The rules surrounding access to the Joint Security Area are multiple.
- Clothing: No sleeveless shirts. No shorts for men. No miniskirts. No military gear. Collared shirts only.
- Do not take photos unless told it is safe to do so.
- Stay together.
- Do not gesture to the North Korean side in any way.
- Remain calm in an emergency.
- Sign the waiver.
Well, somebody obviously didn’t read the dress code rules. Bare shoulders are a no-no at the JSA, honey. Here’s a USO-standard baggy (sleeved and collared) t-shirt, to protect your modesty at the border. You never know what kind of propaganda the North might spawn if your shoulders were to be bared.
The bus ride to the JSA culminates in waiting. We hit none of the customary traffic of Seoul on the flying beltway, and the gates of the JSA are not yet open to us. There is a parking lot for our comfort, but we’re not allowed to move around on the bus or to leave it. Instead, we have to watch a movie that focuses on the Joint Security Area and the potential for conflict within it (here it is in its entirety for those interested). Guns and explosions everywhere. It’s not exactly comforting viewing for a group of unarmed tourists about to stand exactly where it is set.
A normal green bus, numbered 93, goes through the checkpoint unimpeded. Five minutes later an ajumma shows up, clearly waiting for that bus to arrive.
When they finally turn off the cacophony of gunfire on the Samsung TV mounted inside our bus, we are finally allowed inside the gates and past the ajumma waiting at the JSA bus stop. The compound is spare, military, and predominately brown. I am not allowed to take photos, but it’s not much to look at really. A hideous brown water tower displays the motto of the camp.
“In Front Of Them All.”
It seems a bit lame. “We’re standing in front of them. Literally.” “Yes, we get it.”
We are welcomed to the JSA by Ahmed, who is dressed in full army gear. The digital camouflage of his uniform seems completely out of place among the buildings that have cleared not been updated since at least the times when the USSR was a country and the Communist threat was seen as a true existential one for the United States.
We are allowed off the bus and into the Visitor’s Center, the most modern building in sight. Thank god…I have to pee and had this thrill of fear in my head that there would be no respite at the JSA. Pissing one’s pants in front of North Korean soldiers would do little to show resilience or the lack of emotion they expect of us. Ahmed tells us to report to the auditorium shortly, for a “briefing.” After successfully using the toilet and being surprised that the other women did not know that the toilet paper was outside the stalls (Of course! Where else could it go? Oh right, I’ve been here more than eight months and they’ve been here a day.), I report to the briefing.
Ahmed goes over the modern history of Korea, leading up to the war and the demarcation of the DMZ. He explains the incidents that have caused trouble at the JSA before, including an axe murder incident in 1976 and the defection of a Soviet citizen who ran across the border while on a tour on the Communist side. The site that we were about to visit was the site of a massive firefight between DPRK and ROK/US soldiers.
We are instructed to sign a waiver that states we are about to enter an active war zone and that we may be “injured or killed as a direct result of hostile action.” It’s not every day that I sign something with that wording.
Further down, it states that fraternization of any kind is not allowed. Only later will I realize that the true meaning of the word is something approaching “brother-ization.” Do not make those people your brother. They are Communists. Not brothers. It feels uncomfortable. They’re just people, aren’t they? Drawn by fate or luck or random chance to be born in North Korea and happen to stand across from me on this bright October day.
On a special blue bus that is allowed to travel within the JSA, Ahmed checks our passports (again), and as he moves through the bus I notice that his hand never once leaves the holster of his sidearm. After so many months in a country where police are unarmed, it is a bit shocking to see a weapon at eye-level. It’s a Desert Eagle, shining silvery temporarily-silent death.
Then he radios to command, “This is Pfc. Ahmed going to the Freedom House with 68 pacs, over.” “Go ahead, Pfc. Ahmed, over.” The freezing bus rumbles deeper into the forest and along a two-lane road, North. Further and further North.