I spent my Thanksgiving break last year visiting the biggest prison in the world. This prison, though, also happens to be the most brutal place in the world to be alive today perhaps, and it’s also the most opposite of what we know as life in the U.S. The prison I’m speaking of is North Korea, and I’m about to tell you about my brief experience and glimpse into what few outsiders will ever see.
My journey began with a plane flight from DFW International Airport to Incheon, South Korea, with my brother and father. Once we arrived, it was an easy train ride to our hotel in Seoul. Seoul is both the capital and the largest city in South Korea with a population of well over 25 million people. With a 16 hour time difference we were all certainly pretty jet lagged, but we decided to walk around the town before we set out to the border. The first thing we thought about was how this advanced, almost sci-fi city was only 35 miles from North Korea. It’s so close, in fact, that the city is within range of North Korean artillery and it’s likely that in the event of a war, the entire city could be annihilated. Especially now that North Korea has nuclear weapons, Seoul is in an extremely vulnerable position indeed. The first evidence we had of this was taking the metro and trains around the city. You’d expect in America to maybe see some fire extinguishers behind glass or something like this, but in Seoul you will also find gas masks, rations, food and anti-chemical protection clothing. You will see instructions in both Korean and English detailing proper protection and what to do in the event of either a chemical or nuclear attack. It was haunting to say the least, but the next day was when we actually went to the North to see into the other world.
That day we woke up to a beautiful sunrise that illuminated the mountains all around our hotel and we took the metro to a US military base in Seoul. It was from there that we boarded a bus that took us on maybe an hour drive North to a place called Camp Bonifas. It is a UN command post located just 400 meters south of the DMZ, the border with the North. The first thing that happened after we arrived was having a US soldier board our bus and check everybody’s passport. After we passed through that, they took us off the bus and we were at the barracks of the Joint Security Area, where both American and South Korean soldiers are based. They informed us that all South Korean men must serve a minimum of 2 years in the military, and that all North Korean men must serve a minimum of 10 years in their military. We were taken first into a series of tunnels on the South Korean side that the North had dug. They were caught and blocked off, but the soldiers informed us that they believed there could be up to 20 more tunnels on our side that the North has dug that have not been discovered yet.
So after that strange fact, we were finally loaded back into the bus and taken to an observation platform. It was from here that we got our first true glimpse into the last Stalinist state on Earth. We had binoculars and could see 30 kilometers into the country due to the perfect weather. We could see some villages and a massive flag pole with a North Korean flag that weighed over 600 pounds.
After sightseeing, we boarded the bus once again and finally went down to the actual border.
First, we had to sign waivers that said if we were shot, injured or killed that nobody was responsible except ourselves. It’s the only time that I’ve literally signed my life away. They informed us all of the protocol we were to obey at the border, do not waive at the North Koreans, do not make gestures at the North Koreans and most importantly of all to follow the US and South Korean soldiers at all times. If we disobeyed that last one and wandered too far from our guides they warned us that we might get ourselves shot and killed. They even said that it’s happened before when a woman wandered too far off a few years ago and got herself shot. It was the most tense atmosphere I’ve ever been in, so we walked up a flight of stairs inside a building, walked out the front door and then all of a sudden we were faced less than 100 meters away with multiple heavily armed soldiers of the DPRK. They had machine guns and wore brown overcoats, and there were watch towers on their side with more soldiers. The border was marked by a line of cement bricks maybe 10 inches tall with a series of barracks on top. The barracks were set up so that half was in South Korea and the other half was in North Korea, this way negotiations between the two sides could take place there. The South Korean soldiers stood completely motionless staring across the border with their fists clenched but their guns on hand, while the North Koreans stood just as still and stared right back. The silence was absolutely deafening, and as we were outside a North Korean soldier on the other side grabbed a set of binoculars and began to observe us. I felt like I was right in the middle of the Cold War. Under his observation, the US soldiers took us into one of the barracks that was half on the North Korean side. We entered and there was a door on the other side that led into the North. There was a South Korean guard standing in front of the door because we were warned that the North Koreans had grabbed somebody from behind the door and trapped them. We were told not to go behind that guard at all, but we were allowed to actually step into North Korea for a brief period of time on that side of the barracks. Some poor girl actually did go behind the soldier and was very quickly yelled at and told to step back.
Once we were done there, we traveled around the border a bit more and had an interesting confrontation with the US soldiers. They told us what we were allowed to photograph and what we weren’t allowed to, and all of the pictures I have attached to this post were allowed pictures. I know this because of the incident. My father had taken a few not-allowed pictures and we were confronted by a US solider that wanted to see our cameras. He went through and deleted all of the pictures that were not allowed and told us not to take any more like that. We obviously followed that advice and the rest of the trip was without incident. Another weird thing was that all of our cell phones were jammed. The North Koreans have placed up jamming towers around the country to prevent outside signals from entering the country so as a result none of our cell phones had any service. We drove around the border a little more in our bus, saw fake villages that the North had built to trick the South and then we finally finished up, left the DMZ and ate a traditional Korean dinner before leaving back to our hotel. We stayed a few more days in Seoul to see everything but the memory of everything we saw there at the DMZ will stay with me forever.
I would like to imagine that someday Korea will again be unified and a prosperous, advanced first world country like the South is today. I want to imagine that later if that every happens I can take my children to Korea and go to that same spot and tell them that when I was here at their age I would have been shot if I went across this line, but now today we can go across and not even think twice about it. I want it to be like what people in Berlin feel today; my mother was there when the Berlin Wall was already built and today all that is a memory. It can happen more quickly than you can imagine despite what the odds may seem like. And so with that being said, what do you think can be done about the situation in Korea, and what do you think a unified Korea would look like?