The recent dismantling of all North Korea – South Korea agreements by the North (quite possibly in order to gain leverage with the incoming Obama administration and thus get concessions for agreeing to do what they were doing anyway) provided a suitable backdrop of Cold War tensions for a visit to the quite-militarised-actually demilitarised zone (DMZ, 한반도의 군사 분계선), a mere hour’s drive north of Seoul. As it was Dan’s last (really this time) weekend in Korea before swapping a high-pay high-benefits job for WWOOFing in New Zealand, we wanted to do something a little memorable and booked ourselves on a tour of some of the sites of interest along the easily-accessible parts of the border.
We were on the road for barely long enough to get a decent snooze when we pulled up outside Dorasan (도라산) station, last stop on the South Korean side before the border region and hive of inactivity due to nobody living anywhere near the place. The train line goes over to Kaesong on the North Korean side, but only carefully-checked freight gets through and the station has therefore gained cult status as one of the symbols of the divide between the two countries. George W. Bush visited in 2002, and there is a large photograph of him along with a signed concrete railway tie – for some reason, he’s holding the pen upside down and we really could not figure out how a) nobody realised, as the tie is definitely signed and b) why they would use that photo out of the many they must have taken.
There’s an observatory conveniently just up the road from the station, but the only stars the telescopes are aimed at are on North Korean flags. We weren’t allowed to take photographs closer than a few metres to the wall (though there were viewing binoculars), but could peer over the expanse of scrub and trees to the Propaganda Village of Gijeong-dong (기정동, North Koreans call this the Peace Village) and, a couple of kilometres away, the South Korean equivalent (Daeseong-dong, the Friendship Village). Both have massive flagpoles proudly flying the appropriate national flag – in a typical display of one-upmanship, the North casually enquired as to how tall the Southern flagpole was going to be and then made theirs around 50 % taller (though our guide later reminded us that the South Korean one is wider).
Our final stop before going into the restricted area was Imjingak (임진각), a park near the city of Paju where the Bridge of Freedom is. This is where prisoners of war were exchanged after formal hostilities ended, and currently features many memorials and a shrine where Korean families with ancestral tombs on the wrong side of the border can come and perform rites.
Shortly after driving over the Imjin River, having our passports checked and going under one of the many tank traps (a short concrete tunnel designed to be blown up to block the road) we arrived at the Third Tunnel. Since the war was put on hold, North Korea has made several attempts to dig tunnels into the South for nefarious purposes – four have been discovered (the most recent in 1990), and there are believed to be several more. The Third Tunnel was only found after a defector reported the digging efforts, and was quite a worry at the time as it is only around 40 km from Seoul. It was quickly sealed with concrete, but not before the North claimed that the South had dug it and (this being clearly ridiculous) that it was in fact an old coal mine (they had painted the walls with a coal dust mixture before vacating it). We ventured into the damp space thankful for our hard hats (no photography was allowed, but it was around 2 m high and 2 m wide) and received a small scare when the spotlights pointed at the blockade wall went out.
Finally, after more passport checks and a liability waiver, we were allowed to pass through Camp Bonifas and into the JSA (Joint Security Area, 공동경비구역) at Panmunjeom (판문점), where North and South Korean guards face each other off and officials conduct occasional talks. The region is controlled jointly, but tourist movement is restricted to a few sites on the Southern side and nobody is allowed to cross the border. There were strict rules on what we could and couldn’t do – no photography except in permitted places, walk in two lines only, no pointing or gesturing, absolutely no talking to anyone from the North (we only saw one guard at a distance anyway), break the rules at risk of getting shot etc. – but surprising freedom to see things. We took the only permitted walk over the official border in the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) conference room and marvelled at all the South Korean soldiers permanently in the “ready stance” (kind of like an action figure) should hostilities break out again (incidentally, we were told that North Korean mandatory military service is ten years for men and seven for women, but other sources indicate it may be as low as four for both). At the viewpoints, we could see clear over the boundary lines and Bridge of No Return (돌아올 수 없는 다리) to the bare mountains beyond (kept deliberately tree-free to deter sneaking) and felt no small wonder at what it must be like to live in a divided country.