Nonsensical security ‘theatre’ is a hallmark of the TSA and their theatrical actions ‘protecting’ US airports. But having just returned from a visit to the South Korean side of the DMZ, I’m wondering if the South Korean soldiers in their ridiculous ‘modified Tae Kwan Do’ poses, and wearing dark sunglasses, might not have been TSA agents in disguise.
Of course, some things were different. Whereas the TSA requires you to take your shoes off for security purposes, at the DMZ you are required to have ‘proper’ shoes on – also of course for security purposes.
But other things are very similar – the TSA (and the airlines) impose unwritten dress codes on the type of clothing you can wear at an airport and on a plane, and so too do the troops at the DMZ. We weren’t allowed to wear ‘military style’ clothing, and neither were we allowed to wear short shorts or cutaway t-shirts. This was explained as being for our protection – you see, if ‘something bad’ were to happen the authorities believed that wearing a thin layer of clothing would give us better protection (presumably against the bullets of the invading/attacking North Koreans?). That makes about as much sense as – oh, just about any of the TSA rules and requirements.
The TSA and airlines have restrictions on carry-ons. We also weren’t allowed to carry any bags with us at the DMZ – to keep our hands free in case of nameless horrors befalling us. But we were allowed to carry cameras with us (although we weren’t allowed to use them other that on two brief occasions – and had to have them out of their carry bags, so therefore they were either in our hands or around our necks. This seemed to curiously contradict the requirement to not have our hands cluttered with stuff in case of an ’emergency’.
The TSA places great importance on viewing our photo ID before it will allow us into the secure part of the terminal, in the apparent hope that terrorists would be as stupid as to travel under their own name. The DMZ authorities are even more fixated on ID, requiring extensive details on every potential visitor at least two days prior to our travel (and some weeks prior if the person wishing to visit is a local South Korean).
Driving in to the DMZ had the bus snaking around ’round-blocks’ – barriers across half the highway so the bus had to slowly do a series of S-bend type maneuvers. This was presumably to slow down the onrush of tanks from the north. But – I noticed that the ‘barriers’ that were ‘blocking’ the road were iron poled fence units, mounted on roller wheels and just sitting freely on the road surface. Would those stop a tank – or even a bus? Almost certainly not. So what was the point of them? The TSA too has plenty of unnecessary inconveniences that serve little purpose.
We were beset with the need to 100% comply with a series of unnecessary seeming rules. For example, we had one of several unnecessary delays that forced us to wait on the bus for some period of time, while the sun was strongly shining in all along one side, toasting the people inside. Several of the passengers complained, but the tour guide said there was only one place (in an expansive large car park that was almost completely empty) that the bus was allowed to be, and we would just have to accept the sun. We asked if the bus could at least turn 90 degrees but that too was refused. (I asked the American soldier ‘guarding’ us on the coach and he relented, allowing uncomfortable passengers to go inside to the air conditioned building immediately next to us and wait there.)
We had to sign a very comprehensive waiver form before we could go up to the DMZ. Except that one passenger, after signing his form, then folded it into the shape of a peace crane. No-one collected his form, and at least one of the other forms was returned to the authorities unsigned. They didn’t seem to mind. Totally pointless – a bit like the TSA matching IDs to boarding passes, but not checking to see if the boarding pass is genuine or matches a booking for the flight.
Talking about IDs, we were all issued with special visitor IDs that we had to pin to our shirts. What was the point of that? Anyone could duplicate the generic paper IDs, and who could mistake us for anything other than visitors in the first place?
We had to line up in two exact rows and wait before we could then enter the main DMZ administration building. Lining up and waiting is surely a key part of the TSA experience.
But the part which completely convinced me that the entire DMZ was nothing other than a Disney experience operated by the TSA? All the fierce looking South Korean guards, with their unwavering stern stares northwards to intimidate the North Koreans (who were notably not present, other than for a brief appearance by one soldier who came out of their building, had a brief look at us, then went back inside again) and strange martial art type poses, alertly on post guarding the DMZ from North Korean attack? Ummm – they only come out and adopt those poses when tourists visit!
