April 09, 2018

The DMZ. Looking into the South from North Korea

Maybe not surprisingly, the road south from Pyongyang to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea is one of the best in the country. It is well maintained and smooth, ideal for moving large numbers of troops and tanks quickly, if ever there was a need.

I left Pyongyang early in the morning, as there is only a specific time when the DMZ is open from the North Korean side and we could not be late. The road was also totally empty, no non-military traffic had any need to travel down the highway, while the many tunnels were guarded at both ends by soldiers in sentry boxes. 

The only thing slowing us was the checkpoints, which grew ever more frequent as we came close to the border. 

Propaganda poster suggesting there is 'One Korea' rather than an insult to Donald Trump
A poster of a huge finger over a map of the whole Korea signifying one Korea, as opposed to an obscene hand gesture, was the sign that we had arrived at the border. Rather surprisingly, and a bit like a Disney theme park, all the passengers on the coach I was travelling on were directed straight into a gift shop. 

Here you could buy North Korean army caps, t-shirts with "See you in Pyongyang" emblazoned across them, ginseng flavoured rice wine to celebrate your visit, and propaganda cards and posters. There was even a small cafe selling hot and cold drinks. Who says North Korea has yet to embrace capitalism?

A North Korean soldier appeared and gave a brief overview of the DMZ which was created during the Korean War in 1953. It was At the end of the actual  fighting, but not at the end of the war, as technically the the South and North are still at war as no peace treaty was ever signed.

A North Korean Army Officer points out the route we will take into the Joint Security Area
Up to this point my guides, which are mandatory to accompany visitors in North Korea, had impressed upon me that under no circumstances could I take photographs of the military, and that I, and them, could be in severe trouble if I did. 

But here, at the most sensitive area, that rule no longer applied. There were no restrictions on photography at all, or even guidelines on clothing or behaviour, unlike south of the border where many rules must be followed for visits to the DMZ.

I jumped back on the coach where we now joined by two North Korean soldiers. We started driving on a small road through large concrete tank traps before heading onto a road across green fields, which are all heavily mined. Wildlife is thriving here with endangered plants and animals making a comeback, as long as they don't tread on a mine.

The first stop is at the Panmunjom Peace museum, where the armistice was signed. Apart from the table where the ceasefire was signed, most of the museum is given over to anti-American exhibits, from clothes and weapons captured from US forces to the actual axe used to murder two American soldiers who got a bit too close to the border in 1976.

The Supreme Leader peers into the South
There are also some more recent photographs of Kim Jong-un standing in the Punmangak Hall next to the DMZ looking into the South. That is where we were taken next. A short bus journey deposited the coachload of tourists 500 metres from the hall. We then had to walk single-file into the hall, with a number of North Korean soldiers positioned either side of us.

Four flights of stairs took us to the top balcony to look out over the South. In the distance apartment blocks and flagpoles with South Korean flags fluttering could be seen. Just across from us was the South Korean DMZ building, bristling with cameras pointed directly at North Korea. But nobody was about, not a single soldier could be seen.

South Korean technology on show
The two sides take it in turns to open up the UN controlled Joint Security Area huts on the actual border, and seem to hide when it is not their turn. 

The UN peacekeepers, who control access to the huts, conveniently forget to unlock the door on the North Korean side quite often, so much so that you have only a 50-50 chance of entering from the North.

Today we were lucky and we walked slowly into the blue huts, with the demarcated line being a raised concrete bar outside, and unmarked, but halfway across the long wooden negotiating table inside.

Joint Security Area Negotiating Huts
I was able to walk freely around the hut, passing briefly into South Korea, but was not able to get anywhere near the door which would take me to Seoul. The two North Korean soldiers stood implacably in front of it, glaring and shouting at anyone who got too close.

Others have taken their chances. During the Cold War a major gun battle ensued as a Russian tourist made his way across the border here, and just after my visit a North Korean soldier took advantage of the lack of barbed wire and mines by the huts to defect, albeit getting badly shot in the process.

I still had a week of travel planned for North Korea, and with the knowledge that the beer was so much better in the DPRK, I had no intention of more than a fleeting visit to the South. 

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