October 31st, 2009.
My base in Korea was Daejeon, but as the “must-see” tourist trap, I mean trip, leaves from Seoul at 07:00, I’d stayed a night in the capital so I could be at Camp Kim, a US military base and home of USO Korea who arranged the tour that I joined, for the start. When I arrived at 6:45am there were already a dozen people assembled and two coaches waiting, so any thoughts I might have had that this was to be a bit of an adventure in the back of a troop truck were quickly disabused. I checked in at the USO office and boarded one of the buses, both of which filled up. The other clients appeared to be a mix of young travellers, veterans coming back for a visit with their family, and one US soldier on his final three weeks in country before heading home. The group was overwhelmingly American, but that could be explained by my choice of tour organiser.
Beating the morning traffic we were soon out of the city and travelling north along the banks of the River Han. The heavily fortified banks of the river Han. Tall barbed wire fences with manned guardposts every couple of hundred metres to prevent “infiltrators” heading downriver into the land of the free. On the way, the Korean tour guide told us some facts about the country. Of a population of 70 million, 48 million live in the South, and 22 million in the North. The average income in South Korea is US$20,000. In North Korea it is US$1,400. However, when it comes to the military, North Korea spends 30% of its GDP on it, and there are 1,200,000 active service members compared to 800,000 in the South. To travel beyond your own neighbourhood in North Korea you need permission, and houses only get electricity for 4-5 hours during the day. When the sun sets, the country goes dark.
As the Han River gives way to the Imjin River then the country on the other side of the border changes from the Republic of Korea, to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. At the same time, the single high fence topped with barbed wire changes into several layers of fence, all topped with barbed wire and with brightly coloured stones wedged between the links so guards can easily tell if the fence has been disturbed as the stones will fall out. The guard posts change from small towers, to wider, more substantial concrete buildings capable of holding more than just a couple of sentries.
Soon enough we reached the first checkpoint as we entered the demilitarised zone. This is off limits to most Koreans, with the exception of those that live and work there. After the checkpoint is the Unification Bridge. These days it is sorely misnamed as the bus has to weave its way through fences that are put there to slow down the little traffic that is allowed to use it. For a brief period earlier this decade there was also a Unification Train that ran from South Korea to an industrial city in the North. It used to head up in the morning with raw materials, and ship products south again in the evening. The service hasn’t been running since about this time last year.
Just after the bridge we have a rest stop for some coffee from a vending machine (which wasn’t all that bad), and a chance to buy some essentials. Dried sweet potatoes, Hershey bars, dried fish, scarves with a map of North Korea. The sort of thing you can find at your local corner store. Back on the bus and it is a short hop to Camp Bonifas. Camp Bonifas is named after a US soldier that was killed in what is referred to as the “Axe Murder Incident” of 1976.
In those days, the Joint Security Area, had guardposts for both sides located on either side of the actual border, the MDL (Military Demarcation Line). A large Poplar tree was blocking the view from one of the UN’s posts, so three soldiers were sent to trim it. They were attacked with axes by a number of North Korean soldiers and two of them were killed. One of those was a Captain Bonifas.
As we entered the camp, our bus was boarded by a US soldier, one of the UN force here, who checked our passports, although I’m not sure what he was looking for, except whether or not we were Korean. He introduced himself as Specialist Pollard who was to be our armed escort for the tour. “Armed” in this case means a handgun, as that is all that is allowed within the JSA (Joint Security Area).
The next stop was Ballinger Hall for our briefing on the history of the conflict and the formation of the JSA by Staff Sergeant Merill. This is where we were told about the Axe Murder Incident and about the competition between the sides for the tallest flagpost with the largest flag. The current holder is the North, which has a flagpole 150m high holding a flag that is 31m long.
The trip through the demilitarised zone from Camp Bonifas to the JSA takes us past the South Korean village of Daeseongdong. The farmers here have more land than most farmers in the rest of the country, but have to put up with being back in the village by sunset, and in their own homes by midnight. Why would they want to do this? Not only is the sale of their crop guaranteed by the government, but they earn US$80,000 to US$100,000 each. Needless to say that with a farming salary that large, only descendants of people living in the village are allowed to stay there and farm. Most of the farmers also have flats in Seoul where they go for the weekend.
Just before reaching the JSA we passed another handful of small buildings. This is the rapid response force, ready to jump into action should something happen. 24 hours a day, they are prepared and can be at the border within 90 seconds of being called. The record is 45 seconds. I can’t decide whether it would be a job as dull as dishwater, always being ready, but hopefully only rarely being called, or something that would drive you insane, always being tense, prepared, ready to drop whatever you were doing and run to the jeeps that would race up to who-knows-what.
