Asia | Korea, Republic of – Minefields and Razor Wire
So, the Demilitarized Zone.The border between North and South Korea. The last frontier of the Cold War. I don’t really know where to start. I’d envisaged writing a jovial entry in which I jumped up and down and shouted, ‘I’ve been to North Korea!!’, but after the day’s experience that doesn’t really seem appropriate. I’d expected the massive military infrastructure along the frontier of the Demilitarized Zone itself, but I wasn’t prepared for just how far it extended outside that area. Nor was I prepared for how sharply it would be brought into focus that Korea is a country still at war…….with itself. I suppose I’ll start at the beginning.
About fifteen minute’s drive North of Seoul, the razor wire starts. Seoul’s main river, the Han, joins up with a smaller river, the Imjin, that flows from the North. The banks must therefore be fortified in case North Korea decides to use the waterway as a means to enter the capital. It is through this barricade that we get our first glimpse of North Korea on the opposite bank. It takes the form of a series of rugged hills, completely stripped bare of trees. During the Japanese occupation, the whole of Korea was stripped of timber. The South, as it came to be, could afford to replant. The North couldn’t. Anything that grows there now is quickly felled for firewood or fuel. As we approach the bridge over the Imjin, we come to our first military checkpoint. A S.Korean soldier boards the bus and checks everyone’s ID. Photography is prohibited. To access the bridge itself, we must pass through an anti-tank blockade. The bridge is then lined on both sides by the same steel fence, crowned with razor wire, and is peppered with (presently dormant) roadblocks and other anti-tank devices. A mile or so further on, along a road bearing the same razor wire fortifications that are rapidly becoming ubiquitous, we reach Camp Bonifas, the US Army outpost on the edge of the DMZ itself. Their motto is ‘ In Front of Them All.’ It may be cocky, but in this instance it’s also true. We park up and transfer to a United Nations bus. Our US army guide informs us that we may photograph anything on the base except the bunkers and trench systems. It is becoming ever more clear that comparatively safe as it might be, this is a war zone. Inside the base we are given the ‘Visitor’s Declaration’, which we must all sign. I quote:
‘The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. Guests of the United Nations Command are not permitted to cross the Military Demarcation Line into the portion of the Joint Security Area under control of the Korean People’s Army. Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act……
…….Fraternization, including speaking or any association with personnel from the Korean People’s Army/Chinese People’s Volunteers (KPA/CPV) side is strictly prohibited……
…….Visitors will not point, make gestures or expressions which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda against the United Nations Command…….
…….The area and buildings under the military control of the communist side will not be entered for any reason. Permission of the guide must be obtained prior to entry to any of the UNC buildings in the JSA.’
There then follows a slide presentation, during which we are given a history of the DMZ and the JSA including some of the incidents that have occured therein. One of them in particular is worth mentioning. In 1976, the JSA was a little different than it is today. Then, there were no restrictions on where in the area either side could have positions (in terms of north or south of the border). The N Koreans quickly responded to this by erecting three positions at the very southernmost extreme, thereby completely triangulating a US checkpoint. To make matters worse for the unfortunate individuals stationed within it, a large Poplar tree obscured them from the nearest other US position. The UNC therefore decided to fell it. Within minutes of the work detail commencing their job, they were attacked by 28 N Korean soldiers. In what came to be known as ‘The Axe Murders Incident’, three US soldiers were hacked to death. After a change in the regulations, so that the North could only have positions north of the border (or ‘Military Demarcation Line’ as it is referred to throughout the day) and vice-versa, there followed what must surely be the most expensive tree felling operation ever carried out. To ensure that no northern interference re-occured, thousands of troops, vehicles, artillery, and even a warship were assembled. It cost $4 Million to cut down one tree.
After the talk, we proceed to where (if the disposition of our guide is anything to go by) it gets serious – entering the DMZ itself. En route we pass Camp Bonifas’ one hole golf course, which claims to be ‘The Most Dangerous Golf Course in the World’. To be fair, I suppose you probably would have to look quite hard to find another one that was surrounded on three sides by minefields.
