In October 1997, I went on a VIP tour of the DMZ. A member of the 2ID Spouses Group is the wife of the JSA Commander. She arranged a special tour for us. A bus came and picked us up in Yongsan and took us up to the Joint Security Area for our tour. First we went on a tour of Tunnel #3. Although they deny it, the North Koreans have dug a number of tunnels into South Korea for the purpose of invading. Four of the tunnels have been discovered, as recently at the 80's. There are known to be more, but the locations have not yet been discovered. They are always searching.
Anyway, three of the tunnels are open for "educational explorations." We started our trip with Tunnel #3. We crossed Freedom Bridge to get there. It is a very narrow bridge. The tunnel is about 4.5 kilometers long and 33 meters below ground. It was discovered in 1974. The tunnel is 2 meters wide and 2 meters tall. The South Koreans discovered it before the North Koreans said it was an old coal mine. They went in and rubbed charcoal on the walls. If you touch the walls it will wipe off on you. The region where the tunnel is does not have coal anywhere! It was a lie. It was a very steep tunnel. A natural stream runs through it, flowing to the North. The water was so cold. They had cups for us to taste it. The North Koreans succeeded in reaching into the South with the tunnel. They got 50 meters past the Military Demarcation Line. The military has closed of the tunnel on the southern side. It also has explosives in it, in case the North decided to try to use it again. It has three blockades in it. North Korea is known to have a number of chemical weapons. There are gas detectors inside that will alert the surface to a presence of gas in the tunnel. There are two armed guards standing watch down there 24 hours a day. They remain down there in 2 hour shifts. The oxygen level is low and air from the surface is piped in. The tour was very informative. The Korean government posted a sign in Hangul, at the entrance, that says there is no tour of the tunnel. "Tours" are for fun, seeing the tunnel is for a learning experience.
After the Tunnel we went on into the JSA. We were briefed in the VIP Briefing room, with big plush arm chairs. Al Gore was briefed in the same room, he sat in the seat in front of me! COL Laufenburg greeted us and told us a little about the Joint Security Area. Then a Specialist gave us the official briefing. He told us about the history of the JSA, going back the Korea War. It was very informative. Then we went back to the bus for the driving part of the tour.
We went inside a joint conference room. Half of the room is in North Korea and half is in South Korea. Two South Korean soldiers guard the room. The room is lined with windows on two opposites sides. Sometimes North Korean soldiers come down and stare at you through the windows. None came down while we were inside. Up the hill on the North Korean side there is a huge building with guards outside it. You are not allowed to wave or make any gestures at the North Koreans; they will take pictures and use them in propaganda. Only a matter of yards away was a Communist landů
Next, we got out of the bus at a scenic overpass area looking North Korea. They have huge Hangul letters writing out propaganda. The signs are huge white letters, like the "HOLLYWOOD" sign in CA. Our tour guide joking told us that one read "Elvis is alive and well in Communist North Korea!" The North and South are each allowed to have one village inside the DMZ. The South Korean village is Tae Song Dong, or Freedom Village and the one in the North is Propaganda Village ( I don't remember the Korean name.) You can see Propaganda Village pretty well from where we were. It is full of huge buildings. It has a 60 meter high flag pole with the largest flag in the world. The flag itself is said to weigh more than 2 tons! The ironic thing about Propaganda Village is the it is totally uninhabited! Freedom Village in the South is full of people. The Republic of Korea Government pays the people about $86 million a year tax free to live there and harvest the land. The residents have to be able to prove they owned property there before the Korean War, or that they are direct male descendants of landowners. The trees in the mountains were in full color with the change of season and it was beautiful.
After we returned to the bus, we drove to "The Bridge of No Return." The bridge is where prisoners of the Korean War and members of the USS Pueblo crossed over from North Korea to return to freedom. The marker where CPT Bonifas and 1LT Barrett were killed during the Ax Murders, in 1976, is also there. That sight gave me the chills. If you don't know the story I'll fill you inů
There are a series of guard posts along the South Korean edge of the DMZ. Near the Bridge of No Return is a row of poplar trees. The fifth tree blocked checkpoint 3 and the bridge from the view of check point 5. A Korean work force was escorted by CPT Bonifas and 1LT Barrett to trim the large poplar tree. The tree was trimmed each summer. Earlier in the month a different work force was threatened with death if they tried to trim the tree. The UNC force on 18 August 1976 consisted of the two US officers, an Republic of Korea officer and eight UNC guards escorting the workforce. A group of 30 North Koreans who silently watched were ordered "MIKUNULCHU KI CHA." Translated this means, "Kill the US soldiers." The North Koreans, armed with axes and metal picks, outnumbered the soldiers. It was a vicious attack. CPT Bonifas was the first killed, attacked from behind by five. A Corporal saw the attack from a nearby three-story pagoda. He recorded the murders with a movie camera. The attack ended as soon as it began. The two US officers were killed and the nine guards UNC guards were injured in the end. In the briefing I saw photographs made from the video Cpl. Gray filmed. It was very graphic. You could see a North Korean throwing an ax at 1LT Barrett. The poplar tree was removed entirely and a small monument was placed with the names of those killed and injured. The Bridge of No Return has been blockaded so no one may cross it again. That was the end of the tour. Seeing this makes you have a new respect for being an American. I have a whole new appreciation for living in a free country, a country free of major conflict within itself. I think all Americans should have to live in a country like this, so they can truly appreciate what being an American really means! My experiences here have made an impact I'll never forget.
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