Friday, April 27, 2007 Korea (South) South Korea

To the DMZ again

The border [Enlarge]

Our first priority in South Korea was to pay another visit to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which separates the Korean peninsula, while the memories of our visit from the North were fresh in our minds. Whereas Pyongyang is several hours away from the border, Seoul is short drive of just 50 kilometres. In fact the capital of South Korea is so close to the border that it is within range of the North Korean artillery massed just over the border. Allegedly the North could hit Seoul with half a million artillery rounds per hour for several hours.

We booked a day trip to the DMZ with the United Service Organizations (USO), which is generally accepted as being the most comprehensive and best-run tour of the many which are available. For USD 42 (GBP 21.07) each, we would get a full day's tour of what has been described as the most dangerous place on earth. Lunch not included.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as we emerged from Exit 10 of Samgakji subway station at 06:45, exactly two weeks to the day after our mirror-image visit had started from Pyongyang. We were dressed in accordance with the UN Command's dress code, instigated to avoid the possibility of images of decadent or immoral westerners being taken by the enemy and used as propaganda:

Informal civilian clothes commonly viewed as acceptable in equivalent public settings are normally acceptable. For example, clean jeans without fraying or tearing and a clean t-shirt with running shoes are considered appropriate. However, ripped jeans, a t-shirt lettered with profanity, and flip-flop sandals would be deemed unacceptable. Visitors wearing clothing deemed faddish, extreme, torn, tattered, frayed, overly provocative, or otherwise inappropriate by the UNCSB-JSA guides will not be allowed to enter the DMZ.

We found the USO tour office easily enough, on a military base called Camp Kim. There was a big crowd going on the trip—two coachloads. They were a variety of people: tourists from seven or eight nations (but mostly Americans), expats, army wives. There were no locals, apart from our guide. South Koreans are not allowed anywhere near the DMZ without ultra-special clearance, lest they get a crazy idea like defecting or trying to make contact with the soldiers on the other side. It is a serious business, as thousands of families have been separated for the last fifty years, and they have no idea whether their loved ones are still alive.

We signed in, showed our receipt to prove that we had paid, and set off on the coach. Our guide, a Korean man in his forties, was happy to talk about the South Koreans' attitudes to the North, and to potential reunification. Older Koreans, he told us, are very wary. They saw what happened in Germany after the iron curtain fell, and they know that the financial burden of reunifying could cripple the economy for decades. But people under 40 are more pro-reunification—they don't understand what happened in Germany, and they don't understand just how bad things are in the north. Our limited experience of the country so far bears this out: the young South Koreans we have spoken to seem to know very little about the north, and are surprised to hear about the lack of basic services there—it's like they just assume that what they hear in the media must be grossly exaggerated. The guide went on to say that in his view, reunification is not an issue that Koreans in the south think about regularly. They certainly don't long to be reunited in the way that the northerners do.

The more we see of Seoul, the more differences we see between the two Koreas. The differences in nutrition and healthcare mean that young South Koreans are a similar height to Europeans. In the DPRK Isla was a tall person, here she's back to feeling like a short-arse. The pace of life, the standard of living, the traffic, the media, the technology—Seoul and Pyongyang are like two different planets.

The highway from Seoul to the DMZ is much like the highway from Pyongyang to to the DMZ: wide and straight. But there would be no posing for photos in the middle of the road this time—the traffic was unrelenting. As we drove, the guide pointed out the barbed wire and watch towers lining the river banks all the way from the suburbs of Seoul up to the border. Apparently there was a spate of North Korean mini-submarines which manoeuvred up the river towards Seoul and landed spies. It's for this reason, also, that the river now has so many weirs. It's been twenty-seven years since anyone was caught trying to get in in this way, but they're still vigilant. We turned off towards Panmunjom and encountered our first military checkpoint. Our passports were taken away and checked to make sure that we were all foreigners.

