Saturday, May 17, 2014

Chrysallization Part 2

The Bridge of No Return

Chrysallization, Part 2

...Once we were all aboard and everyone was settled and quiet, the Major barked out our itinerary, informing us that we would make a short stop on the way up to the DMZ at an overlook which had a memorial and historical marker and also provided an overlook to the “Bridge of No Return,” a famous piece of Korean history.

Located in the Joint Security Area, the so-called "Bridge of No Return,” also known as the Freedom Bridge, crosses the Military Demarcation Line between North Korea and South Korea. It was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The name originates from the fact that prisoners were given the choice to remain in the country of their captivity or cross over to the other country. If they chose to cross the bridge, they would never be allowed to return. In 1983, it was also the single road connecting the two halves of Korea, and was closely monitored by military personnel.

Still traumatized by the bullet holes in our bus window, I had a hard time relaxing on the drive. The bus had no air conditioning, but we had all of the bus windows wide open, allowing for hot, dusty waves of air to pummel their way through the aisles. My throat was parched, so I reached into my tote bag for the bottle of water I always carried.

As the countryside rolled by outside my window, I rested my head against the seat back and thought about my family. I wondered what my mother would think if she knew what we were doing right at this moment. She would probably faint with fear. I was glad that she wouldn’t know until after we were safely home again.
After about 30 minutes, we pulled off into an innocuous looking parking lot, seated beside a park-like area. “Ok, everyone out here. We’ll have about 30 minutes here to take a look. Be sure to read the historical marker and look at the model. It’s very interesting stuff.” The Major directed before he hopped off the bus.

Rich and I gathered our things and filed out of the bus with our friends. Once on the ground, I stopped and looked around. It was actually quite a peaceful spot. There were flowering trees, and grass, and benches, and pebble-covered paths. One could almost forget that we were in a military zone.

We walked to the overlook to gaze down on the Bridge of No Return. From this height, it seemed just a country bridge, quite unimposing or spectacular. I thought about the history we had learned, about how the Koreans had to choose which side of the border they wanted to be on when they were finally closed at the end of the war. How could one choose? What if you had family on both sides of the line? What if your family were on one side, but your political convictions drew you to the other? It was all so complicated. I was happy that I had not had to make such a choice.

I snapped a number of photos with my 35mm camera (no digital cameras in 1983!), wandering around and taking in the atmosphere. We had been instructed that we could not take pictures from the bus while we were in motion, but that we could take all we wanted at this spot. I was taking advantage of the opportunity. I was in a very thoughtful mood.

Suddenly, there was a shout from the overlook. The Sergeant who had accompanied us was pointing excitedly down at the bridge and yelling at the Major. The Major took one look down the hill, and turned to start barking orders at us.

“NOW. Back on the bus. Hurry!”

We looked around amazed for a moment. Was this the same man who told us there was nothing to worry about a few hours earlier? I couldn’t tell what the problem was.

“I said NOW, PEOPLE! Let’s move!” He barked again.

Startled out of my thoughts, I started hustling towards the bus. Once aboard and back in my seat, I hunched down, trying to stay below the window line. I didn’t want to make myself a target. I whispered a fervent prayer that we would be able to escape whatever threat was out there, and be returned safely to our families back home. I thought about my mother and father, who had put me on the plane with tears in their eyes, and my brother, who had cheerfully slapped me on the shoulder and said “have fun!” I screwed my eyes shut and hoped that I would see them again.

Our group threw themselves aboard the bus in record time, and the driver had the door closed and was tearing off down the road even before everyone was in their seat. The Major seemed to relax once we were far enough down the road to be out of sight of the Bridge beneath us. He sighed, and turned to face the group, bellowing at us.

“Sorry for the scare there, folks. It was probably nothing at all, but my Sergeant spotted an unidentified vehicle coming down the Freedom Bridge from the Northern side at a high rate of speed. We can’t take any chances with civilians, you understand.”

I just looked at Rich, and grabbed his hand tightly. I wondered if the Major was telling us the truth, or if there had actually been any danger for us. I was starting to wonder if I should have stayed behind.

As the bus moved further from the Bridge of No Return, I forced my breathing to return to normal. Watching the landscape as it slid past the open bus window, I let my mind roam. I thought about the whole concept of war and its consequences for society. I wondered if war was ever worth it in the end.

About thirty minutes later, Rich poked me in the ribs to get my attention. “Hey, Chris. Are you sleeping? I think we’re almost there. Look!” He said, pointing out the front window of the bus. Ahead, I saw military gates, fencing, and the tip of a tall stone monument with a key hole opening in it.

