It was the best of days, it was the worst of days. It was a time of intrigue and excitement, it was a time of uncertainty and fear. It was a place where you felt secure, but it was also a place where you had to watch your back. It was a scene filled with a smattering of laughter, but also a scene filled with deafening silence. It was good verses evil, right verses wrong, and truth verses lies. It sounds like a fictional tale of two cities, but it was the very realistic tale of two countries.
On most days there is no way to know what life has in store for you. This was one of those days. Normally I crawl out of bed early on the weekend, but this day was entirely different. I was up bright and early at 5:30 AM on a Saturday morning. We were on our way to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which borders North and South Korea. Later on after “checking in” on Facebook and mentioning my locale, one friend simply replied “Ummmmm……say what?….WTF?” No one knew I was going. It turned out to be the appropriate response. After all, I was beginning to think the exact same thing myself.
The best part about my career so far is, it has given me the opportunity to go places and take part in experiences that would have never crossed my mind in a million years. Of course there is always work to be done, but I have to remind myself that sometimes it’s best for the laptop to be shut down. You know the old saying, “all work and no play made Jack a mildly successful and unhappy person.”
When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I often wondered and thought about what I would be doing later on in life. Those questions always brought forth contrasting feelings of intrigue and apprehension, because it was impossible to know at such a young age what the future held. However, there is no way I could have predicted what was to happen in the forthcoming years.
I never dreamed one day I would attend a Halloween party in Moscow shortly after the Soviet coup d’état attempt, walk through the red light district with eyes wide open in Amsterdam, tour the Pacific World War II memorials on Corregidor Island near Manila, or drive four hours to Agra to snap pictures of the Taj Mahal.
I never thought I would play one of the best rounds of golf in my life in New Delhi, watch the locals celebrate Diwali on the streets of Mumbai, participate in a basketball tournament on national television in Warsaw, or ride horses with gauchos on a dude ranch in Buenos Aires.
I never imagined working at the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Santiago, singing Sweet Home Alabama at a karaoke bar in Tokyo, having a drink on the rooftop bar of the Sands Hotel in Singapore, or paying a humble and sobering visit to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
I never envisioned walking around the Old Course at St. Andrews to watch Tiger Woods win the British Open, sipping afternoon tea in a five-star hotel in London, kissing the Blarney Stone in Cork, having a pancake breakfast at the Calgary Stampede, or participating in a pub crawl in Dublin.
I never saw myself walking half-way up the Eiffel Tower in Paris, seeing the Zepplin Fiel and court houses of Nuremberg, taking a cruise down the Rhine river, having some of grandma’s lasagne at a winery in Tuscany, or viewing the majesty of the Roman Colosseum and Pompeii.
I never contemplated riding in a gondola through the canals of Venice, walking through the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, strolling along the cobblestone streets on the Split waterfront in Croatia, or climbing atop the Mayan ruins in Belize. It was also crazy to think one day I would find myself sitting in the Toronto Marriott and having drinks with the entire New York Islanders hockey team.
As a kid I never dreamed about living in six different states, visiting any of those international locations, or having any of those experiences. It was simply because while growing up there was never a thought of ever leaving my home town of Long Island. Boy was that little kid wrong. Life is one big long highway, and the adventures just never seem to stop.
This particular business trip brought me for two weeks to Seoul, South Korea. I had planned to just stay in the hotel and catch up on some work, but an associate convinced me otherwise. After breakfast we met up with some others and headed out for what I thought was going to be an interesting day, with a return to the hotel around mid-afternoon. I was looking forward to getting back “home” early.
The day at the DMZ started with a one hour bus ride to the Joint Security Area (JSA). The JSA is the only portion of the DMZ where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face. It’s used by North and South Korea for diplomatic engagements and, until 1991, was the site of many military negotiations.
The North Korean soldiers face the south with a look on their face that can only be described as “permanently pissed off.” I guess if only 15% of your country had access to electricity, you wouldn’t be happy either. The United Nations Command (UNC), which includes some of our fine young men from the United States Army, face right back at the north. It’s quite the chess match. Kind of like the stare down before a boxing match. However, in this battle no one wants to be the first to blink.
