In front of them all: a trip to the DMZ

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July 3rd 2007
Published: July 3rd 2007
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The most heavily guarded place on the planet. Six hundred US- and Republic of Korea (ROK)-led UN troops face - literally - the vanguard of 1.7 million North Korean troops across a border that is, at one point, represented by a strip of concrete about 5 inches high and 5 inches wide. Not surprisingly, the UN troops' motto is "In front of them all".

The reality of this situation was only brought home to me when, at an initial briefing by a word-perfect sergeant of the US Army ("Questions at the end only, please. I AM Infantry, so if you interrupt me, that WILL confuse me and I'll have to go back to the beginning!"), two unexpected and frighteningly serious incidents in the Joint Security Area (JSA) were described to us. The first was in 1976 when a US operation to cut down a poplar tree that was blocking the line of sight between two Guard Posts provoked an unexpectedly fierce attack from the North Korean People's Army (KPA). They opened fire on service and unarmed civilian personnel and hacked two US soldiers to death with axes. A further (and successful) effort was made to fell the tree in question in what must be the most expensive piece of tree surgery ever: additional troops, fighter planes and even a US aircraft carrier were on standby. Sickeningly, the KPA has kept the axes used in the attack and put them in a museum on their side of the demarkation line (DML), but describe them as the weapons used to kill KPA soldiers.... This was at a time when both sides had equal access to the JSA, of which the KPA had taken full advantage, building two guard posts close to the South Korean border of the area. The "Ax Incident", however, changed matters, and a new DML was agreed to divide the JSA in two (oddly the area's name was not changed, but it makes a bit of a mockery of the word "joint").

Several UN and KPA buildings straddle the DML, UN buildings being painted blue and KPA buildings silver-grey. On each side of the DML are impressive buildings and we could clearly - and eerily - see two KPA soldiers watching us, one standing outside with a telescope to his eye, and one sitting inside by an open window. Sgt Han, a US-Korean with a great sense of humour (most of which went straight over the heads of his fellow countrymen on the tour), who was the second of two US Army guides that day, has nicknamed them "KPA Bill" and "KPA Ben". Off to one side from where we were standing looking across the DML, we could see a KPA guard post up on the hill, equipped with CCTV pointing in our direction and also obviously manned by soldiers watching us. Interestingly, ROK soldiers guarding the DML face the border with their aggressive martial arts pose; when tourists visit the DMZ from North Korea, KPA soldiers guarding the DML face their own country, lest a tourist try to defect... as indeed a Russian tourist did in, I think, 1984, running across the DML and triggering a 20-minute gunfight around him. Amazingly, he survived and is now teaching in a Seoul university, but one US soldier was killed.

At Camp Bonifas, the UN base camp close to the JSA, the state of alert is such that the troops can be in full combat gear and ready for action witihin 60-90 seconds. It was an extraordinary feeling to be in a place with this so-recent history and with this ongoing level of tension. After all, in 1953, after more than 750 meetings, the two sides only agred a ceasefire and a new border which differed only infinitesimally from the 48th Parallel by which the country had been divided after the Japanese surrender. What a terrifying waste of 2-4 million lives (no accurate casualty data is available for the North Korean and Chinese losses, not surprisingly).

On the northern side of the JSA is the only bridge between the two countries, nicknamed "the bridge of no return". PoWs from both sides were taken there after the War and given a once-only choice of which country to live in.

We were all, I think, a little shaken and a bit subdued by the initial briefing and the much-repeated injunctions not to point or gesture in any way while within the actual or potential sightlines of the KPA. As with the strict dress code on the tour, this was in order to minimise the potential for the North Koreans to make any mileage out of our visit, e.g., "that Westerner is pointing at North Korea indicating his desire to move to our wonderful country", "look at the immorality of the West with that girl's bare shoulders and midriff", etc.

Our guides were also very strict about when we could take photographs. At the viewpoint beside one of the briefing rooms, we could only take photos from within the yellow-painted boxed area.... which was, at its closest, about ten metres away from the five-foot concrete wall at the edge of the balcony. Only an American basketball player on a superlatively clear day could hope to photograph the view. Instead, pay-per-view telescopes are provided which allowed us to peer through the mist into North Korea, including at Kijong, known as the "Propaganda Village" by the UN operation, where, in response to South Korea replacing the flagpole in Daeseong - both villages being inside the demilitarised zone (DMZ) - North Korea infamously and rapidly installed a new flagpole nearly twice its height and bearing a flag that is estimated to weigh in excess of 600 pounds.

We were taken into the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), one of the UN buildings that straddles the DML, where meetings about the border and related issues between the two sides take place. Not unexpectedly, there are plenty of anecdotes about this area too. Both sides have equal right to be in this building, the border within the building being marked by a line of microphones on the central table. However, each side's troops vacate the building when tourists from the other side's country are visiting. In addition, in our case, a ROK soldier - complete with hard hat, "Top Gun" shades and fiercesome pose - impassively guards the door to North Korea. This door would have been locked by a ROK soldier before we arrived - or, rather, by two ROK soldiers, the second holding onto the pistol belt of the first while he locks the door, lest the key operative be dragged through the door by KPA soldiers in an attempt to score a propaganda victory, as has been attempted in the past, the door still bearing the scars of the scuffle. On the South Korean side, the interpreter's glassed-in booth is decorated with the flags of the UN countries involved in the peacekeeping operation here. These flags used to be made of cloth, but have been replaced by plastic ever since a couple of KPA soldiers used the US and South Korean flags to wipe their shoes and blow their noses.

