Welcome to the DMZ: Touring the Korean Demilitarized Zone

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Stretching for 250km across the Korean Peninsula, the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ) that divides North Korea from South Korea is one of the world’s most notorious and long-standing war zones. It has existed since July 27th 1953, when an uneasy armistice was brokered between the socialist DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) in the north, and the UN-backed ROK (Republic of Korea) in the south. Today the Korean War remains unresolved, and the DMZ survives as the most heavily militarized border in the world.

Strange though it may seem, the Korean Demilitarized Zone is also something of a tourist hotspot – drawing thousands of curious visitors each year. I made it down to the DMZ crossing at Panmunjom, and joined the coach-loads of Chinese tourists bound for a tour of the Demilitarized Zone.

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A Brief History of the Korean DMZ

There is only one point where it is possible to cross the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and this is where I was headed. At Panmunjom, military barracks rise up high on either side of a central demarcation line. Here the 4km-wide no-man’s land is heavily fortified and patrolled night and day by armed guards.

DMZ-North-Korean-Demilitarized-Zone-DPRK-5-DRThe Korean DMZ was formed following an armistice agreement, in which both parties were required to withdraw their troops 2000m from the front line.[1] There they’ve stayed for more than half a century now, both nations poised and ready for war. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) marks the centre point of the Demilitarized Zone, across which neither side is permitted to set foot.

It’s an uneasy ceasefire, and recent conflicts are only the latest in a long history of hostilities along the Korean DMZ.

A series of skirmishes in the late 1960s left 43 American, 299 South Korean and 397 North Korean soldiers dead. Throughout the following decades, there have been numerous incidents involving North Korean commandos attempting to infiltrate south of the DMZ; these attacks have generally made use of tunnels dug deep beneath the ground.

Known as the ‘Tunnels of Aggression’, four such passages have now been discovered and sealed. The DPRK claimed that these tunnels – fitted with sleeping quarters, electric lights and narrow gauge railways – were dug for mining coal.

Though most stories concern incursions from the north, recently declassified minutes from meetings between Henry Kissinger and the US Deputy Secretary of Defence also revealed evidence of more than 200 previously unreported raids into North Korea – perpetrated by South Korean troops. Naturally, the US has denied any involvement in the planning or execution of these raids.

Other notable skirmishes include the 1976 Axe Murder Incident, in which two soldiers were killed over the attempted trimming of a poplar tree that was blocking the view; in 1984, when a Soviet tourist to the DMZ tried to defect to the South, the resulting gunfight claimed the lives of four soldiers.

The Road to Seoul

DMZ-North-Korean-Demilitarized-Zone-DPRK-1-DRThe DMZ lies several hours’ drive from the North Korean city of Kaesong. This close to the border, the military presence is more palpable than in other parts of the country. On a few occasions I spotted soldiers cycling to their posts, vintage assault rifles poking their noses out from wicker baskets strung beneath handlebars. On the road south from Kaesong a poignant sign reads “Seoul: 70km”.

We pulled into the entrance of the military barracks at Panmunjom on our KITC tour coach, to be met by a busy throng of Chinese tourists stood around a cluster of low buildings.[2] Here we were ushered off the vehicle and into a series of souvenir shops while the coach was rigorously checked by DMZ officials.

This first checkpoint was heavily garrisoned, with sentries stood watch along a metal gate leading into the Demilitarized Zone itself. A large, free-standing sign was illustrated with a single finger raised triumphantly in front of an outline of the Korean peninsula; accompanied by the Korean word for “Reunification”.

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I browsed for a while through a shop filled with collectors’ stamp books, postcards, DPRK flags and t-shirts. In the next room were a series of museum-style exhibits, and maps of the DMZ.

DMZ-North-Korean-Demilitarized-Zone-DPRK-2-DRWe were given a brief lecture on the history of the battlefield, which our Korean guide illustrated with a wooden pointer; sweeping it in wide arcs over a wall-mounted painting of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

I got chatting to one of the Chinese tourists during the lecture: a politics student from Beijing. It was his third visit to the DMZ, he told me with undisguised glee.

