There used to be small flags on the tables in this room – but each side kept knocking the other side’s flags down. So we then removed the flags!
On hearing those words Karen and I realized the enormity of our situation, standing about 6 feet deep inside North Korea and surrounded by armed soldiers.
How did we get here?
Karen and I had a full day of sightseeing planned and with most of the metropolitan sites covered in our last trip to Seoul in 2011 there was only really one place left to visit… The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
Situated only 35 miles to the north of Seoul the DMZ is the buffer zone between North and South Korea that runs right across the Korean Peninsula and roughly follows the 38th Parallel. Its creation was engineered by North Korea and their Chinese sponsors on the one side and South Korea and the UN on the other in 1953.
Situated within the entire DMZ (some 1000 square Kilometres) is an abandoned village called Panmunjom. It was here in 1953 that the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed and for 54 years it served as the only connection between North and South Korea (in 2007 a Korail train crossed the DMZ to the North). Dubbed the JSA (Joint Security Area), this motley collection of conference rooms and guard posts has been the centre stage of negotiations, confrontations, defections and the various dramas of this sad footnote of human history. When all is said and done it will hopefully only be remembered as the last vestige of the Cold War.
It was the JSA that we would be visiting that cold winter’s morning.The day started with us being the last two on the tour bus departing from Camp Kim – located in Yongsan Garrison Headquarters for the US Military presence in South Korea. Our tour guide for the day was a Korean lady called MJ ,“named after MJ from the Spiderman movies”– her words!, who mixed important health and safety notices with stand-up comedy as she took us through a tour of Korean History, Culture and spending habits to keep us entertained on the trip. (She had excellent English that she had honed and sharpened during a stint living in Dublin.)
It took about 2 hours to reach Camp Bonifas – another US base just outside the southern Demarcation line of the DMZ. Our journey straddled the Han River for the majority of the time and as we got close to the North waterside parks and apartment buildings were replaced with barb wire fences and guard towers to our left hand side. The right hand side was dominated by agriculture –fields and greenhouses.
At Camp Bonifas we were greeted by Private First Class Foster, a young American soldier from Nevada, who would be our escort and our official guide within the DMZ. He welcomed us all to that neck of the woods and after a brief video in the main auditorium we boarded a special bus to take us the 2km journey to the Joint Security Area.
Just 3 months prior, in August 2015, two South Korean Soldiers were severely wounded after stepping on landmines that had been allegedly laid on the southern side of the DMZ by infiltrating North Korean Forces. Our guide told us this as soon as we had passed the last guard tower – so things got really tense, we were entering a war zone.
The first thing that hit us on the journey was the complete lack of human activity. Apart from the one narrow road and two peace villages (Tae Sung Dong and Kijong-dong) there is little else but woodlands and hills that make up the wilderness. Arriving at the JSA, we were escorted in formation to Conference Row – a line of blue and grey buildings that straddle the Demarcation Line and both sides place guards between the blue meeting houses either side of the demarcation line – which is represented by a raised sliver ofconcrete between the structures These single-story buildings are flanked on either side by the North Korean Panmun Hall and the Freedom House of South Korea.
Today we had the company of 5 ROK soldiers (Republic of Korea) on our side and only the solitary North Korean Soldier on the other side of the line. The Americans say that he is the only soldier they see on a regular basis and that they have bestowed the name of ‘Bob’ on this poor unfortunate soul. As our guide finished his prepared speech, one of our tour asked the question that was on everyone’s lips,
“How long do the soldiers stand guard for?”
As soon as you folks clear out they go back inside. They are only here for your entertainment/protection!
Suddenly those soldiers on Horse Guard’s Parade in London had gone up in our estimation! We were then invited into one of the Blue Buildings in the centre of the compound. Inside the meeting room were two more ROK soldiers standing in traditional Taekwondo stance –their presence adding a sense of gravitas to the proceedings as we crossed over into the Democratic People’s Republic (i.e. North Korea).
After dipping our toes into a genuine Communist State – and being allowed to return, we were taken nearby to overlook a few of the more famous installations in the JSA – beginning with The Bridge of No Return. The Bridge was used after the armistice for prisoner exchange and was so named as under the terms of the agreement, once a POW was brought to the bridge they could either remain in the country or cross the bridge never to return. Surprisingly some NATO prisoners actually ended up staying in the North.
Next to the bridge is an abandoned guard post called CP#3 (Checkpoint 3). Up until 1976 the entire JSA territory was declared neutral so that either side could freely navigate the compound. The North Korean Army used this freedom to build three guard posts to surround CP#3. Due to the amount of trees in the area this added to it’s isolation and the checkpoint became the “Loneliest Outpost in the World”. To remedy this a work party from the UN side decided to cut down a huge poplar tree next to the guard post, and thus increase the visibility to the checkpoint from their other stations. That day that started out with a simple exercise in tree trimming and ended with two US Officers being killed (one of these was Captain Arthur Bonifas. Since this event both sides have remained in their respective sides of the JSA. This incident forever after was known as the Axe Murder Incident.
