Visiting the DMZ After a Missile Launch

The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea which hugs the 38th parallel is a place which former President Bill Clinton called the “most dangerous place on Earth.” Created as a part of armistice negotiations in 1953, the two-kilometer wide DMZ is a stern reminder that North and South Korea are still technically at war and that the United States paid a heavy price to protect South Korea during the “Forgotten War” from 1950 until 1953.

In spite of all of this, there is one place where tourists can visit the DMZ and enter North Korea by crossing the Military Demarcation Line between North and South Korea: the UN-controlled Panmunjom complex, set up inside of the Joint Security Area. Straddling the 38th Parallel, this is the only chance most people will ever get to see North Korea from the free world.

I joined a USO-sponsored tour to the JSA five days after North Korea conducted their most recent missile launch (February, 2016) and present you this photo essay about the experience. USO runs the best tours and I highly recommend booking with them several weeks in advance if you are looking for a day trip during your next stay in Seoul. You can click here for more information.

After meeting our tour group a few minutes before 7:00AM at USO HQ, Camp Kim, in downtown Seoul, we hopped on a bus began the 90 minute bus ride to Camp Bonifas, located just inside the South Korean side of the DMZ. We were quickly asked to sign some paperwork that said we were entering an active war zone and were putting our lives at risk by continuing on the tour. After handing in those papers, our tour continued on a long stretch of highway towards the DMZ.

As we approached the checkpoint to enter the United Nations-controlled segment of the border, or bus swerved back and forth to avoid several barricades as raindrops slid down the bus windows. Once the bus came to a stop at a border checkpoint, an American soldier, Private Kennedy, boarded the bus and checked all of our passports before we could proceed to Camp Bonifas and UN Central Command inside of the DMZ. He would be our tour guide for the rest of the trip.

IMG_3491After we arrived at Camp Bonifas inside of the DMZ, Private Kennedy ushered the tour group into an auditorium to deliver a briefing about what we were going to see on today’s tour. Aside from simple instructions about what to do and what not to do on the border (pointing, gesturing, taunting, and yelling were strictly prohibited), we were informed that  because of escalated tensions on the border we would be unable to visit Dorason Observatory, a location which provides one of the best views of North Korea from South Korea.

We boarded our bus and began one of the most interesting rides of my life, down a narrow road towards our next location: Panmunjom, the famous blue buildings which straddle the 38th parallel and are in both North and South Korea. We were prohibited from taking photos on this stretch of the tour, but the wildlife and scenery inside the DMZ were out of this world.

White cranes, massive buzzards, and other rare birds were numerous in the rice paddies and barren hills and parched landscape which set between North and South Korea. The restricted nature of the DMZ has, ironically, turned it into one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Along with the wildlife, barbed wire fences, mine fields, and military outposts sat on top of various hills as clouds and mist obscured the distant landscape. Rice paddies and rusting vehicles were also visible off in the distance.

IMG_3494 copy

After a short briefing, Private Kennedy informed us that the Korean soldiers were real and we were not to touch them or get within six inches of them. He then let us know that anyone who stood to the soldier’s right was in South Korea and anyone who stood to the soldier’s left was in North Korea, just past the 38th parallel. The picture that follows was taken from the North Korean side and shows the 38th parallel in the middle. The sand is North Korea and the gravel is South Korea.

IMG_3498

Inside of the conference room, a soldier stands at the ready with his back to North Korea, preventing any tourists from either being abducted or choosing to defect to the Communist North.

IMG_3499

Outside, things were just as tense but in a more visible way. A North Korean soldier appeared several moments after our group re-emerged from the conference rooms. As we positioned our cameras, he played a game with us, ducking in front of and behind the pillars on the North Korean border facility. He kept a vigilant watch during this act.

IMG_3517

His appearance stood in stark contrast to the South Korean guards on our side of the border. The imposing concrete facade of the North Korean side provided a backdrop which perfectly illustrates the differences which keep Korea divided to this day. IMG_3548 copy

IMG_3521.JPG

Our tour then continued to some other spots inside of the JSA. We stopped by JSA tower to take in another stunning view of North Korea from a military observation point very near the location of the famous axe murders and the Bridge of No Return. As the weather began to clear, more of North Korea’s bare hills were visible, but we could not see the famous flagpole bearing a 600 pound North Korean flag. Because the North cleared out all trees to prevent defections several years ago, it is very easy to see where the border lies in the distance. The clouds were eerily representative of the mysterious nature of North Korea to the outside world.

IMG_3600 copy

The Bridge of No Return was a location where POWs chose between the North and South following the armistice and where several prisoner exchanges have taken place since 1953. President Clinton visited the bridge and attempted to walk on it, resulting in its subsequent closure to tourist groups.

IMG_3578 copy

North Korea beckons across the Bridge of No Return. IMG_3608IMG_3599 copy

The Bridge of no return is seen in the last part of the photo, with North Korea in the background. The foreground is part of a footpath to our outlook point. IMG_3588 copy

After a few more minutes on the bus and a stop at the JSA gift shop, our tour with Pvt. Kennedy was over and we were on our way out of the DMZ to stop at one of the famed infiltration tunnels leading from North to South Korea. I could not take any photos there because of the nature of that tour, but some Korean soldiers left their helmets on a table during our lunch break to close out the tour. IMG_3688 copy

As an American with an interest in the Korean War and military history, the DMZ was always one of my top travel goals when I moved to Japan several years ago. I am very happy I got to visit during a time with such high tension and recommend everyone visit before the DMZ is either closed to tourists or ceases to exist. This is truly the last vestige of the Cold War left on earth.

Advertisements

The Itch to Learn Another Language

The one thing I feared most about traveling to Korea this weekend has begun to manifest itself in my thoughts this evening: I think I want to learn some Korean. While, on the surface, this may not seem like a bad thing, or even a worrisome point, it is very dangerous for me given all of the hard work I have put towards learning Japanese over the past two years. 

When I first came to Japan and started learning it two years ago, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to formal language study. I studied Spanish in high school, was good at it, but dif not find it challenging enough so I ceased studying it when I was in college. On study abroad, we were required to take a language class so I took Japanese with the intention of only studying it for one semester and calling it a day at my university because I had met the language requirement. Two years, a summer language school, and a return trip to Japan later, I think there is no doubt that I fell in love with studying Japanese and the nuances that accompany learning a new language so radical and different than Western languages, let alone English. The instant feeling of helplessness and being lost I experienced in Japan back in January, 2011, re-emerged as I stepped onto the bus which would take us from the plane to the airport in Busan, South Korea. 

There I sat on the bus in Korea, speaking Japanese with some new friends I made on the plane, staring at a sign with no idea how to read it. I even had less of an idea of what the sign meant aside from having what appeared to be a singing group pictured on it. From that moment on, I tried to absorb as much of the Korean I saw on the train as quickly as possible. The same goes for common words or phrases I heard inside of stores or in the open air markets which are sprinkled all throughout Busan and Seoul. What is this Hangul? How is it read? What does the ad mean? – Those were very common questions I asked my Korean friends. 

It was so frustrating for me to be silent when ordering something at the convenience store, but it was even more frustrating to not have the ability to read a sign. That is what frustrated me the most. 

And so the desire to learn a third language begun. 

Following lunch with my friend, I said a few words in Korean and even read some Romanized names on the train as we headed back to Seoul Station. She said my pronunciation was very good, which encouraged me to study some more Korean hen I returned to Japan. 

 

This poses two obvious problems for me.

Firstly, where will I get the time to dedicate myself towards another language, especially when I have devoted so much time and energy to Japanese. 

Secondly, I am very afraid that if I start learning another language, I will lose much of my Japanese ability and Japanese skills that I have developed over the last two years in very intensive studies. 

Many of My Korean and Japanese friends say that the grammar is similar between the two languages. They also say that some vocabulary is shared, too. I just worry about forcing out the Japanese I have learned in lieu of a rudimentary level of Korean studies. 

Have you studied a third language? If so,  how was your experience? 

 

Back from Wonderful South Korea

I have just returned to Japan from my weekend trip to South Korea, and I must say that it was an amazing and memorable experience! I used the foreigner pass to rode the KTX from busan to Seoul so i was able to see the country’s two largest cities. South Korea is very similar to Japan in several ways but also very different at the same time. In tomorrow’s posting, I will discuss the things I liked about South Korea along with some things I did not like about South Korea.

I will also talk about how this whole trip would not have been possible if I was never involved in the International Student Association at my university. The entire trip and rendezvous with friends in Seoul as opposed to my university is truly remarkable and amazing. I often think about why we meet people during life and my trip yesterday continues to bring that question to mind. If I had ended up playing football at Temple as I had initially thought I would, my whole life would be entirely different at this time! I am certainly glad things changed.

Attached is a photo of one of the most exciting things about international travel- when you get your new passport stamps. This makes number 5 for me!

20130916-224006.jpg

Another Adventure on the Horizon

For those of you who have never met me, I have always been fascinated with adventure, travel, and finding out new things about new places and the new people I meet throughout the journey called live. This interest started as my family and I embarked on many summer road trips and vacations when I was a child. This weekend, a new chapter will unfold in the adventure I call my life.  

On Saturday, I am headed to Busan, South Korea, for my first trip in Asia outside of Japan. I cannot be more excited as I anticipate what should be an adventurous three day weekend as I traverse South Korea. 

When I returned to Temple University following the March 11, 2011, earthquake in Japan, I quickly became involved in Asian student associations and the international student clubs at school to try and help foreign students in the way they helped me when I was studying abroad in Japan. Throughout the next two years, I made many new friendships with foreign students; most of them residing in either Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. This weekend, I will be meeting up with my Korean friends in Busan and Seoul to get a non-tourist perspective of the two biggest cities in South Korea. 

Following the first day in Busan, I will take the Korean high speed rail train to Seoul on Sunday for a day trip to rendezvous with some of my friends that I have not seen for several years. Then it will be back to Busan on Sunday evening followed to a return to Osaka on Monday afternoon. When I first started listening to Korean pop music, I was enamored by how glamorous Seoul looked, mainly because the scenes I saw reminded me so much of my third home, Tokyo. I cannot wait to see Seoul with my own two eyes!

Each day I am in Japan it truly amazes me how I am able to communicate with the Japanese and my friends in another language. I will never forget the first time I went to Japan, not knowing Japanese. It transformed me forever and spurred what is a strong and unwavering interest in the Japanese language. I am hoping my first trip to South Korea has a similar affect on me, albeit the situation will be very different than my first trip to Japan. I am blessed and very fortunate to have friends willing to show me their country, even if for a day or weekend, and look forward to learning as much as I can. Of course, many photos will be taken. 

If you are a university student in the United States or interested in foreign language or travel, I highly recommend you join your university’s international student organizations, etc. You will have a priceless opportunity for meeting new friends, networking, and learning about yourself. Having a travel partner isn’t a bad bonus, either.