Bob Harris' photo diary of a trip to the North Korea border

Rob Harris, who wrote the wonderfully entertaining books Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! and Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up A Woefully Incomplete Guide took a trip to the North Korean border area and send his photos and comments to friends. He was kind of enough to allow us to run them on Boing Boing.

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.

Hokay then.

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!


  1. with any luck, little Kimmie is dead and the dissolution has begun. Mark my words: when the North is finally free a consequence of that will be the unleashing of a criminal underground the like which has not been seen.

  2. The statue actually looks a lot like the toy soldiers I used to play with. It’s hard to tell, but it looks like the kneeling bazooka guy on the right forgot the main part of his weapon.

    They even look like they’re the right color.

  3. my family went to one of the border towers when i was 12, i remember putting a coin in a pair of binoculars to get a view of north korea. i did think it was kind of odd that the fence extended into the ocean.

    my grandma didn’t say much when it came to the war, although she told us about having to walk south to get away from it. she heard dying men crying for their mothers in english and korean.

  4. My wife’s grandmother rode out of the North on top of a steam locomotive, in the dead of Winter. Some of her kids didn’t survive the trip.

  5. #2: If the sculpture is titled “Ten Human Bombs”, I would think that neither he, nor artillery-round-on-his-shoulder on the right there, needs the main part of the weapon. :|

  6. I was there 8 years ago and it has been, and probably forever will be, the most surreal experience I’ve ever had. One thing in particular I did notice was the difference in size between the northern and southern soldiers; the South Koreans were much taller and much broader. If you ever get a chance, I would highly recommend a visit. Oh, and don’t pass up the opportunity to see the North Korean tunnels dug under the DMZ that have been discovered by South Korea…creepy, very creepy.

  7. There’s an interesting discussion of the DMZ in Alan Weisman’s ‘The World Without Us’ — as an example of what happens to the earth when people are suddenly and permanently removed from a landscape.

  8. Did not this whole area get zapped by that ICARUS thing? The one in that Bond movie?
    Seriously, though, I hear N.Koreans drink some kinda good strong liquor with a snake in the bottle… a late commie cousin o’ mine used to go there (N.Korea) on vacations during the ol’ USSR days…
    ah, yes, back in the USSR. Them Ukraine girls…

  9. #2, my thoughts exactly. I’m wondering if the crawling guy isn’t just too low to show up in the photo.

  10. “One thing in particular I did notice was the difference in size between the northern and southern soldiers; the South Koreans were much taller and much broader. ”

    Yeah, malnutrition will do that.

  11. I think I went to the same tower last year, KoreanCracker. Just before, we had lunch at an eel restaurant by the Imjingang River, near where the Gloucestershire Regiment earned their South Korean Distinguished Unit Citation, then went for a walk near the river. Couldn’t actually walk on the river bank because it had a barbed wire fence and a concrete path for the border patrol, specifically to keep North Korean spies and saboteurs out.

    At the tower we watched the potemkin village on the north bank for a while, but saw no-one working or even living there. Very disturbing.

  12. Just a quick note to say this is exactly the kind of interesting stuff I come to Boing Boing for; thanks Mark and Bob (Rob? Different names in title and first paragraph) for sharing

  13. I was there in the late 90s and it was quite a trip in every sense. I feel very lucky to have been able to visit there, as not everybody gets that chance. But it was disconcerting.
    Our guide told us how they were forbidden to interact with the N Korean soldiers when they occupied the zone at the same time. However the N Koreans would get intelligence on the US and ROK soldiers as individuals then call them by name and say crazy things to mess with them.
    He also talked about the extreme lack of food and even firewood over the border. There is this bizarre, fake and empty propaganda city across the way from which songs are blasted at all hours. Guards could look across with their thermal vision and see glowing handprints on the freezing walls of the N Koreans guardposts long after the N Koreans had quit leaning there.
    If it wasn’t cold hard reality that place would be a great thrill attraction the way it tends to spook you out.
    On our way out they finally told us the N Koreans had threatened to kidnap folks like us wandering around in the DMZ in retaliation for folks who had “been kidnapped” (defected) weeks earlier.

  14. I got some cool golf balls at that gift shop too…ostensibly from “the most dangerous golf course in the world.”

  15. On the other side of North Korea, in China, is Dandong. Even though relations between North Korea and China are a touch strained, things are pretty different there. Here’s their statuary:

    Kim leading the way

    Their border is a little less rigorous:

    although don’t get me wrong, I would have been shot if I had crossed

    And they don’t always like the United States that much:

    best museum ever

    But you’re always watched over by a great leader…

    even if he’s a little rusty.

    In the middle of town is the Yalu Jiang Duan Qiao, which is a bridge leading across the river that was bombed out during the Korean War. Next to it is the new bridge, which carries the weekly train between Pyongyang and Moscow. From the edge of that bridge you can see into North Korea, where they put on a little show to prove how great it is. From the top of the Great Wall, not so far away, you can look in with binoculars and see cruel poverty.

  16. To see WAY more of the insanity, check out the Vice Guide to North Korea.

    Those guys are INSANE. They also went to Darfur, chatted with Hezbollah, bought weapons in the Khyber Pass, and just generally go where everyone else refuses to go because it’s incredibly stupidly dangerous. And they do pretty well, usually. Check out their Travel Guide stuff.

  17. I was just there a few months ago, and surreal pretty much sums it up. I’m in a unit that will be among the first to head to the peninsula if the doo-doo hits the fan, so naturally we all hope for A) No war, and B) No implosion followed by chaos. Unfortunately, (B) will probably happen sooner or later. Hopefully for the better when it happens. The Koreans are awesome people and it pains me that so many of them have been deprived of so much for so long.

