“The scariest place in the world” is how President Bill Clinton once described the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
A couple of years after he left the presidency, we attended a dinner where the President Clinton gave a speech on “Conflict Resolution”. A terrific experience and I can recall him mentioning the DMZ along with his experiences in many of the worlds other trouble spots (including some hilarious tales of meetings with Yasser Arafat!). Still one of, if not the, most impressive and charismatic orators I have ever listened to!
Given that North Korea for most of the last 60 years has been run by a dynasty of megalomaniacs armed with thermonuclear weapons, it is hard to argue with President Clinton’s opinion.
The DMZ itself is a 4kms buffer zone which runs either side of the 248km border along the 38th parallel. Apparently it is the most fortified and heavily armed border in the world. To get to the DMZ it is necessary to go on an organised tour and to book at least 4 days in advance. We booked ours through http://www.uso.org/korea
We were due to set off on our tour at midday but we arrived early to have a look around the War Memorial Museum which is close by.
The War Memorial Museum.
The entrance area around the museum is marked by a giant dome cut in two, symbolising, I suppose, the splitting of the two Koreas. Also around the park are many aircraft, B52s, fighters, etc, torpedo boats etc, most from the Korean War era but some from later skirmishes.
Touring the DMZ
We arrive for our tour at the offices of USO and checked in with our passports. The information they had sent to us in advance of the tour provided a lot of information on how to dress appropriately, the rules for taking photographs and generally of how to behave ( don’t arrive drunk was one of the major pointers???). All of this will be repeated to us time and again, both on the bus and once we arrive! Stone cold sober and an hour or so out of Seoul, we arrive at the ultra modern Dorasan Station. We are given 15 mins to explore and to go down to the platforms to have a look at the trains that are going to… well nowhere!
The rail line was built to link Seoul with Pyongyang, the capital of the North, but the service was stopped a few years ago after one of the many bust ups between the two governments. Bizarre to see brightly light departure/arrival boards showing neither departures nor arrivals! There are however, maps detailing how one day it may be possible to get all the way to London by train from Seoul!
We drive past Daeseong-dong which is only one of two villages in the DMZ. One mile from Kijŏng-dong, in North Korea’s portion of the DMZ, it is here that Korea’s division is most starkly apparent: rival national flags can be seen on gigantic flagpoles that have been erected in the two villages. Although the DMZ is under the administration of the Allied Control Commission, the residents of Daesong-dong are considered South Korean civilians, and subject to South Korean laws. These residents have some unique benefits and restrictions. For example, they have the same rights to vote and receive education, but are exempt from conscription to the armed forces and pay no tax!!. Not all good news through. Only families born in the village can stay there limitation which leads to an ever decreasing marriage pool for the young people as many move to Seoul in search of a partner. There is also an 11 p.m. curfew. Not the most enticing tax haven in the world.
In the 1980s, South Korea government built a 98.4 m (323 ft) flagpole in Daeseong-dong, which now flies a South Korean flag weighing 130 kg. The North responded by building the 160 m Panmunjeom flagpole in Kijŏng-dong, only 1.2 km away. It flies a 270 kg flag of North Korea. The weight of these flags seems incredible but, as the corporal pointed out, they must weigh a hell of a lot more when there has been rain like today! Apparently, to arrive at the current flag situation, the two countries played “flag leapfrog” erecting ever larger flags and poles over the years to arrive at the current situation. Oh well, while they are doing that at least they are not firing at one another!
We continue onwards to the somewhat provocatively named,
” Third Tunnel of Aggression”.
This tunnel was discovered back in 1974 and is one of four that have been found. It is the closest to Seoul and it would have been just a days March to the capital for the Nothing Korean Army. The North Koreans strenuously denied any aggressive intent, arguing that they were coal mines (although there is no coal anywhere in the region!) They tried to disguise the tunnel as a coal mine by covering the walls with coal dust!
After watching a 15 min propaganda/ explanatory video we head down into the tunnel. The tunnel itself is some 70m below ground so, to enable tourists to get there, the South Koreans dug a 400m tunnel at around a 12 degree incline. Not bad going down, but coming back up it was a bit of a slog.
