans still violate the cease-fire and make small incursions into the DMZ on a surprisingly regular basis. A lot of this doesn't get much reported in the rest of the West because, well, for the same reason a lot of really important things just never get reported. TMZ gets higher ratings than DMZ any day of the week.
Then, finally, we reach the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only spot where the two countries connect -- ground zero of the DMZ.
So here's me being a tourist in front of the North Korean border, marked by the white posts. Those trees? In North Korea.
To the left of this spot, on the North Korean side, they've built the world's tallest flagpole, 160 meters high, over the propaganda village of Kijong-dong, whose name is fun to say over and over. You may have to make train noises and say "whooo-whooo!" after about six repetitions.
Why the gigondous flagpole? On the South Korean side, see, there's an actual village of about 200 farmers who chose not to abandom their ancestral homes, despite being inside the DMZ. South Korea eventually put up a 100m flagpole near the village. Look at the size of our pole, North Korea! Whoo-hoo! The North Koreans, in response, tried to prove their superiority by building an even bigger village on the other side and erecting an even bigger flagpole. South Korea, that's all you got? Bwah-HAH-ha-haha-haaa!
The North Korean village, however, seems to be entirely fake; there's no glass in many of the windows, the only people usually visible are a few soldiers creeping around, and the lights go on and off in the buildings at the same time every night.
Then again, that may also just be what an average North Korean village looks like these days. Sigh.
How tense can things get around here? One example:
Not far away, there's a marker where a yellow poplar tree used to grow. By 1976, it had gotten so big that the UN observation post at upper right couldn't quite see the goings-on at a checkpoint just out of the frame to the left.
At the time, soldiers from each side could move about the JSA freely.
So a group of UN soldiers, including U.S. Army Cpt. Arthur Bonifas, went to cut the tree down. The North Koreans took exception, and pretty soon, a bunch of them ax-murdered two of the UN guys, including Cpt. Bonifas.
Ever since, soldiers from each side can no longer move about the JSA freely.
And that's why the camp where we got our briefing is called Camp Bonifas.
Three days later, a complex raid ("Operation Paul Bunyan") involving a reported 813 men, 23 vehicles, 7 Cobra attack helicopters, a parade of B-52 bomber and F-4 and F-5 fighter planes, and a US Navy aircraft carrier placed into position offshore...
... and managed to cut down the tree.
So, yes. Kinda tense sometimes.
Nearby, the hauntingly named Bridge of No Return.
This bridge was used for prisoner exchanges once the cease fire was established in 1953. Since many families were split by the border, released prisoners didn't always want to cross; maybe their mom was on the side they'd been captured on, but their wife was on the other side. No matter -- the deal was simple: cross once if you like, but if you do, you can never return.
This is also the bridge that USN Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher and the crew of the captured U.S.S. Pueblo crossed when they were released in 1968. They were somewhat less conflicted about leaving.
At the very center of the JSA -- after passing through some more no-photo areas -- you reach a row of small huts painted UN blue and placed squaredly atop of the border, straddling it so that the north half of each building is on side and the south half is on the other.
The centermost is the one used for peace talks to this day.
The northern half of this small building is on North Korean soil. It has its own entry, just like the one we're looking at from the southern side.
Notice that the UN guards are facing our North Korean friends while sort of peeking around the building's corners, with half of their bodies shielded by the edge of the building. Not without reason. Gunfire has erupted here unpredictably over the years. Sometimes it's caused by an unexpected provocation, but on occasion it has also been the result of a sudden attempt to defect from the North, either by a patrolling soldier a visiting North Korean, Russian, or other dignitary.
The North Koreans are under strict orders to immediately shoot anyone who attempts to defect.
Since it's only a ten-second dash from one side to the other, things could freak out in a blink at any moment. Years can go by between incidents, and then instantly, without warning, bang bang bang bang bang. So it's one second to go-time here, 24/7.
Btw, this is a really good moment not to suddenly yell "Kim Jong-Il sucks!" and try to run for it.
For all my kidding around, I want to take a sec and make clear that I respect these guys a lot. They really are defending their country from one of the nuttiest systems ever devised by humankind.
Sadly, the North Korean soldiers probably think they're doing something similar.
Then again, I don't have a picture of it, but the North Korean guards stand their positions while facing each other -- supposedly so if one tries to defect, the other will have a better chance of killing him.
So what does it look like inside? There are three conference tables -- one on each side, plus the main one for face-to-face discussions. This main table is placed squarely atop the border, with the microphone jacks and little peacekeeper flag literally straddling the frontier, just so nobody gets pissy.
It looks, in fact, just like this:
The soldier on the far end of the table is actually straddling the border.
Say... doesn't that mean my right foot is in North Korea...?
Yup. And about five steps further to my right, behind the northern conference table, there's a door to the rest of North Korea. Vigorously guarded, of course.
I got my picture with the guard, because hell, I'm an American tourist, it's my job. But I was under strict instruction not to touch or interact in any way.
Looking at his body language, I wasn't exactly tempted. Notice the distinct lack of touching. Because I do not like sudden arm fractures.
I also did not hum anything by Quiet Riot. This would have been a bad idea.
Seriously, look at that guy's posture. I've only seen that before in comic books, just before the Rocketeer launches, or Wolverine sprouts adamantium claws and starts dishing out scars. Standing next to the guy, it felt like he was just waiting for someone to give him an opportunity. Which, in a sense, he has to be at all times, just to do the job.
I can't get over the clenched fists. You get the feeling they're not going to hug this out.
OK, back through more no-photo-land, which is surprisingly lovely: 55 years of near-zero human activity in the DMZ has created an ad hoc nature preserve. How odd.
And finally, back at Camp Bonifas... what else? A freakin' gift shop.
Camo in infant sizes. Nice touch.
Also sweet swag: sample bits of barbed wire, in case your sliver of the Berlin Wall doesn't carry the same frisson it used to.
Great for rounding up teeny-tiny cattle.
They get thousands of visitors through here, so I guess it's no surprise. And it adds to the level of surreality, so no complaints.
I wound up buying a replica armband, just like the about-to-berserk Rocketeers were wearing. Maybe if I wear it long enough I'll start getting superpowers when I'm angry.
Besides, it'll look really cool to wear when I'm hanging out with these guys.
We're not gonna take it! No, we ain't gonna take it! We're not gonna take it... anymore!
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects