In a crazy world where terrorists can hold U.S. diplomatic personnel hostage for months, and international travelers have been worrying more about the condition of dollar than the purity of the water, the idea that a dangerous Demilitarized Zone could actually offer daily U.N.-conducted tours no longer seems insane -- or even slightly preposterous. At Camp Kittyhawk, DMZ visitors are warned: ". . . You will be traveling into and through a hostile area . . . ." (This article was written before recent riots in the Korean capital resulted in tough new edicts as part of a crackdown by the military, and a citizens rebellion against martial law began spreading to other cities.)
THIS IS NOT the season to visit Tehran or go to Afghanistan. Still, if you crave travel with a taste of possible danger, at the tense edge where something violent just might happen "but probably won't there is a place for you to go -- the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Republic of Korea in the South from the Communist North.
Pick up a flight to Seoul, South Korea, or take a stopover on your business trip Tokyo, Hong Kong or Tapei. Enjoy a few days in this cosmopolitan city of 8.5 million. You can stay in one of the most elegant hotels in the world while you wait for military clearance and make your bus reservations through the Korea Tourist Bureau in the Hotel Koreana.
The trip takes about six hours altogether, beginning with an hour and a half bus ride to Camp Kittyhawk. There you will change to any army bus for a guided tour under the supervision of the United Nations command. With a U.S. passport you should have no problem. Children, however, and Korean citizens are not ordinarily allowed to visit the area. Tour cost: $21.
Applications for unit tours should be made through the DMZ Pass Officer UNC/AAD. Visits by distinguished visitors are arranged through Protocol, United Nations Command, APO, San Francisco 96301.
The Demilitarized Zone is a 4,000-meter buffer zone between communist North Korea and the Republic of Korea to the South. The initial division of the nation came about because of the divided authority of the allies at the end of World War II. In August 1945, a line was drawn across the peninsula at the 38th parallel to expedite surrender of Japanese forces to the Russians in the North and to the United States in the South. By November 1947, the line had hardened as the Soviets refused to agree to any settlement which did not insure communist control of the entire peninsula, thus dividing what had been a unified country for nearly 2,000 years.
The United Nations Commission was forced to confine itself to South Korea, where it supervised free election in May 1948. A constitution was approved, Dr. Syngman Rhee was elected president, and the Republic of Korea was formally proclaimed on Aug. 15, 1948. Meanwhile a communist Democratic People's Republic was established in the North.
Then, June 25, 1950, a surprise attack by Soviet-trained North Korean forces surged across the 38th parallel, precipitating the Korean War. Fifty-three nations responded to the ROK's call for assistance and 16 countries furnished combat forces. Only massive intervention by Chinese troops saved communist forces from total defeat. On June 23, 1951, the Soviet delegates to the United Nations proposed a cease-fire. Negotiations were begun in July and a truce went into effect July 23, 1953, ending open hostilities.
Since no peace treaty has been signed, however, technically a state of war still exists. The United Nations Command claims to have documented more than 43,000 separate North Korean violations of the agreement.
On the morning of our appointment to go to the DMZ, Korean friends drove us to the elegant Shilla Hotel to board the bus for Camp Kittyhawk, where we would transfer to an army bus after being briefed for our tour.
The sense of unreality at the DMZ is heightened by its nearness to the bustling cosmopolitan capital of Seoul and the peacefulness of the countryside along the 35-mile drive. One moves alond a landscape of mountains, terraced fields and rice paddies, with black goats, sheep chickens and ducks, and rows of cabbage. In one field a man may be plowing with a reddish-brown ox, in the next with a tractor. fHere is a factory and nearby are women washing clothes in a shallow stream. For this is country in rapid transition and you are witnessing an industrial revolution as you travel across it.
If you had come here five or 10 years ago, you would have seen thatched roofs on the country villages. Today, except for an occasional small outbuilding, most of the roofs are tile. Some look like metal. You will have to visit the Korean Folk Village -- South Korea's Williamsburg -- to see thatched roofed houses today.
The DMZ was closed to visitors for many weeks after the assassination of President Park Chung Hee on Oct. 26, 1979. By Mid-December the tours had been resumed, but they are always subject to cancellation without notice if a critical situation should arise.
A visit to the Joint Security Area has a continuing tension to it that makes it unlike other trips, even if you've been in a war. For this is neither war nor peace, just a taut limbo in which every once in a while something violent or fritghtening does happen. Recently a soldier on guard saw a gyser of water erupt suddenly and investigation revealed another tunnel being cut by North Koreans through the granite rock. Four tunnels have been discovered, but it is suspected that there are a great many more, since the communists continue to try to infiltrate into South Korea.