The DMZ extends 2km from the border on either side. To enter the Southern edge of the DMZ, we pass through four layers of fortification. First is a razor wire fence, which extends the entire width of the country. Next is an anti tank blockade, which extends the entire width of the country. This is followed by a minefield, and then another razor wire fence, which extends……….you get the idea. When we reach the Joint Security Area, we disembark, and proceed on foot. Our first destination is the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) Building. This is where all the peace talks held over the last fifty years have yielded spectacularly little success. At the centre of the room is a conference table. The microphones on it are monitered 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. We are informed that those of us on the far side of the table from the door through which we entered are now standing in North Korea. I am. With us in the room are two Republic of Korea soldiers, standing in a TaeKwon Do stance ( to be more threatening to the other side apparently) Outside, the other ROK soldiers stand facing the North, half hidden behind the edges of buildings (to present a smaller target). It’s all quite surreal. We are told of the petty extremes to which this stand-off has sunk. On the conference table is a small flag. Originally, when the UNC took a flag in, the N Koreans responded by bringing in a bigger one. The UNC’s got bigger. The North’s got bigger. The UNC’s got bigger. The North’s got bigger. This continued until neither flag could actually fit into the room. A meeting of the two sides was held specifically and solely to agree on a size limit to the table flags. Then there’s the two main buildings in the JSA. The one in the North was built first. The Southern one was then constructed, and was higher than the Northern one. The North built another storey on theirs so that it would be taller. Outside, we are informed that we are under constant surveillance by the N Koreans. No-one must do anything provocative. As we proceed back indoors, our guide tells us that we may not stop to take photos, we must keep moving until we are safely back indoors. Some people at the back of the group stop. Our guide shouts, ‘Keep moving Goddamnit!! How hard is it??!! Is it hard??!! This is for your own safety!’ I suppose he doesn’t want dead civilians on his tour.
Next we proceed to Checkpoint Bravo, from where we can get a good view across into North Korea. We can see the three storey loudspeaker which broadcasts propaganda for ten to twelve hours a day (usually throughout the night). Our guide informs us that this can be quite irritating if you’re trying to sleep. We can see the propaganda signs above the treeline, which proclaim ‘Yankees Go Home!’, and ‘Our General leads us to glory.’, and my favourite, ‘Another glorious victory for our 21st century sunshine leader Kim Jung-Il…Hoorah!’ We can see the jamming antenna that ensures the N Korean people recieve no TV or radio signals from the outside world. They get what they’re given and nothing else. Most of all though we can see the two villages which exist inside the DMZ. One is in the North, and one in the South. The South is Daeseongdong (Great Success Village, although the Americans call it Freedom Village). It’s residents get mixed blessings. On the upside, they are essentially autonomous. They’re exempt from Korean taxation, and military service. The S Korean Govt subsidises their housing, and they farm generally speaking, an area about four times as large as the average South Korean, meaning that they are substantially better off. Conversely, they have to remain in the village for eight months of the year if they wish to retain citizenship. Moreover, they have to be back in the village by nightfall, and inside their homes with doors and windows secured by 11.30pm. A 100m flagpole bearing the S Korean flag stands in the village. The Northern counterpart is Gijongdong (Called by the Americans, Propaganda Village). It’s residents……….don’t exist. The whole place is deserted. Our guide tells us that they know this because when the lights come on at night, they all come on at the same time, and then go out all at the same time every morning. A 160m flagpole (the tallest in the world) bearing a 30 x 20m North Korean flag weighing 600Ibs (the largest in the world) stands in Gijongdong.
After this we leave the DMZ, and go to the ‘Third Tunnel of Aggression’, one of five so far discovered tunnels dug by the North, under the DMZ, into South Korea. This one was discovered in the 1970’s.
It is 76m underground, 2km long, and blasted through solid granite. We walk along it until the first blockade, only 150m from the border above our heads. If it had been finished, the North could have sent 10,000 soldiers through it in one hour. It’s theorised that there may be as many as ten other tunnels as yet undiscovered. From here we take a winding road, flanked on both sides by minefields, up to a hilltop observation post. Our vantage affords us views of North Korea’s second largest city, Kaesong. Gazing through the telescope at the silent buildings of the city, it’s hard to imagine what life must be like there. It’s barely 10 km away, and yet a different world entirely. We can also see a N Korean work party, labouring to complete their stretch of the Reunification Railway, which will one day reconnect Seoul to Pyeongyang. The Southern side, our guide says, is already finished, but the N Koreans have no heavy machinery, and are working with their bare hands. One of our group, whose nationality I shall not divulge, and who is obviously taking our Korean guide’s English far too literally, queries, ‘They have shovels though, right?’ Dear God!
The time has come to head back to Seoul. It’s been a day of mixed experiences. There was the surrealism, the petty propaganda, the brutal reality of a war zone, but above all the overriding sense of the immense human sadness this whole sorry situation has caused and continues to cause on a daily basis. Families have been divided. Individuals cannot know whether their loved ones are alive or dead. After a fifty year ceasefire, the Korean war is still not officially over.
The only real piece of propaganda on the Southern side, is a big sign, pointing north, which says ‘One People, One Nation.’ If only it were that simple.