Destination DMZ: Tourist spot offers close-up look at volatile Korean border
DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Korea — Downstairs, two busloads of visitors crowded into the souvenir shop, deciding whether to buy T-shirts, hats or some of the more unusual items to commemorate their time at one of South Korea’s most popular tourist destinations.
Upstairs, a handful of U.S. soldiers broke away from their group to walk through what essentially is a small museum explaining the history and significance of the place, where people come to experience history and have their photos taken at one of the most iconic locations in the world.
But this is no ordinary tourist stop, where visitors get a glimpse into history made centuries or decades ago. Rather, it is a location where people walk right up to the line dividing two countries still technically at war and where violence could conceivably erupt at any time, putting tourists in the middle of an international incident.
As proof, one need only look at the walls of the new Joint Security Area Visitor Center, where some of the displays tell the stories of violent incidents that have taken place over the years in this part of the Demilitarized Zone — where tourists literally step across the border into North Korea, a country still at war with its neighbor to the south because the hostilities of the Korean War were stopped by armistice and no peace treaty was ever signed. Just last year, the secretive country was responsible for two attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.
There are displays dedicated to the “Axe Murder Incident” on Aug. 18, 1976, during which the attempted trimming of a tree in the security area prompted a group of North Korean soldiers to attack, killing U.S. Army Capt. Arthur Bonifas and 1st Lt. Mark Barrett, and injuring nine U.S. and South Korean soldiers.
Another display recounts details of “Operation Paul Bunyan,” carried out three days later, when an overwhelming force of U.S. and South Korean personnel and equipment returned to cut the tree down. A chunk of the downed tree is part of the exhibit.
Other displays recount the Nov. 23, 1984, defection of a Soviet citizen on a tour on the north side of the JSA, whose sprint across the Military Demarcation Line prompted a firefight that left three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean soldier dead. Hats worn by two of the North Korean soldiers involved in the incident, along with casings from the rifles and pistols fired that day, are on display.
There’s also a table used in the signing of the 1953 armistice that ceased Korean War hostilities, thus creating the 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ that has since separated the two Koreas. Monuments to all the countries that came to South Korea’s defense during the war list the number of troops killed and wounded from each country.
Much of this memorabilia used to only be seen by dignitaries and special guests who came to the DMZ. However, thanks to the February opening of the South Korean-funded visitor center, everyone is given a glimpse of history on their way to visit the JSA — where soldiers from the North and South have for decades stared ominously at one another across the Military Demarcation Line, posturing and prepared should violence break out as tourists take in the sights and sounds of what former President Bill Clinton once called “the scariest place on earth.”
Showing the history of violence at the JSA as tourists are led to a face-to-face encounter with enemy soldiers sounds counterintuitive, like playing “When Animals Attack” videos at the entrance to a circus tent. Others might cringe at the idea of selling souvenirs from such a solemn and serious place.
But South Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesman Gwon Gi-hyon says the center’s offerings are a good way to honor the ongoing history and significance of the DMZ.
“It was built to let people know the meaning of the Korean War, the reality of the Republic of Korea’s national security and the fact that peace is being maintained through the efforts of the (South Korean) Army … with the cooperation of allied free nations, including the USA,” he said.
“Selling DMZ T-shirts and coffee mugs shows … that peace is being kept despite the fact that the DMZ might seem like a dangerous place,” Gwon said.
The hottest selling items at the gift shop, according to center personnel, are T-shirts ($12-$15), a piece of DMZ fence wire on a plaque (about $32); and alcohol bottled for South Korean companies that employ North Koreans at the Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the DMZ ($11-$31 a bottle).
About 15,000 people have come to the visitor center in the two months since it opened, including U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division 1st Lt. Brian Baker, who struggled to describe his visit as he wandered through the facility’s museum area.
“You don’t expect to see this, particularly in this day and age with so many people being able to move freely,” he said. “I mean, this is a war zone. It’s just surreal.”
Referring to a conference building that sits on the Military Demarcation Line, where tourists can “visit” North Korea by walking to the northern half of the room, Baker said, “Being able to be in that building – It’s just an odd experience.”
Capt. Tanisha Currie, also of 2ID, agreed, saying, “It’s been a very surreal experience. Being able to see the guards looking out at each other (and) the discipline they showed – It’s very real.”