Our small group (British, Danish, Finish and American) spent the best part of an hour at the checkpoint, before being invited to board a new vehicle – a minibus that we were to share with a family from Sweden. In addition to our two female KITC guides, we were now joined by a local expert, a North Korean Colonel stationed at the DMZ.

We drove to Panmunjom. It was here that the armistice agreement was signed in 1953, between the Command forces of North Korea, the UN and the People’s Republic of China. This agreement set out the terms of the Korea Demilitarized Zone, specifying the number of troops and types of weapons that may be deployed by either side. We visited the very building where negotiations took place, meeting tables arranged just as they had been on the day of the armistice. Two walls inside now served as a kind of museum exhibit, chronicling the progress of the peace talks.

It was a strange feeling to drive through this picturesque landscape of wild grasses, trees and streams, knowing full well that any deviance from the approved routes could soon result in fatality; the DMZ is reckoned to be the largest live minefield on the planet [3].

Meanwhile, above the horizon a distant flagpole flew a red star flanked in blue; now a familiar site, after four days in Pyongyang [4].

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The Military Demarcation Line

It was just a short drive from here to the border with South Korea, at the meeting point known as the Joint Security Area (JSA). On either side of the demarcation line, large buildings had been raised: square, grey constructions fitted with guns and telescopes. The space between them was perforated by a series of blue huts, aligned along the very border itself. Aside from times of official meetings between the rival leaders, only one side may occupy the JSA at a given time; today was the turn of the DPRK.

DMZ-North-Korean-Demilitarized-Zone-DPRK-22-DRInside the central hut, we gathered around a long wooden table. Stretching sideways across the middle of the building, this meeting table straddles the literal border between the two republics. I sat south of the MDL.

On a wall in the back of the room, a framed display showed the flags of North Korea’s enemies. The United Nations and South Korea were ranked highest, standing apart from the others. After those followed a list including the USA, Australia, Germany, Canada and Britain [5].

Once seated around the table, our Colonel friend took position at the eastern end. He spoke in Korean about the war, the armistice and the future of the Korean peninsula; a translator on his right echoing each line in Chinese, while one of our KITC guides repeated for the rest of us in English.

DMZ-North-Korean-Demilitarized-Zone-DPRK-17-DRThe Korean Demilitarized Zone roughly follows the path of the 38th parallel north. At the end of WWII, this represented the boundary between the US and Soviet administrative areas on the Korean peninsula.

The Korean War erupted soon after, lasting from 1950 to 1953, and claiming over 3 million lives. It was an ideological struggle, commonly accepted to have been instigated by the DPRK launching a full-scale invasion across the 38th parallel. The Korean War is seen by many as the symbolic onset of the Cold War, with Stalin’s USSR lending military strength and financial assistance to the fledging DPRK.

To hear the North Koreans tell it however, it was the USA who started the Korean War; as a result of their efforts to install a puppet government in the south. The Soviet role is much downplayed, and they choose to focus on internal factors (such as the brave revolutionary struggle led by President Kim Il-sung), rather than talk of gaining outside help.

The ultimate goal of the DPRK, the Colonel told us, was to see the reunification of the Korean people. These two countries would exist as semi-autonomous states, governed by one central government consisting of representatives from both sides of the border.

One potential name currently being suggested for this reunited peninsula is the ‘Federal Republic of Koryo’ [6].

However, this reunification could only be achieved, we were told, in accordance with three principle criteria.

DMZ-North-Korean-Demilitarized-Zone-DPRK-21-DRThe first was to find a democratic solution. The Colonel insisted that North Korea would only seek a reunification model which best suited the needs of both north and south, rather than settling for a compromise.

The second point was that this move should take place without bloodshed; it should be the result of peaceful negotiation rather than conflict.

Taking into account recent events, the third stipulation seems to be something of a stumbling block. Our host told us that the DPRK considered it paramount for Korea’s problems to be resolved by Korea – and without reliance on outside interference.

In view of this last point, there seems to be some degree of consistency in the recent actions of North Korea. The DPRK believe the USA to have been instrumental in the deteriorating relationship between the Korean nations, and blame the States for provoking the Korean War through their political involvement with the south.

