Altough I had read many blogs about trips from South Korea side to the Korean Demilitarized Zone, having the opportunity to visit this historic & still front page news site from the North Korea side had somehow awaken once more my curiosity!! So, on this Sunday menu….
As a starter, a great two and half hours drive all the way from Pyongyang across the countryside
For the main course, the visit of the Joint Security Area (Panmunjom), the room where the armistice was signed (on North Korean territory) and its small museum
Finally, as a dessert, a fantastic "picnic" Koryo dynasty style along the waterfall of Kaesong forest followed by a small hike and some fun in the waterfall pool.
This trip was as well the occasion to spend some quality time with the entire team
& have a glimpse at the way they felt when visiting for the first time the DMZ.
Morning drive across North Korea & toward the 38th parallel…
8.00 am our local colleagues meet us at the diplomatic compound, rainy day & still feeling sleepy (quite intense week end) so I decided to take a small nap while we
are still driving across Pyongyang city.
The nap didn’t last for too long as the moment we reached the express road leading to the South through Sariwon, it became way too bumpy to sleep properly. The road in itself is as usual quite large (about 2-3 lanes on each side) but the really harsh winter we had this year clearly damaged its surface so even when driving at a very reasonable speed, it is bumpy and shaky and somehow feel like you are slaloming between the holes.
As usual, except for the very few trucks & army cars, the road was absolutely empty so at least we didn’t have to worry about the traffic!
The sceneries while driving across North Korea are always one of my favorite parts of any trip we take as you get to see life outside of the capital city Pyongyang. The last road trip was a few months back (6 hours drive across the country all the way to the East coast) and at that time the mountains were still covered with snow and people muffled up in winter jackets.
This time it felt like a different place all together, bright green
fields and forest, people busy planting the rice as part of the nationwide mobilization (every one including people from the city go to the field for at least a week to help with the rice planting) & a thick and humid air, rainy season obliged!
As you get closer from the South part of Korea, the fields are replaced with more and more mountains and you start to go through one tunnel after the other.
One thing that strike me the first time I went on a road trip in North Korea was the way those tunnels had been built (most of them date from the 70's). Instead of having a flat ground, the road slops slightly upwards so when you drive through some of the long one you don’t get to see the exit until you reach the most elevated part and then you get to see the opening that looks more like a half moon. At first I thought it was a funny way to build tunnels but quickly realized that it is actually a clever way of dealing with stagnant water which would turn the road inside the tunnel into an ice-skating ring during the
North & South
Entrance of the DMZ
cold winter or a swimming pool during the summer season as there is no water evacuation on the side of the tunnels.
The last leg of the trip was punctuated by short stops at different check points
where the army checks that both vehicles & passengers have the proper authorizations.
Entering the Joint Security Area
Upon reaching the entrance of the joint security area which is still a few km away from the actual demarcation line, the first thing I noticed was the two large propaganda boards,
one was showing two kids, one from the north and one from the south, happily together & the other one a hand with one finger pointed up (as in "one Korea") & the map of Korea in background, guess this pretty much set the tone of the visit.
We were then escorted inside of the main building where we met with our guide who was wearing an army uniform and we received a briefing on the DMZ, how this demarcation line stretches more than 240 km, when it was instituted & which building you can find within the DMZ
As we exit from this building, we then had to
walk in a row one after the other through a concrete gate where the second vehicle that we had rented for the occasion was waiting for us, the first one we came with staying behind. An armed soldier will then seat inside the vehicle to escort us throughout the visit (for our own safety).
The last thing I guess I was expecting was to see plenty of locals working in the rice & corn paddy fields within the demilitarized zone but here they were, just like everywhere else in the country! If it was not for the armed soldier in the minibus and heavily guarded gate we had just passed through, I could have feel like being anywhere else in DPRK…
But it seems that it was quite the opposite for our local colleagues who hadn’t been to the DMZ before and for them entering this "hot spot" was a serious matter and a clear source of anxiety.
Our first stop was at the two buildings built during the war, one to host some of the armistice discussions
and the other one to sign the armistice declaration in1953.
Eight of us ended up seated around the table where
Entrance of the DMZ
the discussions took place as according to our guide “no discussions could start until all the seats were taken” and we were then lectured on the discussions that took place between the American caporal (no mention of the United Nations or South Korea here) and the North Korean.
We then moved on to the building where the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 & which today still shows the different desks with the original of the signed armistice agreement, one in Korean and one in English and the respective flag under a glass bell in front of each of the signed copies (the North Korean flag & the United Nations flag).
Without much surprise, our guide pointed out that although on the DPRK side the North Korean flag stands in front of the signed armistice, on the American’s side the United nations flag was used as the Americans were “too shameful” to use their own
. He then explained how this flag was initially supposed to be on display only for the actual signature of the armistice but was “forgotten” by the Americans when the armistice was signed & later on when they asked to have it returned
DMZ on the North Korean side
the DPRK authorities refused.
