Three Day Weekend, Part Dos

Believe it or not, we have two three day weekends this month! Don’t get too excited though, we only have three all year. This past weekend, we ventured to Seoul, departing late Friday night after school and boarding the KTX high-speed train to our friend’s house in the capital city of South Korea. After the near three hour train ride and a while on the subway, we arrived well after midnight and went quickly to sleep.

The next morning, we set out to have a nice American style breakfast in Itaewon (the foreign section of Seoul). I had pancakes, but they did not stack up to my home made specialties : ( Afterward, we met our tour group at the Lotte Hotel downtown and departed for our trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA) in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North Korea and South Korea. Our tour guide was hilarious yet soft spoken and cracked some very funny jokes on the hour ride to the border.

Upon arriving to the DMZ, your bus is boarded by Korean Military personnel and your passports are all checked and bus is visually searched. After being waved across the barricaded bridge, we were in the DMZ. We soon passed the only village (South Korean) that is located in the DMZ. The villagers have to be direct descendants of people who lived there before the war and have very strict military control around the area. They cannot go outside at night and they are constantly guarded, even while farming by military escorts. The villagers are paid $80,000 per year to live there and farm the land and pay no taxes. Sounds like a pretty sweet gig, but there are many sacrifices to living there.

The next step in getting to the JSA portion of the DMZ is to arrive at Camp Bonifas. That is the most forward camp in South Korea. Their motto is, in fact, “In Front of Them All.” We again had our passports checked and we were given United Nations Military Command ID badges to wear at all times. We were given a military police escort that would not leave our side the rest of the tour as well. He made it very clear that he was not part of the tour and was there for our safety and to ensure that none of us did anything stupid. In addition to receiving our UNMC badge and armed escort, we then boarded a military JSA tour bus with a military driver and had an armed military vehicle escort on top of that. Did I mention the part that you (quite literally) sign your life away before starting the tour? The whole process is pretty intense.

After boarding our new military bus, went through a variety of military buildings on our way to the actual JSA. When we arrived, walked through the spot where a defector had been gunned down a decade or so ago trying to escape North Korea. The North Korean guards followed him across the border to shoot him, which led to both sides exchanging fire. We walked up some steps, through a building and all of a sudden we were right on the border. We were standing face to face with the elite of the elite Korean military, which were no question at the ready. They wear “JSA sunglasses” which are Raybans so as not to get into “eye fights” with the North Korean soldiers and it makes them look that much tougher. We were able to look across the border at the North Korean military guard, who had their binoculars out trying to catch something to take a picture of for propaganda use. We actually stepped into North Korea inside the UN conference room which is the room they actually hold meetings in. There were two guards standing inside – one to make sure we did not head out the wrong door into North Korea and one to make sure we did not touch the middle desk, whose microphones are running/recorder 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The UN buildings were blue and the North Korean buildings were gray. It was a really ominous sight, but was a really neat experience overall. We also were able to get a closer look at the North Korean propaganda town, which boasts the world’s largest flag and flag pole. The area is riddled with land mines, so you can’t just walk around – not that they would let you anyway, but it is extra incentive to stay on the marked path.

Upon returning to the base, we saw some Korean military personnel doing physical training and then we boarded our tour bus and headed back into Seoul. We had a great dinner at guess what? The Loving Hut Buffet! Yes, our favorite staple in Busan, The Loving Hut, has a buffet version of the restaurant in Seoul. It was amazing! I will let Ashley fill you in on the rest of our great weekend!


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