North Korea Now

Many North Koreans believe (rightly or wrongly) that their socialist society was viewed as a threat to America’s western imperialism; and that a foothold in the south would allow the USA to further subdue the DPRK. The Cold War strengthened these fears and suspicions, as the communist North grew ever closer to the Soviet Union.

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Nowadays, North Korea’s political philosophy of Juche Thought is the last bastion of the Marxist-Leninst tradition; and so it should come as no surprise that recent US involvement and military cooperation with South Korea makes this hermit nation more than a little uncomfortable.

DMZ-North-Korean-Demilitarized-Zone-DPRK-20-DRThe message to Seoul is, send your American friends home, and then we’ll talk. Recent defensive measures taken by the US on the Korean peninsula could easily be condemned as throwing oil on the fire. However, North Korea has not shown itself to be the most trustworthy of neighbours in the past; and while the DPRK’s mission statement sounds reasonable enough, it’s hard to know exactly what would happen if South Korea were suddenly left exposed to their volatile cousins.

Now, for the first time, the UN is investigating cases of human rights abuses in North Korea. Each day seems to bring further threats of hostility, as the north rattles its sabres and the south replies with a growing US military presence.

It’s very hard to know how things will end. Having been in the country just two days ago, the feeling I got was mixed; anger, frustration, indignation and no small amount of regret.

The North’s televised news reports were a passionate rhetoric on the need to strike back against those who would threaten the freedom of the DPRK. Though every Korean I spoke to claimed to desire peace, South Korea’s love affair with the US, combined with the perceived escalation of aggression against the DPRK, is something that nobody here seems prepared to suffer any longer [7].

Given the current state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula, I fear the answer will come sooner rather than later.

 

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[1] The DMZ was never completely abandoned, however. Both the north and south maintain ‘peace villages’, settlements which lie within sight of one another’s borders. Residents in the southern village of Daeseong-dong are exempt from tax and military service; meanwhile, many of the buildings at North Korea’s Kijŏng-dong village are no more than beautifully painted shells, regularly maintained to give the illusion of habitation. Both sides have used these idyllic villages for the purposes of propaganda over the years, tempting defectors over with the illusion of unrealistic levels of comfort and civilisation.

[2] The ‘KITC’, or ‘Korean International Travel Company’, is one of the main government bodies that caters to tourism within the DPRK.

[3] An interesting side note is that due to many decades of human absence, the Demilitarized Zone is also recognised as one of the world’s best preserved areas of temperate habitat. There are numerous endangered species of plant and animals which live in the narrow buffer zone – with an estimated 320 species of bird, 70 mammals and 2,900 plant species.

[4] At a height of 160m, the North Korean flagpole at Kijŏng-dong is the third tallest in the world. It was the tallest at the time it was first raised in answer to South Korea’s 100m tall flagpole at Daeseong-dong.

[5] Japan may seem conspicuous in their absence here. The reason for this is that while Japan may be recognised as a long-standing enemy of the DPRK (primarily for the acts of cruelty committed during their WWII-era occupation of the Korean Peninsula), they are not here implicated for a role in the Korean War.

[6] ’Koryo’ being the name of the ancient Kingdom which once occupied this peninsula, and gave birth to modern day Korea.

[7] As one might imagine, the DPRK’s leaders seem more interested in war than do its citizens. I found the North Koreans to be an honest, friendly bunch – however, their state controlled news broadcasts fill them with daily fears for the safety of their very existence. Just the other day I saw a report on North Korean television which claimed that South Korea was planning to destroy the (almost sacred) statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il situated on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang. Like all the best lies, there is a little truth behind the story; last year, a revolutionary group in South Korea was indeed plotting the destruction of the statues, but they were later discovered and stopped by South Korea’s own government.

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  1. You get to some fascinating places. Although once you mentioned that the DMZ is one enormous minefield, visiting it fell right back off my bucket list.

    • I think the most interesting thing about this place was hearing such a different perspective on the Korean War. As for the mines, I guess you’re probably safe provided you don’t go wandering off.

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