Our Korean guide and driver were replaced by US army personnel. The Americans are slowly pulling out of South Korea and handing over to the ROK army. For the past three years the Panmunjom site has been run by the ROK. Our USO guide had been giving us the anti-DPRK spiel all the way from Seoul, but now the propaganda stepped up a gear. We were herded into a lecture hall and barked at by a US Corporal in a slightly odd presentation, and reminded that we were entering a very dangerous area where we would be face-to-face with soldiers from the Korean People's Army. We didn't mention that a fortnight ago Isla had stood with her arm around a KPA Officer. We then had to sign a document indemnifying the military in case of our capture or death. The last 'killing incident' was in 1984, but apparently someone was kidnapped just three years ago. One or two people in the group looked a bit nervous. We figured that if the North Koreans wanted to kidnap and interrogate us, they'd have done it last week. Frankly, we were more concerned about our US army guide who went to great lengths to boast about what an excellent shot he was, and that if anything went down, his gun would be out and he'd be firing before any of us knew what was happening. He made it clear that a surprise KPA attack was a distinct possibility.

Finally there were some ground rules:

  • No waving.
  • No shouting.
  • No gestures.
  • No pointing.
  • No facial expressions, like smiling or sticking your tongue out at the KPA soldiers.

The KPA would be watching, photographing and video-taping us and any negative images would be used for propaganda. That would have confused the North Korean public, seeing us in the newspapers one week under the headline "Foreigners pay their heartfelt respects to the Great Leader", and next week as "Imperialist aggressors taunt the brave KPA with gestures".

Watching the enemy [Enlarge]

We drove up to the Joint Security Area (JSA) and went into Freedom House, which stands opposite the DPRK's Reunification House, both looking out over the row of blue and silver huts. We were made to line up in two neat columns and wait for permission to walk outside for our first view of the enemy. Once our guide was happy that the rows were straight enough he led us outside. In our last visit, we had not seen any ROK soldiers, but there had been plenty of KPA guys defending us from the enemy. This time, the North Korean side was deserted, but we were reassuringly surrounded by ROK personnel, standing in modified taekwondo stances, half hiding behind the huts (they half hide so that they present a smaller target to the enemy, but can still see what's going on).

Isla asked as innocently as she could about the circumstances when KPA and ROK soldiers come out to guard the huts. "The KPA only come out when there are visitors from their side here," we were told. Funny, that's exactly the same reason we were given for the absence of ROK soldiers a fortnight ago. We remembered back to our long wait on the northern side a fortnight ago, before we were allowed into the JSA. Had that been because a group of tourists from the South was already there and they needed to swap the soldiers over?

Two weeks ago to the day, this guy (and his friend just inside the open window) were posing for photos with us. Today we were told not to attempt any kind of communication, or make any gesture. If we do so, they will photograph us and use the photo for propaganda (something along the lines of "the imperialist aggressors are making plans to invade our homeland!"). [IMG_2895]
No waving, no shouting, no pointing [Enlarge]

As we stood on the steps listening to our guide, we looked across to two North Korean officers on the other side. One ("KPA Bill") was standing on the steps, watching us through binoculars. The other ("KPA Bob") was inside Reunification House, his binoculars poking out of a ground-floor window. They remained motionless like this, intimidating us like the frightening monsters the script says they are supposed to be. We couldn't be sure from this distance, but we think it might have been KPA Bill who was our guide on the other side, and very friendly he was too.

Now we were primed to enter the UN hut where the armistice talks were held—the same hut we'd been into two weeks earlier. Last time, it had been quite informal. We were invited to sit down in the chairs, to walk around the table, and even to tap the microphones to give the listening Imperialist Aggressors an earful of static. This time there was to be no touching the furniture. We were not even allowed to walk around one end of the table—an ROK soldier was positioned to make sure that couldn't happen. Another ROK soldier stood guard at the door at the north end of the room—the one we had entered and left through last time we were here. If he didn't do that, we were told, there was a very real danger that some KPA guards, who were permanently stationed just outside the door armed with clubs, would burst in and kidnap several of us for their own nefarious purposes.

As we were in the hut, we suddenly noticed that the KPA soldiers were coming out of their barracks and taking up their guard positions on the Military Demarcation Line (MDL)! For the first time we would briefly get to see the full face-off, just as it was time to leave.

