On Saturday, I visited Panmunjom and the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) for the first time. Panmunjom is one of the places I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I’m a history buff, and I’m particularly fascinated by the geopolitical repercussions of World War II. Panmunjom is one of the most visible remnants of that war and of the Korean War. The experience for me, like so many, was surreal. The DMZ, a four kilometer wide snake of uninhabited land that cuts across Korea, is quiet and idyllic. Nature thrives there, and in the villages lying in and around the DMZ it’s business as usual. The panoramic views of North Korea were surprisingly beautiful. I know that North Korea viewed from the DMZ is a sort of Potemkin village; that is, it looks much greener from the outside than it does on the inside. My mind is all too aware of the potential danger lying beyond the DMZ and the tense state of the Korean ceasefire. This is especially true given recent political events. This morning the U.S. Government warned Japan that North Korea may have launched a test missile into the Sea of Japan. The DMZ itself is schizophrenic—it appears to be quiet because it is still under ceasefire, but it is always on high alert because of the constant threat of war.
I joined the USO tour early in the morning. I boarded the bus with 82 other foreign tourists. We left Seoul and drove approximately one hour north on the “Freedom Highway.” We left the city and passed several rural townships with unspectacular block-style high rise housing. Several miles north of Seoul along the Han River I saw barbed wire paralleling the freeway to thwart infiltrators from the North. We passed through two military checkpoints before arriving at the headquarters of the UN High Command just outside the DMZ. We disembarked and boarded United Nations buses. Following a 10-minute presentation at Camp Bonifas, we set out for the DMZ. At Panmunjom, site of the Joint Security Area (JSA) jointly administered by the UN and North Korea, we entered a building constructed by the chairman of Hyundai to serve as a reunion place for families divided by the Korean War. Those reunions have not yet taken place. We walked up a flight of stairs and onto a marble dais facing North Korea. I looked around intently for traces of tension. I did not see much movement on the North Korean side, although I spotted three North Korean guards enter a guard house to my right, and I noted that a couple of guards on the North Korean side closely monitored our group. I imagine that our group was being watched from many different anges.
After a short briefing by the military guide, we marched into the famous blue UN building where peace talks are occasionally held. We walked to the end of the room into the North Korean side of the building. I noted a Samsung air conditioner sitting in the corner. My trip to North Korea lasted a mere five minutes. South Korean guards stood at attention in the UN building and at several points on the South Korean side, standing at attention in identical, frozen tae kwondo martial arts positions. As the South Korean guards marched, their pants jingled with the sound of clicking marbles. The military guide mentioned that the marbles were intended to fool the enemy into misjudging troop strength.
I looked through the window of the UN building at an innocuous 10’ x 2’ slab of concrete. The slab represented the boundary between North and South Korea. The image of this slab is still fresh in my mind. In any other location this slab would be nothing more than a street curb or a sidewalk. However, at Panmunjom it represents a boundary between a divided nation with two countries and two opposing ideologies. It seems so innocent looking, so inviting to cross over, yet so dangerous. I wondered what would happen if someone broke ranks from our tour group and tried to cross over the boundary, something that last happened in 1984 when a Soviet defector fled to South Korea via Panmunjom. That incident resulted in a firefight and several deaths. My first thought was that one of the South Korean guards would likely tackle the perpetrator before they crossed the border. If by chance the person escaped the guard’s grasp and ran into North Korea, they would surely be seized by North Korean guards and taken forcefully away for questioning. An international incident would ensue, and the incident would receive significant international media attention. I shudder at the thought. I looked at the open space between the two Koreas and understood why Koreans are not allowed to visit the JSA. It’s a discriminatory policy, but now that I’ve been there I understand why the policy is in force. No barrier stood between our group and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) other than one solitary South Korean guard. Foreigners tend to look on the DMZ with detached curiosity, but to Koreans it represents so much more. Crossing that innocuously-looking slab of concrete would surely increase hostilities on the Korean Peninsula.
After Panmunjom, we were bussed to an observation deck overlooking North Korea. We also drove to the Bridge of No Return where prisoners have been periodically exchanged since 1953. We witnessed the somber monument dedicated to the victims of the 1976 Axe Murder Incident, when two American soldiers were vicious murdered by North Korean soldiers for trying to cut down a large poplar tree. The monument stands were the tree used to be. Afterwards, our bus returned to UN High Command Headquarters, and we boarded the USO tour bus again en route to Tongildong, or Unification Village. We passed by Daesungdong, or Freedom Village. A small village emulating South Korea’s agrarian culture, Daesungdong is a farming enclave located precariously close to the DMZ. Admission to the village is heavily restricted. I would have enjoyed stopping to peruse the town, but it’s not permitted. Once we reached Tongildong, our group ate lunch at a large, dated cantina. I ate tasty but overpriced bulgogi and kimchi and shopped at the adjacent souvenir shop. It seems odd that one can purchase mementos of the world’s most dangerous place, but I’m not surprised. I thought the limited edition DMZ barbed wire was especially noteworthy. I’m just glad that the shop didn’t sell any DMZ Christmas ornaments.
After lunch we headed to Dora Observatory, which offers the best views of North Korea and is accessible to Koreans. On a clear day you can see about 17 miles into the DPRK. The North Korean countryside is very scenic. Although the sky was overcast, I could still make out the Demarcation Line between the two countries, Kijungdong (a.k.a. “Propaganda Village”), the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), and pristine but deserted Highway 1 snaking northward towards Kaesong. Highway 1 linking North and South Korea reopened in 2004 and now serves as a supply line between South Korea and the newly established KIC lying at the outskirts of Kaesong. Three South Korean companies currently operate out of the KIC and employ cheap North Korean labor. In the future, dozens of factories will open in the KIC and will manufacture products for duty-free export to South Korea. The project is intended to help revitalize North Korea’s economy and boost cooperation between the two Koreas. Already the KIC has given new life to Kijungdong, or “Propaganda Village.” In the past Kijungdong stood virtually empty, a shell city designed to showcase utopian North Korean living. It is famous for the 600-pound North Korean flag that flies atop the world’s highest flagpole (160 feet tall). Recently however, North Korean workers working in KIC factories have been assigned housing in Kijungdong. It’s ironic that it took South Korean capitalist-style factories to revitalize a place built to trumpet the ideals of communism. Such is life in the enigma that is known as North Korea.
At last, we visited the “3rd Tunnel,” an infiltration tunnel built by the DPRK Korean People’s Army (KPA). Discovered by South Korea in 1978, the tunnel now serves as an odd tourist attraction. It is one of four infiltration tunnels made public by the Republic of Korea (ROK). We put on hard hats and went down several hundred feet to the infiltration via a second access tunnel. The access tunnel descended at a 12 degree angle for about 10 minutes. The infiltration tunnel had a rather low ceiling, and I was thankful I wore a hard hat. I banged my head on the tunnel ceiling several times. I’m not sure why, but the surface-to-tunnel train was not running, and our group hiked into and out of the tunnel on foot. If you are claustrophobic or have medical concerns, do not attempt to visit the tunnel. The tunnel was interesting but unspectacular. It was not built for any other purpose than to give the KPA another route for invading South Korea.
We returned to Seoul in early afternoon. I was hot and exhausted but very happy I finally visited the DMZ. I now know the surrealism of Panmunjom. I asked the guide if he liked his job, and he answered, “Yes, but it can be boring sometimes.” In a place like Panmunjom, boredom is good. He agreed.