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I don’t think I’ve ever been told “No photos” so many times in one day.

Then again I guess that’s to be expected when you’re on a military base in one of the most militarized areas in the world: the DMZ.  But it’s a strange kind of base of troops with guns and tourists with cameras — a combination of the serious and the ludicrous.

On the tour bus, I sat across from one rather large-toothed woman (who was always half-grinning) and her scowling husband.  At one point we were shown a video about the wilderness and wildlife that flourished in the a stretch of the DMZ.  The clip featured a deer prancing through a lush grass. The woman asked if animals ever set off landmines.  When our guide answered yes, she exclaimed, “Then what, dinner?” and cackled at her own joke.

“It was just a reminder that even in some of the gravest places there can be moments of humor.”

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The base seemed almost comical at times.  Except every time I was about to laugh, something would remind me of where I was.  Everywhere you looked there was barbed wire. And fences. And steel.

But then every time you began to feel the gravity of where you were, something would make you almost laugh.

One of the sites on tour was the Joint Security Area (JSA) which stands directly on the Military Demarcation Line and includes buildings and troops from South Korea, the US, the UN, and North Korea.  Our military escort showed us the room where the Korean War armistice was signed (see the blue building).  There UN troops stand almost face-to-face with North Korean troops, thus the camp’s motto: “In Front of It All.”

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He told us about the 1976 Axe Murder Incident when North Korean soldiers hacked to death two U.S. soldiers who had been sent to trim a poplar tree.  He told us about being heckled by North Korean soldiers who made throat-slitting gestures at him.

But he also told us a story about one negotiation session during which both sides — not wanting to appear weak in front of the other side — held off using the bathroom for 15 hours.  There are now mandatory recesses every two hours.  He grinned referring to it as the “War of the Bladders.”

It was just a reminder that even in some of the gravest places there can be moments of humor. Even “in front of it all.”

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Words and Photos: Elliot Vernon