    Next door to the Yongsan Army Barracks in Seoul is the Korean War Memorial. A poignant sculpture in the park outside the museum pretty much sums it up for me. Pic here:

    I also thought it was pretty cool when Matt Harding of “Where the Hell is Matt?” danced in the conference room in front of the guard in his taekwondo stance. Maybe someday people from both sides can meet in the former DMZ and dance together. That would really be something to see.

  18. implosion is coming, and nastier than the Fall of the`Wall. What thought has been put into the management of millions of refugees, of how to control the settling of scores by the outraged?

  19. i spent a year-1968-69..on a mountain top with a great view into the was just assumed they were nuts and could and would do something at the the drop of a hat..and he was killed not trying to cut the tree down but just removing one branch that blocked the view..the ROK GI’s were “bad”dudes also..we kept away from them–
    i tryed to Google Earth our site but it’s fuzzed out..i hear the South has taken over that outpost..

  20. I don’t think that the numerous large war memorials have anything to do with the war not being over. I would think its because almost the entire country was conquered, liberated, and then partially conquered again, then once again liberated. Lot’s of ROK soldiers died. Guess Rob Harris has never been to Gettysburg or Volgograd.

  21. @20, thanx for your advice, but i can’t go there “JSA”. because i’m South Korean. even though i live in seoul, which is just few miles from there. despite of it, I love the movie “JSA” like another south koreans.

  22. I got to spend 88-89 in S. Korea with 4 months on a hill just east of JSA/Truce village keeping an eye on the North. On this map you can see JSA to the left of center and my hilltop to the right, Guardpost Ouellette. Map
    Speaking of nature preserve..Next time someone is up that way, ask about the tiger that is/was in the DMZ. I personally saw and played the IR video tape many times for visitors. :)

  23. 21 – I watched that whole series as well, and The Vice Guide To Travel is some pretty amazing stuff. There’s a lot of places on this good ol’ planet that (1) ain’t easy to get to and (2) where we ain’t welcome.

  24. Both locations mentioned in the story can be viewed in Google Earth. Unfortunately a lot of photos in the panoramio layer are misplaced (it irks me to no end when people put the placemarker at the location of the subject of the photo and not the spot from which it was taken). Anyone have links to companies that do the tour to JSA or the requirements/restrictions?

    As mentioned earlier by another, stories such as this are why I read boingboing. Interesting and different aspects of our world, though could do with fewer book signings. :)

  25. I was there 8 years ago. In addition to the nature preserve that’s been accidentally created in the DMZ (talk about your positive externalities), they are still finding bombs/landmines all throughout the area. Another reason not to veer off the beaten trail there.

  26. Not sure if anyone mentioned this, however I believe (a number of years ago) Soldier of Fortune put a $1M bounty out for capturing a piece of the flag atop the giant NK pole.

  27. MBLITCH,

    The USO in Seoul offers JSA tours, open to civilians as well as military. They don’t have any real info on their site, though. Just the dress code, which is basically as described by Bob Harris. The dress code and restrictions (mostly meant to avoid provocation) were put in place by the United Nations Command. In many cases the rules stem from agreements between the DPRK and UNC concerning the conduct of either side within the JSA.

    I think there are other tour providers, but everyone says the USO’s is the best. At least everyone stationed at Yongsan says so.

  28. Just wanted to echo that “Who Hates Whom” is a terrific book and should be required reading for any geopolitically-impaired American (which would be most of us).

  29. I was in North Korea last year for a 3 day trip, really a interesting place.

    #9 I dont know if the North Koreans actually drink the snake booze, but they sell it. Be forwarned, tho, you cant get it past american customs (animal parts).

    The DPRK guards on the north side of the DMZ say that the only time they go out and guard is when tourists are on the northern side, likewise with the south, the guards only show up for the tourists.

  30. Echoing the posters above – this is exactly the kind of thing that keeps me F5-ing BB all day long.

    Also, I’m obsessed with anything having to do with North Korea. I especially recommend the documentary “A State of Mind”. It follows a couple of young girls training for the Mass Games – but also provides incredible insight into the nature of how the regime keeps it’s destitute population faithful to Dear Leader.

    Plus the games themselves are jaw dropping on the level of the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony.

  31. Ive never seen it actually, but I met the guy who is presenting it here in the states. If your looking to go to DPRK (North Korea) i highly recomend koyro tours:

    They put on a really good tour and you can see all the stuff that the DPRK has to offer. It really makes for an interesting vacation, if your into North Korea.

  32. #15 neoscrum

    I definitely agree with the recommendation of Joint Security Area. Very realistic portrayals of the JSA sets and the surrounding politics and cultures mixed with plenty of heart, humor, and a great plot. Surprisingly little known despite being around number 13 in the list of top-grossing Korean films.

  33. Michael Palin toured that border station during the “Full Circle” series. I think there was less amusement park then (in 1997), but other than that pretty similar. (plus, there’s also a ton of other great stuff in that series)

  34. MikeLotus – “Guess Rob Harris has never been to Gettysburg or Volgograd.”

    Actually, of all the people in the world I’ve heard of, BOB Harris is the one I would suspect HAD been to both of those places. He seems to have been to everywhere else too. He’s probably better traveled than BB’s own Xeni, and he is at least as interesting to read.

  35. “En route from Seoul, there are numerous large war monuments, which is hardly surprising, since technically the war still hasn’t ended.”

    mmmmm (engaging Stupidity Detector), nope, just a`statement.

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