When we arrived at the entrance to Camp Bonifas, a U.S. Soldier by the last name of Zimmerman bordered our bus and checked all of our passports. It would be the first of many times throughout the day. The scene would be repeated at every checkpoint. For some reason, I could not help but think Zimmerman looked and sounded like a young David Wright, the New York Mets Captain and Third Baseman. Baseball season had just started and the Mets are going to be really good this year…but I digress.
David Wright Zimmerman proceeded to give us some ground rules. We couldn’t take pictures without his permission, we couldn’t point in the direction of any North Korean soldiers, we couldn’t wear sunglasses or anything to provoke or incite the enemy. Essentially, he was taking the fun out of the whole damn day.
Now when you are traveling and hear a tour guide lay down some ground rules, we all take it with a grain of salt. Sure, there are rules, but rules are made to be broken. Don’t use flash photography, you can’t bring in food and beverage, stay close to the tour guide, we need to return to the bus at a specific time. Those rules have been circumvented since the beginning of mankind. But this set of circumstances was very different. This was serious business.
We arrived at a welcome building and entered a large conference room where we sat through a short presentation. Another soldier took us through a quick slideshow. I’m from New York and he was fast even for me. I think he mentioned it was the first time he was making the presentation and he seemed a bit nervous. It was a little hard to follow but he got through it.
Before we left the conference room we had to sign a document which stated, in part, “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” The soldier then asked the group some standard questions: “Does anyone here have any weapons?” and “Does anyone here have any plans today to defect.” There were chuckles around the room. Maybe we all thought this was like a ride at Disney World.
We boarded the bus again with the Captain and took a short ride to the “House of Freedom” on the South Korea side. We walked inside, forming two lines on the stairwell. Another group was in front of us so we had some time to kill. The young Zimmerman liked to talk and he told us that the one thing he hates more than anything else is awkward silence.
He begged for questions. One person asked who he wanted to win the Presidency this year. He hesitated and first provided a disclaimer, “ I am not giving you my opinion as a member of the U.S. Army, but I am giving you my opinion as a citizen with the last name of Zimmerman.” He repeated the phrase a couple of times to make sure everyone heard the disclaimer again and then he told us, “Not Trump…but I don’t like the other two either.”
After about fifteen minutes, all was clear and we proceeded up the steps and out the back door of The House of Freedom. In back of the main building was a two lane road and on the other side two smaller blue buildings. The color was specifically chosen to tweak the North Koreans, who would have preferred red. We were told as we made the transition from the House of Freedom to the smaller buildings, to not stop walking, not to point, and not to take pictures because it could cause a serious problem.
From the House of Freedom, in the distance you could see the North Korea side with a lone soldier standing outside of a big building they called “Penmen Hall.” We were told that in North Korea the guards stand motionless facing the border for 12 hour shifts. Similar to the shifts that first year accountants have to deal with routinely at one of the bigger national firms. Quite an impressive feat indeed. Anyway, our tour guide, David Wright Zimmerman mentioned they were familiar with some of the North Korean guards and for this one particular fellow they had an affectionate name: “Bob.”
As we made the transition from the House of Freedom to one of the smaller buildings there were four or five South Korean Soldiers referred to as “ROKs” for Republic of Korea. They were all facing north towards the border. A couple of them were shielding half of their bodies behind a wall to protect themselves in case of attack. There was complete silence as they sat motionless without nary a hair moving or muscle twitching. Both of their fists were clenched as if they expected to hit someone within minutes. They were so still, they resembled life-size “G.I. Joes.” It was so surreal it started to freak me out a little bit.
Inside one of the buildings was a room referred to as the “Military Armistice Commission Building.” It’s where negotiations and talks are held between North and South Korea. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) is represented by a slab of concrete that runs underneath the room and a conference room table, so by simply walking from one side of the table to the other you cross over into enemy territory.
