The 4km wide Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas is the most fortified stretch of territory on the planet. The last hot spot of the Cold War. It’s heavily laced with land mines. Reportedly 6,000 artillery pieces are lined up facing each other on both sides. Tens of thousands of highly-trained soldiers armed to the teeth patrol along its barbed wire fences. There are tank brigades and to combat these, scores of anti-tank units. Then there are numerous batteries of self-propelled high velocity weaponry poised. Should either side attempt invasion, Korea would plummet into all out conflict within hours. Given few people ever venture into the narrow strip, why would you, nature has flourished with the territory something of an animal wonderland. Like Chernobyl but without the reactor. Species not found elsewhere in Korea have taken up residence. I guess they all tread lightly. All up it’s quite a surreal place to visit.
Following World War Two, the Korean peninsula was divided, rather causally, between US and Soviet controlled territories along a line drawn-up by two US colonels decided on in their lunch break. The Koreans weren’t consulted. One of the colonels, Dean Rusk, later became US Secretary of State, but not because of that. Soviet troops left back in 1948. US forces never have. Seventy years on and things still aren’t settled. Like a messy divorce, only involving columns of tanks, high-tech weaponry and 24-hour propaganda.
Tour operators in Seoul will take you to the DMZ and Panmunjom, the historic site of the armistice signed to suspend the Korean War. It’s an area of acronyms, a veritable alphabet soup. The Joint Security Area (JSA) is the area straddling the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The MDL runs through the DMZ marking the “border” between the two Koreas consisting of 1291 markers with signs in English and Korean on one side, and Korean and Chinese on the other. Though if you were to get close enough to read these you’d probably already be dead.
The MDL bisects the actual negotiating table inside the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Building at Panmunjom; and extends 240kms across the peninsula from the East Sea to the mouth of the Han River, near Seoul. Tours cater for both DMZ and Panmunjom and can last all day with lunch or half-a-day for just the DMZ, and depending on your budget.
Neat dress codes apply for those taking the DMZ tours, no faded jeans or sandals-in winter? I later noticed these appeared leniently enforced. You must also take your passport. After registration and a passport check we bordered a minibus for the DMZ and the first part of the combined tour which would takes you to Imjingak, then transfer to another bus and on to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, Dora Observatory and lastly Dorasan Station.
It’s only 65kms to the border with North Korea from central Seoul. Along the banks of the Imjin River, which along with the Han River Delta forms part of the DMZ, are rows of barbed wire fences topped with coils of razor wire to prevent infiltration by North Korean forces from across the water.
Across the river are the bare hills of North Korea. It’s bleak but so is the south in winter. Our tour guide, “Jenny”, gave us an abridged history of North-South relations derived from a Cold War heavy hymn sheet. As we approached the border area the highway reduced to four lanes and then later to two. The landscape of South Korea appeared Stalinist enough to me, so I hesitated to view that of the North. Suddenly the bus slowed and then performed a U-turn under a motorway overpass and we headed back the way we had come before quickly turning down a side road sign-posted Panmunjom.
Imjim Park, or Imjingak, is located 7kms from the MDL and is being actively developed as a tourist attraction with a family feel, which is altogether surreal or just incredibly optimistic. This is the most northerly place you can reach in South Korea without presenting identification. From this point it’s 176kms to Pyongyang, or about one hour and 40 minutes by road.
Mangbaedan, which stands opposite Imjingak, is known as the place where people from North Korea, living in the South, visit and perform ancestral rites by bowing toward their hometown every New Year’s Day and Chuseok, the Cherry Blossom Festival. Nearby is the so-called Bridge of the Freedom. After the truce was signed in 1953, thousands prisoners of war were exchanged at the bridge. No one has crossed since. Where passage to the bridge is blocked off, hundreds of yellow flags and those of South Korea are plastered to the wall along with countless messages and offerings made at ceremonies performing ancestral rites.
The bridge may have been called freedom, but in reality there was little resembling that in the south at that time, as the US installed the brutally corrupt Syngman Rhee as ruler. He murdered political opponents and supressed political opposition. South Korea was a corrupt, capitalist dictatorship until 1987; North Korea is a repressive communist one, and still is. Neither regime was democratic by western standards.
In front of Imjingak, there is the Gyeongui Train Line which was destroyed during the Korean Conflict in 1950 and reconstructed since 2000. Nearby is the last locomotive to run the line prior to the war, when it traversed the length of the peninsula. Now it sits dilapidated in the car park. Korail, the South Korean national rail line, runs daily services to Iminjak from Seoul but that’s as far as you go.
The taking of pictures in this area is tightly controlled and opportunities infrequent, though clearly indicated. All roads and underpasses here contain tank traps, large concrete blocks supported on piles above roads. In the event of invasion the supports would be blown with the intention that every obstacle would delay North Korean forces by five to six minutes, buying precious time for the US and the Republic of Korea forces (ROK) to defend Seoul.
