Very few people read the release forms they sign, whether it be before the kids go to the trampoline park or when you go to the waterpark.
I am embarrassed to say — I don’t.
But when I went to the DMZ, I did read it, and here’s the first line:
“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
Welcome to the DMZ.
Most people know what it stands for: The Demilitarized Zone. It splits North Korea from South Korea. It is four kilometers wide and 241 kilometers long. It is the most militarized border on the planet.
Upon arrival, our group of journalists were escorted by First Lt. Goetsch. He is a U.S. soldier, but it must be pointed out that the United States Army does not manage the DMZ. The Joint Security Area (JSA) is run by the United Nations with both South Korea and the United States working as partners.
Goetsch hails from Oregon and freely told us that he is 92 days shy of getting rotated out of his DMZ duty.
“But who is counting,” said Goetsch, but not in a grizzled, totally burnt out kind of way.
He said the deployment is good for his military resume, yet it’s a stressful existence. He’s simply ready to go home.
Let’s run down some of the truths about this part of the planet and why it’s so stressful.
Start with the land mines. There are some 2 million of them in the region. The proof is in the pig.
“The 800-pound boars will often trip them in the summer,” Goetsch said. “It happens a lot.”
The bridge we cross to get to the actual border line is fortified with C4 explosives to make sure that if North Korea tried to move forces southward, they certainly would not do it on that bridge.
He also informs our group at the exact times we are being watched by North Korean troops, and when there are machine guns trained on us.
“You are surrounded on three sides by the North Korean Army,” he said as we viewed the border from one of the checkpoints.
This was not a joke or a tourist ploy. Right over the line, guard towers were mounted with security cameras and manned 24-7 by armed — but not visible — North Korean soldiers.
It was made clear multiple times that no one could make any form of gesture, especially a disrespectful one, toward the North.
The daily routine includes music that runs most of the day from the North Korean side. At, night, it is played so loud that it can be heard clearly from the U.N. barracks almost a mile and a half away.
“They don’t want us to sleep.”
Throughout our time along he DMZ, there were strict rules as to what we could film and photograph, and a clear violation would end everyone’s day.
The South Korean soldiers we saw showed no sign of emotion — or even acknowledgment — and some did not even move while we were in their presence.
All of it is for safety, and also a show of strength, as the North Koreans, we were told, are always watching.
That is where the DMZ shifts from a piece of factual history to a living symbol of the incredibly proud, intense and deep-rooted living history between these artificially split nations.
For example, there was once a meeting in the Zone that lasted more than 11 hours, and neither side wanted to take a bathroom break as it was seen as a sign of weakness. It was dubbed “The Bladder War”.
Afterward, breaks every two and a half hours were mandatory.
Also, South Korea has a village near the border, and it had a 100-meter tall flagpole, proudly showing the nation’s flag.
What did the North do?
They built a flagpole 160 meters high, with a flag so heavy that it takes dozens of people to raise it.
That flag was at a decent distance from us, but just feet away were the remnants of where a North Korean defected last year. Bullet holes were still visible.
I could go on and on with incredible examples of the reality of how tense it is there — all day, every day. But I won’t.
I will, though, acknowledge how both sides shape their messages. North Korea has their high flagpole and blaring music. South Korea has Freedom Village, and they call the competing village to the North “Propaganda Village”. Goetsch insists no one lives there.
“We know the windows and doors are painted on the buildings,” he said.
But it must be pointed out that the villagers in Freedom Village make an average of more than $80,000 that they receive tax free. The main crop is rice, and the South Korean government buys all of it.
Having said all of this, there is an even more overarching theme at the DMZ: The option for communication is always there.
Meeting spaces are basically all that is shared in terms of space, and the main buildings are the Freedom House and the Peace House. Yes, the U.N., U.S. and South Koreans want the public perception to be an openness to dialogue.
But there is truth to it, as evidenced by the talks — in this exact place — that led to the two nations combining hockey teams and deciding to walk together in the Opening Ceremony.
That is the DMZ — a history of violence, every day fraught with tension... with always the chance that it could change for the better... or become violent again.