We are kitted out with hard hats, the need for which will not become apparent until we reach the tunnel proper. 10 mins. later and we are down in the tunnel and I immediately realise the need for the helmet as I lost count of the number of times I hit my helmet on the tunnel roof. We walk crouched for most of the 205 metres of the tunnel. It is hot, very crowded and most definitely not for the claustrophobic ( or anyone with a bad back) .
Eventually we reach the end and look through a hole in one of three reinforced concrete walls which have blocked off the tunnel from a “surprise” attack. CCTV has also been installed to monitor any activity rather than leave sentries down there. We then retrace our steps -the 400m ascent seemed a lot longer on the way back! All of this seems a little bizarre, even funny, if it were not for the fact that it is clear evidence of the North’s intentions to invade the South. Let’s hope that never happens as the consequences do not bear thinking about.
Camp Bonifas and the Joint Security Area
Camp Bonifas is named after a Captain Bonifas, who, along with a Lieutenant Barrett were attacked and killed by axe wielding North Koreans when they were trying to prune a tree which was obscuring the view from an observation post. This act was responsible for a serious decline in relations between the two sides and became known as “The Axe Murder Incident”. Three days after the killings, the Americans returned to cut down the tree in operation “Paul Bunyan” with a show of force that must surely rate as the most heavily armed tree cutting exercise in the history of the world – 800 heavily armed men, B52 bombers and fighter planes patrolling the skies and an aircraft carrier stationed off the North Korean coast. Overwhelming force indeed! Unsurprisingly, the offending tree was cut down successfully with no response from the North Koreans!
On arrival at Camp Bonifas our tour guide is relieved of her command and is replaced by a young Corporal from the US Army. An imposing figure dressed in battle fatigues, body armour and obligatory wrap-around shades, he spells out with great authority what we must and must not do He will repeat these instructions firmly and frequently throughout the next two hours as he leads us on the tour. Above all, we are told to obey his instructions at all times, NEVER point or make any gestures at any North Korean guards and only take photos when we are given express permission. Of course there is always one that doesn’t listen and steps out of line. One young American guy made the mistake of pointing out something to his friend. Instantly, the corporal barked at him to stop. Never have I seen a man move so quick or look so scared!
As if on cue, as we are about to enter the three meeting rooms at the centre of the complex, the skies darken and a massive thunderstorm kicks off. Guards stand to attention, undercover at the corner of each hut facing into the South. In between each hut stands a South Korean guard facing north, way out in the open and getting soaked to the skin. These guards don’t move a muscle the entire time were are there – some training!!
A solitary North Korean guard watches us from the distance ( and the shelter of a building!) Once inside the hut we are warned to be careful what we say as the microphones are permanently on and everything is being recorded by both sides (probably not the place to crack jokes about Kim Jong Un! The actual border runs right through the centre of the hut and two South Korean guards armed with pistols and wraparound sunglasses stand in a Tae Kwan Do attack stance astride the actual border. ( I think the sunglasses have something to do with not being identified as well as looking scary). We are told it is ok to photograph, but not to touch these guys.
This is where all the meetings between the two Koreas happen. A couple of minutes inside the huts and we are hustled back to the bus to the observation post. This is where we get to see the DMZ in all its glory. Still raining,so we are not seeing it at its best, but my overriding impression is that it is a completely desolate and scary place. Mile upon mile of barbed wire and observation posts, minefields and apparently, a haven for wildlife!
On our way back to Camp Bonifas we pass the“Bridge of no return”
It was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War in 1953. The name originates from the claim that many war prisoners captured by the United States did not wish to return home. The prisoners were brought to the bridge and given the choice to remain in the country of their captivity or cross over to the other country. However, if they chose to cross the bridge, they would never be allowed to return.
The tour has been excellent. Our Korean tour guide from JSO was very good but the US Army Corporal was truly outstanding. OK he looked the part in camouflage gear, wraparound shades and body armour, but he really managed to impart the information superbly well. From Tennessee, he had a few months to go on his tour and was then heading back to the USA – after chatting with him for a while I got the distinct impression he was really looking forward to it! A relatively expensive tour but I felt I came away having learnt a lot and it was money well spent.