After coffee, our bus headed for a crossing of the Tong-il Bridge, on Highway One. Here our passports are “checked” by an armed ROK soldier, though without actually looking at any of the documents presented for inspection. The bridge was built in 1998 with finance provided by the late chairman and founder of Hyundai, Chung Ju-yung, a refugee from North Korea. He was, and is, the only Korean civilian to ever have crossed the bridge and returned since partition.
The DMZ area is full of navigation boards to prevent pilots from straying into North Korean airspace. Nearby Number One Battalion is stationed, a mine clearance unit. Any construction undertaken in the area must be accompanied by military engineers for security reasons.
After a short trip we pulled up outside the tourist facility at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of several, possibly up to 17, dug covertly by North Korea as a means of crossing under the DMZ. Photos are allowed in the car park, the nearby museum and at the tunnel entrance but not in the tunnel itself. First we were ushered into a lecture hall to see a movie on the history of the tunnel in sense-surround sound, all very high-tech with screens on three sides of the theatre. The museum has several displays of battle scenes with intricate detail of the battle front, including one under glass in the floor and a miniature model of Panmunjom.
Militarily, discovery of these tunnels caused grave concern for the south given the location of some barely 50kms from Seoul, and the fact they’re large enough to allow tanks columns and entire divisions of troops to move through in relatively short time.
A young Korean man on our bus, whose name I failed to catch, told me he came on the tour to learn more about the war. We both regretted not having longer in the museum. He was a country boy he told me and had been told during his military service recently finished that should he discover a North Korean infiltration tunnel, his reward would be $1M. “I spent my whole service looking for one,” he said with a smile.
We then headed to the Mt. Dora Observation Platform. “Mount” Dora is a strategic 50m-high hill heavily fought over during the war as it affords its occupiers commanding views of the surrounding area. A short winding road leads to another car park at the back of a three-story building at the side of which is the viewing platform with several pay-per-view binoculars. A broad yellow line is marked along the middle of the platform, behind which photographs must be taken.
We gathered around a tall Korean in uniform for a brief run down on the area and the rules of engagement. Sergeant Cho spoke perfect English with an accent from the south of England. He pointed out guard post 212 directly opposite our position, one of hundreds of North Korean observation points within the DMZ. Gaeseong, North Korea’s third largest city, is 12kms away. It possesses one of the largest statues of the country’s founder Kim Il-sung, one of some 25,000 statues of him said to be found in North Korea.
I paid 500 won (about US 40 cents) to see a flagpole, once the world’s tallest, in the village of Kijong-dong in North Korea through the fixed observation binoculars on Mt. Dora. The metal was so cold I feared my eyebrows would stick to them. Kijong-dong is sometimes referred to as the “Propaganda Village” but there is some debate about whether anyone really lives there. The flag pole is 160m high (half the height of the Eiffel Tower) and flies a flag weighing over 200kgs. It’s so heavy that should it rain the flag must be taken down, least its weight when sodden topple to entire structure onto the buildings below.
Mt. Dora and the DMZ attracts a range of visitors. Behind Sergeant Cho were a group of heavy set men, whose accents and haircuts confirmed their origins and occupations as US and military. Even in civilian clothing they were easy to spot. As Sergeant Cho spoke a column of South Korean trucks entered the DMZ, a daily ritual, crossing to the joint industry complex run with funding from Seoul and workers from the North. Their number plates are covered and all markings distinguishing them as being from the South are removed or covered. They travel in convoy under reddish-brown flags, indicating to Northern soldiers they carry no weapons and are not to be fired upon. This was a symbol the sergeant said, of the warming relations between the two nations, though several times during his narrative he referred to his northern compatriots as the “enemy”.
When the trucks return they often carry sand to be used in microprocessors produced by the giant electronic corporations in the South. The sand of the North is of particularly fine quality and a great asset to the South, our tour guide said. Presenting yet another example of the dichotomy in relations between the two Koreas, at least in the eyes of their soldiers and civilians, each is a potential foe and friend, an enemy and ally.
Nearby are the residents of Taesong-dong village, the only civilian inhabitants of the DMZ. To maintain their residency status villagers must remain at Taesong-dong for 240 days per year. They are free in their movements during the day but the village is “locked down” every night. During the day ROK soldiers post guard at the village entrance but are removed at night for curfew.
Below Dora Observatory is Gyeong-gui highway to link with the North after unification. Nearby is Dorasan Station complete with customs hall, immigration facilities and passport control. Dorasan isn’t the last train station in South Korea, it’s the starting point of the Transcontinental Railway, the first station toward the North, gateway to Eurasia. Korean customs officials offer symbolic stamps for your passport to celebrate this and your picture can be taken with ROK border guards ready for future passengers.
It’s the only time my passport will read “Pyongyang”.