We arrived first at Camp Kittyhawk, which looked just about like any other army camp. Even the humor was familiar. The "Monastery" where we headed first identified its denizens on a sign as "The Merry Mad Monks of the DMZ." There is in this outpost of capitalist society, a bar and rest rooms -- the reason we were being herded in from our bus -- and a kind of miniature PX which sold postcards and a few souvenirs of DMZ.
"It must be pointed out that you will be traveling into and through a hostile area," we were told after we had gathered in the post auditorium to be briefed on the history and protocol of the DMZ. The "do's" and "don'ts" were outlined.
Like the Berlin Wall, the narrow strip which separates the North from the South in Korea is both physical and symbolic. It separates the same people into two entirelh different ways of life. The truce which ended the open hostilities of the Korean War continued the World War II separation along the DMZ, which winds 151 miles across the Korean peninsula from the Han River estuary in the west to a point just below the 39th parallel on the rugged east coast.
Down the center of the 4,000-meter strip lies the Military Demarcation, marked by 1,292 markers printed in Korean and English on the side facing south and in Korean and Chinese on the side facing north. This was the line of ground contact between the opposing sides at the moment the cease-fire went into effect.
During the briefing, we were informed that we could take photographs only when specifically told that it was permitted to do so. We were warned not to make any gestures with our hands during our tour of the Joint Security Area because, however innocently made, such movements might be construed as provocative.
Persons who take the tour are requested not to wear blue jeans, which for some reason are said to excite a lively negative response from the communists.
Most of us found that not gesturing was one of the hardest things we had to do, and we either kept both hands on our cameras or put our hands in our pockets.
We were warned that the road over which our army bus would be traveling had been mined before a bus load of U.N. commissioners wient over it. It was thought to be safe the day we were there, but it was stressed that there could be no guarantees.
Before getting on the army bus which would take us to the Joint Security Area, each of us had to sign a "Vistor's Declaration" that we each recognized our visit to the JSA at Panmunjom "entails entry into a hostile area and that I am subjecting myself (and my family) to the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."
We were told that fraternization was strictly forbidden, given laminated guest badges to wear and instructed as to identification of personnel on the communist side, such as red arm bands for military personnel and green for the press.
Many incidents were described and we were given an especially detailed account of the attack, in August 1976, on United Nations Command security personnel who were monitoring a civilian tree-trimming work party during which two UNIC officers were killed by North Korean guards wielding axes and clubs.
There was an eerie suspense as we rode in the military bus to the JSA. The main conference building is astride the DMZ which bisects the green felt-covered table in the building. There the Military Armistice Commission, consisting of delegates from both sides, meets to discuss any alleged violations of the truce. Usally these meetings are said to be low-key if somewhat dramatic confrontations, but there have been some scuffles between guards from the opposing sides and an occasional melee has deyeloped. Actually the Military Demarcation Line was not marked in the conference area until after the ax killing of the two UNC officers in 1976.
We were allowed to walk around the table, technically a few feet into enemy territory, provided we did not touch the chairs or the microphones dangling from the ceiling. That, we had been warned, could be dangerous.
We were permitted to take photographs of the room, including the young North Korean guard who was immpassively, yet alertly keeping his eye upon us.
After leaving the conference building, we walked as instructed between the U.S. soldiers along the walk, then climbed the tower of Freedom House from which we were allowed to take photographs of the building we had just left, the communist headquarters which has an impressive facade but is only 18 feet in depth, a North Korean guard post and the spookily quiet landscape.
We had been told that the North Koreans would be studying us through powerful glasses and probably would be taking our pictures. As we were adjusting our own cameras, some wag equipped, "Smile, you are on communist camera!"
Before coming we had read that an endangered species of Korean deer was making a comeback in the DMZ, which for obvious reasons is off-limits to hunters. We saw no wildlife, however. The quiet emptiness felt ominous.
As our bus stopped at the guard post nearest the Bridge of No Return, we were instructed to walk quickly around the left side of the small building. When we got to the other side we had a view of the building where the armistic had been signed, now in communist-held territory, and of the bridge with the maimed tree nearby where the UNC officers had been killed during the tree-trimming incident.
We got back on the bus and wee driven slowly by the site of the attack. We were told that the bus could not safely stop, but would be driven slowly enough for us to take photograpahs.
We returned safely but soberly to eat the gimbap, the traditonal Korean hiker's lunch, which our friends in Seoul had packed for us. We supplemented the rice-and-seaweed goodies with PX coffee and ice cream which turned out to have come from the Old Dominion Diary in Norfolk, Va.!
Over the years, since 1948, there have been various abortive dialogues between North and South Korea on the subject of reunification. The most recent overtures are now going on between working-level diplomats from both sides. Given the ideological gulfs -- political, economic and social -- and the international stakes involved, it is difficult to be overly optimistic. a
It is probably not very risky to predict that, if you hanker for a little spine-tingling on an otherwise safe trip to the Orient, you will find it possible for some time to come to take this unique excursion into this narrow zone still technically in a state of war.