From our vantage point we were also granted views of the Propaganda Village of Kijong-dong – an empty husk of a settlement that was created to show off the unheard of levels of wealth that the North Koreans were meant to have had. Look at us it meant to say.
It was quite a misty day so one could only half make out the competing flagpoles – another piece of the propaganda war waged with the bigger flag being the mission. The Winners in this category are the North Koreans who have built a flagpole that is 160m tall and that can only fly it’s 270kg flag on very windy days.
Tunnel of Love?
Leaving the DMZ, we headed slightly south to the site of one of the famed Incursion Tunnels. Over the years since the original armistice the North Korean’s allegedly began building a number of tunnels – underneath the DMZ and onward to Seoul. The plan was to be able to launch a surprise attack on the capital.
The tunnels were discovered after steam was found rising to the ground outside one of them and soon the UN had an ingenious way of discovering others. Given a general location from intelligence, the South Korean soldiers would dig small holes in the earth and pour water in them. If the water fully disappears then it was marked and then later the area was excavated and the tunnels were discovered underneath.
These were no small tunnels and of 20 suspected tunnels only 4 have been discovered. It was the Third Tunnel that we would be visiting today. This incomplete tunnel is about 1 mile long and 2 metres wide and could accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weaponry. Upon it’s discovery in October 1978 the North Koreans hastily defended themselves saying that it was a spur from a coal mine, the tunnel having been blackened by construction explosions.
Entrance to the tunnel was via a sloped side tunnel that intersected it and with our yellow hard hats on we descended down the 350m to the bottom and made our way along the tunnel up until the third barricade to North Korea. It was damp and dark down there.
We ended the day with a trip to the vantage point at Dora Observatory on top of Dorasan (Mount Dora) – to offer us a more panoramic view of the “enemy” since it was the closest point to the North.
The bus then trundled back down the mountainside and on to Imjingak Park for lunch. Every so often we saw this sign, warning us of landmines.The Park is quite odd with a number of statues and monuments regarding the Korean War and an amusement park next door. It was primarily built to console those from both sides who are unable to return to their hometowns, friends and families on the other side (Mangbaeddan). These days its where all the bus tours (including ours) go for lunch.
A few steps away from the car park is the site of the “Freedom Bridge” – a railway bridge that was used by repatriated POWs / Soldiers returning to the north up until 1998.
As we boarded the bus for the return-leg to Seoul, John turned around for one last look Northwards and his thoughts drifted back to ‘Bob’, the North Korean Soldier. What was he really called?Did he have a family?;a wife?;Children? What did he make of all this? Does he like Blur or Oasis or does he even know what that means?
We were indoctrinated to believe that he was a bad guy, that he protected mad men who want to destroy the world, but was he really? He looked like us. He was not some sort of alien creature, he was not a Klingon. He was just a man.
Our visit was equal parts fascinating and scary. A real sense of surrealism pervades the entire border area. It was really sad when you consider that the Berlin Wall was knocked down over 27 years ago that barriers still exist between fellow countrymen today. Even sadder is what is buried just underneath ‘no-mans land’ – landmines!
In 2014 the United States Government pledged to eliminate these anti-personal mines. It’s sole exception was to exempt the Korean DMZ from that pledge. This equates to the continued use of millions of landmines and other hidden bombs dispersed across the DMZ. Karen and I saw firsthand the destruction these ‘weapons of peace’ inflict when visiting Laos last year. Craziness!
The Bright Side….
As Eric Idle would espouse, “Always look on the bright side of life”, and he is right. It is rather gloomy to end our post on the topic of landmines.
So while the Korean Peninsula is in a bit of the doldrums there is one faint sliver of hope. You see because there is an area of 1000 square miles that is pretty much devoid of the main force of destruction on earth, i.e. man, Mother Nature has had a chance to flourish in a big way.
Over the years there has grown one of the most well preserved areas of temperate habitat in the world.Several endangered animals and plant species now exist among the heavily fortified fences and listening posts. Included in this list are the extremely rare red-crowned crane, white-naped crane as well as potentially, the extremely rare Siberian tiger, Amur leopard and Asiatic black bear.
Our Tour Guide told us that National Geographic were up there recently and they were amazed at what they found. Not to forget mentioning the great work environmentalists are doing to try and get the entire site protected under UNESCO.
This is probably one of those rare occasions where Man Made Disaster can be substituted for Man Made Miracle.