Zimmerman told us each solider was an expert in Tae Kwon Do and if we touched or walked behind them there would be dire consequences. Also inside the room was a ROK soldier guarding the northern exit. His job was to stop anyone who attempted to go through the door. For a moment I thought he was going to take me down for wearing a short sleeve yellow shirt under a blue sport jacket on the weekend. To my surprise, it didn’t happen.
All of us took pictures, standing close to each ROK soldier. As serious and dangerous as the situation was, once Zimmerman told us we were free to take out our cameras it was like we were instantaneously transitioned to Disney World. People milled about and took selfies with the ROKs, who stood straight as a board with clenched fists and sunglasses. I was waiting for one of them to flinch or break character, but there a better chance of me speaking fluent Korean. This was not Pirates of the Caribbean. This was very real. It was also in a way a bit scary, because no one knew what was going to happen.
We exited the building and walked back towards the House of Freedom, stopping for a few minutes before turning around. We faced North Korea and took some more pictures while Zimmerman gave us a history lesson about the JSA.
Off in the distance, Bob stood silent. Then the door of Penmen Hall opened. They was some activity because the North Koreans were changing the guards. Another “Bob” came out to stare back at us. At one point he disappeared, sneaking behind a column of the building before quickly reappearing. Someone in the group said “I guess Bob had to scratch his balls.” There was a smattering of laughter amongst the group. It was pretty funny at the time.
I guess what made the whole experience so exciting is most times on vacation or business, no matter how historically significant, where ever you go and what ever you see, it’s all about the past. This was different. It was a current situation which was keeping the world on pins and needles. We were living through it as it happened. Make a wrong move, take a picture of something you are not supposed to, and an international incident could occur. Before we left, David Wright Zimmerman had to yell at a couple of people for trying to break the rules. Some people are idiots.
He was very clear on one other statement before we left. Zimmerman said, if you cross over the border and something happens the UNC and the U.S. Army cannot help you. In his exact words, “You are all on your own. Don’t ruin your day…or mine.” I wasn’t about to test him.
Afterwards, we got back on the bus and toured around the JSA, stopping at a couple of other checkpoints where there were some famous conflicts over the years which included the infamous “Bridge of No Return.” The bridge got its name from the final ultimatum given to prisoners of war brought to the bridge for repatriation. Their choice was to either either remain in the country of their captivity or cross the bridge to return to their homeland. However, once crossing the bridge, they would never be allowed to return, even if they later changed their minds.
It seems both the north and the south have historically been trying to one up the other, like two brothers that have grown to hate each other over the years. Case and point was an area called “Propaganda Village.” From the outside at a distance, the small North Korean village of Kijong-dong seemed like any other town, with brightly painted houses, schools, daycare, even a hospital with hundreds of residents. At least it’s what Mr. Jong-Un would want you to think. It’s believed to be a decoy used to lure South Korean defectors. Zimmerman said if you look closely, the inconsistent lighting as well as the painted on windows indicate nothing more than a modern day ghost town.
Within Propaganda Village is additional evidence of in-fighting. In the 1980s, South Korea built a nearly 100 meter flagpole in Daeseong. The North Korean response? A 160 meter tower to display the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) flag in Panmunjom village. The south did not fight back on this one. If they had, there could have gone back and forth in a new reality show entitled: “Flagpole Wars” coming soon on a station near you.
Until 2004, loudspeakers delivered North Korean propaganda broadcasts from the village to the south which praised their own virtues and urged disgruntled soldiers and farmers to walk across the border. The loud speakers blasted anti-Western rhetoric, Communist operas and patriotic marching music.The south responded with their own loud speakers blaring K-Pop music.
In 2004, both countries agreed to end the battle of the bands. However, in recent months in early 2016, the loudspeakers became active again. While I was there I was actually able to hear some marching music from Propaganda Village even though we were miles away from the town. They say that good news travels fast, but bad music travels even faster. Especially Communist operas.
After we left the House of Freedom we had an opportunity to go to a souvenir shop. It seemed kind of odd to do such a thing right after visiting something so real and serious, but someone had to make some money off of us. Heck, I wanted to get some mementos to remember the day. I really don’t buy souvenirs anymore. However, when I do, I usually try to get something unique that I can’t get anywhere else.