The flag is so large that it has to be lowered in rain, or even damp weather. The added weight would be enough to snap the flag pole. [IMG_2916]
A very large flag (Propaganda Village) [Enlarge]

We were hurried back into the bus, and we drove round Freedom House and up the hill to a small monument with the flags of all the UN countries who participated in the Korean War. As we went, we were just able to snatch a few photos from the moving bus of the line of huts (this is our excuse for the photo at the top of this post being wonky). The lookout on the hill was a good place to see the no-man's-land that separates North and South Korea in all its wild glory. Because the area has been heavily mined for fifty years, the land has become a haven for wildlife (including, as our guide wittily remarked, rare species such as the three-legged deer and the exploding orchid). But seriously, there's a significant bird-watching-tourism industry on both sides of the border. We didn't see any notable wildlife, but we did have a good gawp at the soldiers in a KPA watch tower, who in turn gawped at us through their binoculars. We also had an excellent view of Gijeongdong, or Propaganda Village, site of the world's tallest flagpole. The pole is 160 metres (525 feet) high, and carries a flag which is the size of a basketball court, and weighs in at an estimated 270 kg (600 lb) when dry.

From where we were standing, we could see glimpses of the road up to Reunification House, the road we had come along from Pyongyang to the DMZ. As we watched, two North Korean tourist coaches rolled up the road, stopped and unloaded their passengers who then gathered round the Kim Il-sung monument, just as we had done exactly two weeks previously. So this was why the KPA guards had suddenly assumed their positions around the huts—they had a visit on. It was a very strange experience to peer through the trees and see another group being given the exact same tour as we had, stopping at the Kim Il-sung monument before going down to the MDL itself.

Bridge of no return [Enlarge]

We drove on again, past the monument to the soldiers who died in the Axe Incident, past the Bridge of No Return where POWs from both sides were given a one-time-only chance to choose which side of the border they wanted to live on—either stay on the side that captured them, or cross back to their own side.

It was almost time for lunch, but before we could leave the US Army area we needed to visit the gift shop. We bought a UN pin-badge to complement our badges from the DPRK. Lunch was pretty good, better than what we got in the North, and better than the instant noodles that we've been living on since arriving in Seoul. Over lunch we confessed to our fellow tourists that we'd been to the other side. Mostly Americans, they were surprised to hear that it was possible, and we suddenly became the centre of attention as they fired off all the questions they hadn't felt able to ask the guides.

After lunch we drove up to the Mount Dora Observatory, a large glass-fronted building with an excellent panoramic view over the DMZ and beyond to Kaesong. It was the same idea as the lookout point in the DPRK, but we had to pay to use the binoculars! The visibility was very good and we could see Kaesong quite clearly, but we couldn't spot the huge statue of Kim Il-sung at the top of the hill. It felt weird, in the extreme, looking across at what had been our first stop in our life-changing, mind-bending trip through the DPRK. Geographically Kaesong was so close, but in every other respect it was so far. Sadly, photography of the inside of the observatory was not allowed, nor could we take pictures within ten metres of the railing.

Finally we visited the Third Tunnel of Aggression. The North shows off The Wall built by the US Imperialist Aggressors; while the South shows off The Tunnels dug by the DPRK Stalinist Aggressors. During the 1970s three 'infiltration' tunnels were discovered, commencing on the north side of the MDL and emerging in the South. In 1990 a fourth tunnel was located and, according to Wikipedia, the ROK and US military "regularly drill in the DMZ in hopes of finding more". The tunnels were dug so that entire KPA divisions (one per hour) could be rapidly transported under the DMZ to capture Seoul. Kim Il-sung was apparently an admirer of the German Blitzkrieg strategy.

Our trip to the DMZ was complete. We boarded the bus and rejoined the traffic jam which snaked its way into the heart of Seoul. It had been a strange experience. We got just as much propaganda from the US soldier who showed us round as we did from his counterpart in the DPRK. He wanted us to think that every KPA soldier was evil, jealous of our way of life and intent on doing us harm. Whereas the party line in the DPRK is that the US Aggressor is a malicious occupying force, it never gets personal.

Division of this peninsula is a cause of enormous sadness in the DPRK, and a lingering threat in the ROK. We went today in search of some sort of enlightenment, but we have just ended up even more confused and bemused than we were before.