We confirmed this ourselves when re-visiting a few days later from the North’s side, with no South Korean guards anywhere to be seen on the grounds.
The rest of the time, they’re lounging around in the guardhouse and doing not very much; indeed, there’s not much they could do to defend against a North Korean attack anyway, because they’re not allowed to have any weapons more formidable than pistols.
The TSA of course loves its fancy uniforms and public posing, too.
So if you ever get to wondering what it would be like to visit a tourist attraction operated by the TSA, why not head over to South Korea and take a tour up to the DMZ. About the only thing missing was a gratuitous and potentially dangerous dose of X-rays.
But don’t go to North Korea and take one of their DMZ tours, because you’d be sadly disappointed. The North Koreans don’t have any such rules at all. It is relaxed and easy to visit from the North. Only the South feels the need to ‘impress’ their visitors.
6 thoughts on “Does the TSA Run the DMZ?”
All of this is true and accurate. But David, you left out the part about both DMZ experiences – north and south – including the mandatory stop at the overpriced and crowded gift shops!
The TSA needs to catch up on this marketing opportunity.
Thanks for your most amusing comment and very sensible suggestion.
Indeed, I’d suggest the TSA open a store just before the screening that sells bottled water, pocket knives, guns, explosives, etc. It could endlessly recycle and resell the same articles after confiscating them minutes later.
Or perhaps it could sell bottled water before the screening, then resell the same bottled water after screening and after confiscating it. Two sales for each bottle of water. 🙂
Actually – many a true word spoken in jest. The stuff that the TSA seizes is, in many states, sold at auction or in some other way disposed of for a profit.
You’re joking of course about the recycling sales of beverages.
But in Hong Kong, I had the experience of buying a small bottle of tea at a store right across from the jetway. I then entered the jetway for boarding a few minutes later, and had the tea taken away from me for “security” purposes.
As you might imagine, this was the last time I bought something to drink at the HK airport before a flight back to the US.
I know all these things about entering the DMZ and Panmunjom may seem silly but you should realize you are entering a war zone. Roughly every 8-14 months the North Koreans create an incident, sometimes with deadly consequences. These incidents have included firing light weapons across the border, firing artillery on South Korean occupied islands, floating explosive mines down the Imjin river into South Korea, landing commandos on the South Korean coast, and gunboat battles. In the past US/UN personnel have been attacked in Panmunjom with no provocation and were seriously injured or killed.
Nothing prevents the North Koreans from attacking or firing upon tour groups which enter Panjunjom.
I served with the US Army in the Republic of Korea and I still have pictures from my own tour of Panmunjom with me standing on the north side of the negotiating table. In the same picture, North Korean guards are seen peering through the window. As for my time in Korea, I could tell you some scary stories that would make your hair curl. There was always the possibility of attack from North Korea.
I don’t mean to detract from your own time serving in South Korea, and neither do I mean to detract from the possibility of an incident/attack with North Korea.
But perhaps you could explain to us exactly how the ridiculous seeming requirements that are imposed on visitors to the DMZ make the visitors safer, and reduce the danger of incidents occurring. Why did we have to wait in a bus in the sun – why couldn’t the bus move and park in the shade in the empty car park out of view of the North side? Why couldn’t we wear sandals? Why did we have to keep our hands free – ooops, except for carrying cameras? And so on and so on.
I’d also like to gently point out, from the perspective of having now visited both Koreas, that there is fault on both sides when it comes to incidents such as you mention, and indeed, I have witnessed at first hand deliberate acts of provocation from the South to the North, while I’ve not seen any of the opposite.
Black and white situations are usually grey.
Anyway, back to the core issue here. Please explain how what seem like ridiculous restrictions on visitors are actually necessary.
Many thanks for your insights.
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