This was clearly a source of great pride & the remaining part of the visit of this room which host as well a small museum was pretty much on the same tone: everything was there from pictures to extracts of the armistice agreement to show that the Americans (no mention again of the United Nations nor South Korea) were the one responsible for the Korean War and the ongoing division of Korea, the overall superiority of the DPRK army when catching the Americans soldiers ashamed and scared (lots of black and white pictures of Americans being captured) or the exactions perpetrated by the Americans on the Korean people.
The question of the American army still being present in South Korea is presented as some kind of non respect for the armistice agreement & interestingly enough the only article of the armistice that one can read on site is the article IV which treat of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, extract of it as follows: Article IV - Recommendations to the Governments Concerned on Both Sides
60. In order to insure the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, the military Commanders of
both sides hereby recommend to the governments of the countries concerned on both sides that, within three (3) months after the Armistice Agreement is signed and becomes effective, a political conference of a higher level of both sides be held by representatives appointed respectively to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.
Another interesting point worth to mention is that the building where the armistice was signed is on the north Korean part of the DMZ which is presented as being one of the condition for the agreement to be signed back in 1953 but means as well that visitors coming to visit the DMZ from the South Korea side do not have access to this part of the DMZ.
Military Demarcation Line: so… where are the South Korean & UN peace keeping troops?
Time to move to our second stop which is not less than the actual military demarcation line!
This line is right in the middle of the DMZ which spread 2 km inward on both side & indicates where the front was when the agreement was
lunch, Koryo's dynasty style
Along the Kaesong waterfalls
Built on the actual demarcation line are a few buildings with each of them technically standing half in north Korea and half in south Korea, the “nationality” of each of the building is easily recognizable based on the color of the roof (blue for South Korean and grey for North Korean)
The main one where discussions took place between north and south (or United Nations based on our guide) is located in the centre & guarded at the entrance by North Korean soldier. I had seen quite a few pictures of the DMZ prior to the trip and while taking some picture myself I suddenly realized that something was missing…
between each building, one can see the demarcation line (which is something that looks like a small step in concrete) and you would normally have three North Korean soldiers in green uniforms between each building on their side of the demarcation line & three south Korean soldiers standing only a few steps away on the other side of the DML, all this only a few meters away from where you stand…The thing is, I could only see the north Korean…so I waited a little while, still no
south Korean…mmm…After a little while longer, decided to ask the question to one of the Korean lady who was doing the translation for our group and guess from that day I will never forget this moment: “So, where are the South Korean soldiers
, I can only see the north Korean one”, she paused and then very naturally said “it is Sunday today, they are off” …
Guess I could have imagined a thousand different reasons for them not to be there but this particular one was really the last one I was expecting! (especially keeping in mind the current tensions between the South and North)
Moving forward we went inside the main building located on the demarcation line, seated around the table where the discussions took place between the North Koreans and the United Nations Command (primarily South Koreans and Americans) (no meetings can start before all the seats are taken part 2) with half of our group technically in South Korea and half still in North Korea.
Behind the one who were on the South Korean side, two north Korean soldiers were standing guarding the door that opens to the South Korean side (most
The Team !!
likely “for our own security”). The room in itself is interesting for historical reasons but one of the main interest I personally felt was for the way things had been arranged: the position of the long table which is placed across the demarcation line, the microphone cord which run in the exact centre of the table and indicates where the demarcation between south and north is, the flag of all the countries (under the UN) involved in the process which included the flag of the United Nations (…) but as well the one of Australia, Belgium, France, England, US, South Korea, Turkey, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany …etc
Our last stop was on the terrace of the building which overlooks the Joint Security Area
& directly faces a similar main building on the South Korea side with between the two the demarcation line and the blue and grey color buildings mentioned above.
This is a good spot to have an overview of the area and you can as well see the speakers mentioned lately in the news & further away on the south Korean side the flag pole and some buildings which I imagine belongs to the peace village of
Kaesong-dong located on the south Korean side (couldn’t check this on the spot so might not be correct).
Under close escort we were then escorted back to the entrance of the DMZ, back in our vehicle and ready for the part two of the day: Kaesong, here we come!
Kaesong: mountains, paddy fields & waterfall
About an hour drive on the way back to Pyongyang stands the city of Kaesong which is famous for its rich history & central role during the Koryo dynasty
and where one can still see the “ancient” city (now turned into some kind of hotel). This short visit was followed by another short drive: part 2 of our day, Kaesong forest & its waterfall! Nested within a dense forest lies the Kaesong waterfall
& its crystal clear water pool
and around it a trail that leads to the top of the waterfall before going deeper into the forest (total length of the trail is 12km)
Our host had prepared a great “picnic” along the waterfall which was actually closer to a degustation gourmet lunch
than to a picnic (except for the fact that it was in the middle of the
Armistice signature's room
nature). This was the traditional Koryo dynasty style lunch with lots of small dishes each one presented in a silver bowl, plenty of soul (local alcohol) served like you would do for tea & great meat & soup to finish this fantastic lunch.
After such a lunch, the short walk uphill to see the waterfall from the top & some temple was very much welcome! Lots of fun there, climbing & exploring
the area before going for more fun in the waterfall pool, we all got pretty wet & kept laughing
for quite a while! Another moment, another great memory with the team!
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