The Major stood up and addressed the group. “If I could have your attention, please, folks. We are approaching the DMZ and Panmunjom. We will have about an hour here, but please stay with the Sergeant and me. We need to be sure that you stay in the authorized areas within the DMZ. No wandering off.”

The group murmured a little in response, I’m sure wondering the same thing I was – what threats might be lurking here, especially after our scare at the Freedom Bridge. As the bus pulled up to the gates, we began to gather our belongings and move towards the front of the bus.

Stepping down onto the concrete, I stopped and looked around. It was obviously a military installation, with gates, fencing, and lots and lots of concrete. And there was an eerie sensation in the air, one that I could not quite identify, that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I took a deep breath and grabbed Rich’s hand for support, wishing my family were here instead.

“This way, folks,” the Sergeant directed, leading us through a set of barricades and a guard house and into the installation itself. As we walked, he explained where we were. He lectured, “Panmunjom is actually an abandoned village on the de facto border between North and South Korea. In 1953, the Armistice Agreement was signed in Panmunjom. The building where the armistice was signed still stands, on the north side of the Military Demarcation Line, and the North Koreans have since renamed the building the Peace Museum.”

“Although the village itself was abandoned and disappeared, the name is now used to refer to the Joint Security Area, where discussions between North and South still are held in the blue buildings that straddle the Military Demarcation Line. You can see the line of buildings off to your left, over there,” he said, pointing ahead of us.

“The actual building in which the armistice was signed was constructed by both sides over a 48-hour period. North Korea provided labor and some supplies, while the United Nations Command provided supplies, generators, and lighting to allow the work to continue overnight.” As the Sergeant droned on about the history of the place, the group was struggling to keep up with his brisk pace. Those at the rear, I’m sure, were unable to hear his commentary.

He continued, “In September 1953, after the Armistice Agreement was signed, construction began on a new site located approximately one kilometer east of the village; this is the Joint Security Area we told you about earlier, and all meetings between North Korea and the United Nations Command or South Korea have taken place here since its completion. People now use the name Panmunjom to refer to the JSA.”
“There are 24 buildings in the 800- meter diameter area, where representatives of the United Nations and North Korea meet to confer about a variety of contentious issues,” he continued, pointing around him at the surrounding structures.

“We are currently only about 25 miles from Seoul, the capital of South Korea. That means that it is only a 60 second flight by jet. There’s a map up here that shows you exactly where we are in relation to Seoul, and shows you just how close we are to North Korean territory. Again, I must caution you not to stray from the group as we move about the JSA.”

Rich and I exchanged a nervous glance, and I grasped his hand tighter as we moved forward. This was the closest I had ever been to a military conflict. It was not a comfortable feeling.

The Sergeant then explained that the roads upon we had travelled from Seoul were named the Unification Road and the Freedom Road. Freedom Road ultimately connected with the Freedom Bridge, or Bridge of No Return, that we had seen from the overlook. He explained that the “Freedom Bridge,” would immediately be destroyed in the event of military aggression by North Korea. That bit of information made me think about the truck we saw on the bridge not long before. How likely would Northern aggression be?
“Let’s stop here for a minute,” he said, stopping in front of a large, two-story white building with a pagoda in front of it. “This is “Freedom House,” and you will have a few minutes here to take photos, if you wish. We will move on in 10 minutes. Please do not wander.”

I thought it was ironic how the word “freedom” seemed to be bandied about in this region. I figured it was a ploy by the United Nations forces to demonstrate their victory over the villainous Northern Forces – a gentle slap in the face of the Communists, if you will.
From this observation platform we could see across the line that divides North and South Korea. As I gazed across, I saw a North Korean observation tower, a North Korean visitor center, and “Conference Row,” which are the blue buildings where UN and North Korean officials meet to administer and enforce the armistice agreement of 1953. I also spotted a number of US and South Korean military personnel, lining the walk outside one of the conference buildings.

And as I surveyed the area, picking out landmarks and snapping some photographs, I also spotted a number of North Korean guards, positioned on their side of the JSA. I pointed them out to Rich. “Do you see them? Those are NORTH Koreans over there, Rich,” I whispered nervously, as if they might hear me if I spoke too loudly.

“Yeah, they are. But they’re on THEIR side of the line, so we’re good,” he joked.

Rich’s jokes weren’t making me any less nervous. I looked around at all of the military personnel I could see on both sides of the Demarcation Line, and I realized that they were all fully armed. I swallowed hard again, thinking back to our adventure at the Bridge of No Return, and prayed fervently that we would have no such encounter here.

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