The tour of the Third Tunnel was fascinating but, again, evocative of how real and imminent the potential for a renewal of the conflict actually is. Four tunnels, I think, have now ben discovered by the UN operation, dug by the KPA surprisingly deep into South Korean territory, the Third Tunnel by more than 450m. However, there are believed to be in excess of a hundred tunnels or similar attempted excavations in or near the DMZ on the North Korean side. When the Third Tunnel was discovered, retreating KPA soldiers smeered its walls with coal dust and tried to argue that it was a South Korean-dug coal mine... but the area's geology, we're told, together with other indications, such as the direction in which blasting holes were drilled, makes this a nonsense. Apparently, the KPA could have used this tunnel to move 30,000 troops through and across the border within an hour... but we couldn't help thinking that they would have had to have chosen their smallest soldiers. Even Lisa and I had to stoop to get through the tunnel as far as tourists are allowed to go (about 250 metres' worth) which, when walking slowly in a crowd of tourists, was not a comfortable experience. We were wryly amused to note that other tour parties got to use a little train that came down from what I assume is the furthest end of the tunnel on the South Korean side. We had had to walk down a purpose-built tunnel... and then walk back up it, something that even I found quite hard going (I had thought I was reasonably fit...); goodness knows how my somewhat larger American friends managed, but at least the usually small-built Koreans had included seating every 20m or so.

The most surreal part of the day was a short, semi-surround movie that we were shown before we went through the Third Tunnel Exhibition and down into the tunnel. As I sat down on the floor - there were twice as many visitors as seats - my neighbour, a young Australian, asked if I was ready for my "dose of propaganda". He'd clearly been there before. I think I would have guessed the purpose of the movie when its opening shot was of a pretty small girl looking preoccupied with tears rolling down her cheeks. I already knew that, were reunification ever to occur, it was hoped that the DMZ, being a strip of land approximately 4 km wide and 220 km long, untouched by man for nearly 55 years and now home to a large variety of animal, bird and plant life, could somehow be preserved (presumably, without the thousands of landmines that are currently buried there). But everything that we had heard and seen that day suggested that reunification was a very long way off. Efforts in this direction were listed on one wall in the Exhibition and ranged, on the positive side, from mutual aid (from North Korea when floods hit South Korean towns, and from South Korea with rice aid on what I think is an ongoing basis, although there are rumours that the rice is going no further than fueling the 1.7m-strong KPA...), to joint ping-pong and junior soccer teams, and to the two countries agreeing to walk into the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics together. In addition, the old railway from Seoul to China, and thence to the rest of Asia and Europe, is being revived, the advertisements featuring what appears to be a new-age version of the Eurostar. However, all this seems a long way off from any more meaningful kind of union. Yet this movie took us from an early meeting of the two presidents in 2000 to a bizarre utopia of children playing, butterflies fluttering and park benches looking invitingly over endless green vistas. No explanation was given: what is the purpose of this bizarre piece of film-making and blatant propaganda?

The only other propaganda that we saw or heard of on the South Korean side were a curious pair. One of the usually-innocuous information signs in the Third Tunnel continued, after explaining the coal dust on the walls, to the effect of "and so we see another example of North Korea's duplicity", a totally unnecessary addition and a lone example. Mind you, there has been one example of a ROK soldier defecting, allegedly because - or this might be US Army mythology - he found the ROK Army training too strenuous. This begs the question of what he expected to find on the other side of the border where the country's army is 1.7m strong....

The other piece of propaganda by the South was to raise the Olympic flag in Daeseong after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, some kind of "f*** you" message to the North which had boycotted the Games. However, you have to question what kind of benefit they expected in doing so; Kijong is uninhabited, a ghost town with an oversized flag and flagpole.

Life in Daeseong must be pretty strange. Granted, there are huge incentives to live there, although only those who lived there before the War or who can claim to be related to people who did so have the right to be there. Women can marry into the village, but men cannot: Daeseong residents are exempt South Korea's male-only conscription. Farming in the village is hugely subsidised, and all crops are guaranteed to be purchased by the government, meaning that the minimum income in the village is about US$85,000. Failed crops trigger generous compensation, and villagers are exempt tax. However, working in the fields requires a military escort and a midnight curfew is in place. The head of each household has to inform the military daily of the number of people spending the night in his house and the military comes round to check that the house is properly locked up. Worst of all, to my mind, would have been having to endure the North Korean propaganda that used to be blasted from Kijong for eight hours a day.

The human element - families split by the division of Korea in 1945-53 - has not been ignored. Since the 1950s, the Red Cross has mediated between the two countries to set up reunions but no meetings took place until the early years of this century, with understandably high emotion as parents met children, brothers sisters, and husbands wives, for the first time in fifty years or more.

Maybe there is hope for the future of this accidentally, then painfully, divided country. Certainly, I hope so, for the sake of its people, but it seems hard to believe, as one stands in the JSA being scrutinised by KPA soldiers and technology, and all-too-conscious of the recent news about nuclear weapons north of the border...

P.S. My apologies for the probably higher-than-usual number of typos. The keyboard I'm using requires serious amounts of thumping, but I wanted to get this blog written before I head off to the Gobi Desert tomorrow. I promise to correct typos as and when I get the chance to upload photos onto this blog!


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