I picked up an authentic piece of barbed wire fence mounted on a pewter placard. It was removed from the DMZ on the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. I also purchased some old North Korean paper bills (to use as coasters in the man cave) and currency (to use as ball markers on the golf course), a couple of bottles of North Korean wine (for display purposes only) and the requisite DMZ t-shirts and ball cap.
After an adventure-filled morning, it was time to break for lunch. The bus to us to a cafeteria somewhere on base. There was an option to upgrade our meal to a Korean barbeque for KRW 5,000 (which was about $4 USD), so we took advantage of it. I was gettting tired of the bland food over here and thought if the word “barbeque” was in play it couldn’t be half bad. I was sadly mistaken. Dry beef with little flavor, white rice, something resembling Mac and cheese, a couple of mysterious sausages, a couple of slices of breaded toast, and a pair of orange slices. Not sure what was in the plastic package on the side of the tray. Never opened it up because I was traumatized. It scared me more than good ole Bob.
After lunch we went to visit the the “Third Tunnel of Aggression.” It’s one of four known tunnels under the border between North Korea and South Korea, extending south of Panmunjom. When we entered there was a well-constructed tunnel with a steep downhill grade for half a mile. It was a slippery slope but easy to navigate. That lead us to another much smaller tunnel. The adventure continued.
I had to enter the second tunnel hunched over like an old man (which was not such a stretch from reality). This tunnel was not as polished and didn’t have nice shiny guardrails to hang onto. The ceilings were uneven and there were wooden boards on the floor to walk on. It was basically in the same condition that the North Korean’s left it in. In fact, you could see holes in the rocks where the cave dwellers would insert dynamite to help them excavate the granite.
There was no turning back. My back screamed in agony and my thighs felt like I was in the middle of a marathon of non-stop leg squats. I hit my head on the cave wall numerous times, scaring the people behind me. Thanks to a hard hat my ego was damaged more than my head. What I didn’t realize at the time is the second tunnel was just as long as the first. Of course, wherever we were going there would be a shortcut to get back to civilization….or not.
We finally arrived at the point where the South Koreans had closed the tunnel off. It was a slab of concrete preventing us from moving forward. There was nothing else to see. It was a little disappointing. After all the effort at least there could have been a concession stand and a bench to relax for a couple of minutes. I was sadly mistaken. The only option was turn around and go back.
The return trek was arduous because it was all uphill. The pain in my back and thighs was unbearable. It couldn’t be over soon enough. All I could think of were the stories you hear from time to time about miners getting trapped in an underground cave with little chance at survival. We were a mile underground and I half expected an earthquake to hit at any moment and end it all. By the time we made it to daylight, I was spent. It was 45 minutes of hell, a mile’s walk and about 2,300 steps. It’s a good thing I had my Fitbit, so I could get my steps in for the day. If I had left my Fitbit in the hotel room, I would have been really pissed.
The only thing on my mind was climbing aboard the bus and heading back to the hotel. But alas, the day was far from over. The next stop was Dorsan Station. It was built in recent years and was dubbed the “Unification Platform” as it represented the last stop in South Korea before entering North Korea. However, because of tensions between the two Koreas the completed building was shuttered and is not being used for anything else but a tourist attraction. As you walk inside it’s eerily quiet with not a passenger in sight.
The day was far from over. We had two more stops to make. Next was a trip to an observatory tower where we used telescopes to get a better look at Propaganda Village and the last stop which was to a Ginseng Manufacturer. The later, simply to try to get us to fork over hundreds of dollars for some magical root to solve all of our health issues. I was not biting that one. Then again, I had already bought all of the souvenirs I needed. I was done for the day.
As we boarded the bus for the return trip to the hotel, I quickly fell asleep. We drove through Gangnam and the heart of Seoul and arrived back “home” around 5:00 PM. Almost a full twelve hours later we were right back where we started. It was the best of days, it was the worst of days. Actually, it was the longest of days.
I think my good ole friend “Bob” in North Korea would agree.