To get to the village of Panmunjom, at the point where North and South Korea meet on the DMZ, you cross the Tong-il Bridge on Highway One from Seoul. Seoul, South Korea’s bustling capital of over 10 million, is referred to as the “Han River Miracle” a statement on the unprecedented rise of one of the great post-WWII economic achievements.
South Korea is busy preparing for the time when the two Cold War adversaries will be reconciled. There’s a government agency responsible for unification. They want to avoid the sudden massive cost Germany was exposed to when incorporating the moribund east into the republic. So in Korea they’re readying themselves gradually, laying the groundwork. The four-land motorway is ready as is the rail line. One day containers from the Asian tiger economies will roll from Busan to the transport hubs of Europe, shaving days off the same journey by ship. But not this year.
The Koreas have no border as such. Rather they are separated by a 4km-wide zone along a unilaterally designated partition. The US chose it. The other power at the time, the Soviet Union, raised no objections as Stalin was preoccupied in Europe. The locals were never consulted. It’s reportedly the most heavily fortified strip of land on the planet, ironic then, for an area supposedly “demilitarised”. The north has much natural wealth, while the south has the industry and innovation. Both Koreas are highly militarised, regimented and socially conservative. One embraced democracy only in the late 1980s after years of brutal military rule. It freed its political prisoners, some of whom had been incarcerated for so long they had to be shown how to use a telephone and turn on a television. The other Korea remains hermit-like and repressive. The country’s leading figures of a single family have a cult of personality along the lines of Mao, surpassing that even of modern Thailand, with hair like that of Donald Trump and rhetoric to match.
Defectors from North Korea undertake an often arduous route via China. Defectors from the North automatically become South Korean citizens after a mandatory three-month transition that is part debriefing, part re-education. Their journey takes them through china, even other parts of Asia before they arrive just miles from where they started, south of the border. Most North Korean defectors in the South stand out. They have distinct accents, and are often shorter and slighter with darker, sallow skin from years of malnutrition. It’s hard to avoid South Koreans’ prejudice and suspicions that North Koreans are spies.
The origins of Korea’s division, subsequent war and eventual truce, can be traced back to the Cairo Conference in 1943, which included Chiang Kai-shek, when the Allies outlined their position against Japan and made decisions about postwar Asia, and also the Teheran Conference, and later in 1945, the Yalta Conference, when the Soviet Union promised to declare war on Japan.
On tour buses to Panmunjom foreign passports are inspected by armed Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers. Military service in both Koreas is compulsory; up to two years for males in South Korea and up to five years for males and selected females in North Korea. With the combined populations of almost 100 million, and adding in 35,000 US service personnel south of the border, and it’s a military cauldron.
The tour takes you to Camp Bonifas, the camp bordering the DMZ, where 5,000 US and ROK troops are based. Panmunjom itself was destroyed during the Korean War. In order to negotiate the Armistice a tent city was constructed. In the years that followed each side constructed its own buildings. Today there are 24 buildings, tightly packed
At Camp Bonifas we were met by two US sergeants in battle fatigues wearing side arms, slung low on their legs, like cowboys. One chewed gum incessantly. Parties of tourists at Panmunjom proceed one group at a time, so you wait your turn. All larger items of baggage get left behind.
Some 75,000 tourists visit Panmunjom annually through Seoul while about 9000 visitors are “sponsored” by the North. All visitors from the South receive a detailed briefing prior to visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the Ballinger Hall near the DMZ. Behind is a short golf course with the “most dangerous par-three hole in the world” or so they reckon.
In the hall you sign a visitors’ declaration acknowledging all requirements to be met by any civilians visiting Panmunjom. Fraternisation with the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) is strictly prohibited, though in reality you’re unlikely to be afforded an opportunity. Should any incidents occur while in the JSA, visitors were to remain calm and follow all instructions from military personnel. We were then shown a film in Korean for which our military guide, US Sergeant Naumenkov, read an English translation narrative into the ear piece provided.
Following the briefing we re-boarded the buses. On the drive to Panmunjom we passed the entrance to Taesong-dong or “Freedom Village” with its armed ROK guards. At night the village is locked down. Further up on the right the barracks of the Quick Reaction Force, which must be ready in case of an incident within 90 seconds. Korean guards serve their entire military term at Panmunjom, must be taller and larger than average ROK soldiers, have basic fluency in written and spoken English, and must possess at least a first degree Black Belt in any of the martial arts.
Sergeant Naumenkov pointed out the tank traps. “No photos from the moving vehicle,” he said. “If you take pictures I’ll remove your camera and the only way you’ll get it back is on Ebay.”
“You’re now deep inside the DMZ,” he gazed down the bus at the English speakers in the rear seats. “Is it good for you?” He gave a wry smile. “Is it everything you expected?”
Apparently much of the Cold War rhetoric had been removed from the area with both sides agreeing to cease the verbal propaganda war. Loud hailers with blaring music and political messages were removed as were flashing light displays with banners proclaiming the respective virtues of both sides at the other’s expense, the silence was deafening.
The bus dropped us at Freedom House, opposite Conference Row, comprised of wooden huts. This serves as the forward administrative offices of the ROK Red Cross. Next door is a large pagoda where it is possible to view KPA guards and take pictures. No photos are allowed on the road between the Freedom House and Conference Row.
We were ordered to line up in twos to enter Freedom House and then cross the road to the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) building, where Meetings of MAC representatives from the United Nations Command (UNC) and the KPA take place, sometimes in a less than friendly atmosphere. The MAC was created in order to supervise implementation of the truce terms laid down by the armistice.There is no physical barricade between North and South. It’s possible inside and outside the buildings to stand with one foot in each country under the eyes of guards from both sides. The ROK guards position themselves at various vantage points around the MAC building. They wear US Army style helmets and designer shades; half intimidatory, half comical. Their jackets less military and more like items found for sale at the Lotte department store in downtown Seoul. When visitors are present they stand in the Tae-kwon Do “ready” position with fists clenched and feet apart. Sunglasses are worn, even inside and in winter for “intimidation purposes.”
At the each corner of the MAC building facing north, two ROK guards stand half visible to the KPA guards, the corner of the building providing a line of symmetry through their bodies. The reason for this, Naumenkov informed us, was to provide less of a target to the KPA should they wish to “start something.” So I stood there, behind the ROK, looking at a KPA guard his camera in hand, looking at me looking at him. It’s all rather surreal.
The MAC building houses four levels of meetings to maintain the 27 July 1953 Armistice Agreement between North and South Korea. Meetings can be conducted in an unfriendly and often hostile atmosphere. A full scale MAC meeting is held to discuss major violations of the Armistice and is attended by senior military officials and a representative of the UNC nations chosen on a rotational basis. The next lower level is the Secretary’s Meeting which is held to discuss lesser violations of the Armistice. The third level is the Joint Duty Officer meeting held every day of the year at noon except for Sundays and public holidays to discuss administrative information pertinent to the MAC. Finally, the fourth level of meetings is the Security Officer’s Meeting, which can be called by either side at any time deemed appropriate to ease the tension between the two guard forces.
Next door to the MAC is the grey coloured KPA Recreation Room. It’s recreation in name only as apparently it holds no such equipment and is rarely used. North Korean guards turn up whenever the UNC is having a meeting draw the curtains and often make obscene gestures at ROK officials. Inside the MAC is the negotiating table, the line of the MDL cutting it in half. Two ROK guards accompanied us inside. Photos may be taken with the guards but we were warned not to stand too close as they “will react physically” the good sergeant said. Only Military Police with designated armbands were allowed to carry weapons at Panmunjom, but apparently the KPA had dispensed with the practice some time ago and now just carried the weapons.
“Are you a Marine?” Asked one of our party. “No, I’m infantry, where it’s all mind over matter,” replied Naumenkov. You know, if you don’t mind it won’t matter. On hearing this he asked me if I were military, “No” I said, “but I’ve heard the expression before.” He was from the Second Infantry Division, their emblem appeared to be a bust of Geronimo. Naumenkov had just returned from 12 months in Iraq and Korea was all a bit quiet for him. He’d applied for Special Forces training at the age of 32, but this was now on hold as he’d broken his elbow recently and would now have to wait for it to heal before taking his physical, so I had the impression he was merely killing time.
He pointed out the interpreter’s room near the entrance to the MAC. On the wall a small cabinet containing plastic imitations of the UNC flags, including that of New Zealand. At one time these were silk but no longer as Naumenkov gave us an example of an “incident” at Panmunjom. During a visit by the president of South Korea, two KPA guards stormed into the room, smashed the small glass cabinet grabbing the ROK and US flags in the process. In front of the stunned president and his party one wiped his boots with the American flag while the other blew his nose into the ROK flag before making an obscene gesture to all present and then returning to North Korea through the rear door of the MAC building. Whenever tourists are present, a ROK guard now stands with his back to the door to prevent a repetition.
At the pagoda we could take photos of the KPA guards and North Korean facilities. No waving or gestures of any kind are allowed. One KPA guard had come out of the main building with camera in hand. The KPA all seemed more relaxed than the ROK guards, though perhaps this was because the ROK had civilians to shepherd, while the KPA were unencumbered. The latter’s winter uniforms are “sinosized” while those of the ROK Americanised, down to the helmets and sunglasses
Naumenkov amused himself by retreating behind a pillar, out of sight of the KPA. “They’re wondering where I am,” he said, “This is where they play ‘where’s Naumenkov’.” I suppose after Sadr City and Fallujah, Panmunjom must be pretty quiet. There’s less chance of being shot at.
A short drive from Conference Row is Check Point 5, an elevated guard post affording tourists their best view across to North Korea. From here it’s possible to see the poplar tree stump from the Panmunjom Axe Murder Incident, the Bridge of No Return, North Korea’s propaganda village, and formerly what was the world’s tallest flagpole.
The Axe Murder Incident in 1976 sparked the world’s most expensive tree pruning exercise. A US work party went to prune a large poplar tree near the Bridge of No Return. KPA guards told them to leave the tree alone, but the officer in charge, Captain Bonifas, ignored them. After KPA guards returned a fight broke out during which two American officers were killed and several US and ROK soldiers, injured.
Not to be outdone the US launched Operation Paul Bunyan to cut down the tree. To support the 2nd Engineer Battalion assigned to the job, the Pentagon ordered the US 2nd Infantry Division mobilized and US Air Force and Naval units sent to Korea. The aircraft carrier USS Midway was sent to the area and while the tree was cut down F-4 and F-11 fighters and B-52 bombers were sent into the air. Claims by the KPA the tree was planted in honour of Kim Il-sung were unfounded as the tree was found to be considerably older than the then North Korean president.
The Bridge of No Return is the spot where all prisoners of war were repatriated flowing the armistice. The returning prisoners stopped at the bridge while exchange lists were verified. Once there prisoners got to choose which side they would live on. After that there was no going back, hence the name. At one time this was the only ground link between Seoul and Pyongyang. Located here is a check point, called the “the loneliest outpost in the world” it being just metres from North Korea.
Panmunjom is worth a visit, just once. A relic of the past but still very much part of the present landscape, and in the future doubtless reduced to a place of mere curiosity as Korea marches on.