When we reached the JSA, we were shepherded into Friendship Hall. Specialist Pollard told us that this was built by the South to allow families split across the border to meet, before being taken back to their own countries. However, the North never participated, so all it is used for is tour groups and a meeting room. The other side of the hall is the border. Steps lead down from Friendship Hall to a road that crosses in front of it. On the other side of the road are a number of single storey buildings called “Conference Row.” Two grey buildings on the western side are uninhabited, they used to be used by the Czech and Polish armies and monitored the JSA for North Korea. The next three are blue and under the control of the UN. The final building on the right is grey again, with tasteful net curtains in the window. This is the one we were told to keep an eye on, as now and again the North Koreans would pull the curtains to one side and point at us, or make throat-slitting actions. Running between the buildings, half-way along them, is a raised bit of concrete marking the MDL, the division between North and South. South of the line are pebbles, so the sound of footsteps can be heard, North it is sand.
It was across this line in 1984 that a Russian visitor to North Korea sprinted down to the sunken gardens south of the MDL, shouting that he wanted to defect, and causing a brief firefight that cost the life of one South Korean guard and three North Koreans. He was allowed to stay, as handing him back would have been a certain death penalty.
On the southern ends of the buildings, two South Korean soldiers stood, facing north, and half-obscured by the buildings to present less of a target. They were apparently there for our safety, and perhaps a bit of show too, but on a border with so much history of violence, I’d rather they were there than not. On the northern side a single soldier stood at the entrance to their equivalent of Friendship Hall, binoculars to his eyes. Several other pairs of eyes were assuredly watching us.
As Specialist Pollard told us some of the history and answered our questions, and whilst we were standing in two rows at the top of the steps leading down to the road, a handful of North Korean soldiers came down from the building on their side of the line and took it in turns to have their photograph taken with the South, and us, in the background. I assumed this was a fairly normal occurrence and the same soldiers do the same thing to each of the tour groups, perhaps mocking them. However, we were told it doesn’t happen all that often, and it could have been some soldiers towards the end of their 10 years of national service. Of course, perhaps they were allowed to do it on the condition they took the photographs when we were there too.
We then headed into the central building. Inside there are five polished tables, surrounded by chairs with leather upholstery, the sort of table and chairs you’d expect to find in a building that government ministers meet at. On the central table was a single, modestly sized UN flag. Above the southern door a frame with a collection of UN flags. This is all the national symbolism that is allowed in the room after previous episodes of meetings being held up whilst each side had to bring in a flag that was bigger than the other, and some instances of flags being defaced. At the far end of the room were two South Korean soliders, stock still, but looking like a taut spring, ready to strike. These soldiers are some of the cream of the South Korean army, experts in martial arts. They wear dark glasses to avoid eye contact with the enemy. After a barked order from Specialist Pollard, one of the soldiers moved to the head of the central table, and we had a few minutes to look around the room and cross the border into North Korea. It seems strange that walking from one side of a room to the other can feel so different, and perhaps the only reason it did was the build-up we’d been given, but there was a sense of being somewhere new, in an environment we weren’t fully in control of.
Next on the trip was supposed to be the Bridge of No Return. At the end of the war, both sides lined up prisoners of war, who were told they could go to either the north or the south, but once they chose, they could not go back. However, it was closed for renovation work.
The road to the next stop, Dora Observatory winds in a zig-zag up a hill. Either side of the road is fenced off with frequent signs warning of landmines. This is the place where we were supposed to have been able to glimpse into North Korea. At least, into the ‘propaganda’ village of Gijungdong, with its wide roads, 150m flagpole, and no inhabitants. Surely, if propaganda is your aim, then you’d build a town of narrow roads and flashing neon, like the centre of most Asian cities?
Some way back from the wall with a row binoculars (insert KRW500) is a yellow line that marks the limit at which you’re allowed to take photographs. Take any beyond that line and there are soldiers running backwards and forwards ensuring you delete them from your camera. Not that there was anything to take a photo of, the rain had started to pour down and fog had closed right in so all we could see was drab and grey. I didn’t know North Korea had such a command over the weather.
After lunch, the final stop on the tour was the “Third Tunnel,” so called because it was the third tunnel under the border to be discovered. So far four have been found, the first in 1974, another in 1975, the one we were visiting was found in 1978, and a fourth was discovered in 1990. They’re labelled “Infiltration Tunnels” by the South, as the suspicion is that they would have been used to bring an army into to the south. The suspicion is that there are more to be discovered.
The tunnel is another “no photography” zone. At the top I’d noticed other visitors emerging out of breath and dripping with sweat. The reason was less that the tunnel was stuffy and chlaustrophobic, but more to do with it being accessed through a 250m long passageway that descends 71m. Steep enough on the way down, never mind the return. The tunnels are much taller and wider than the ones I’d previously visited in Cu-Chi, outside Saigon, but I was still grateful for the hard hat, which I dinged on the supporting scaffolding and jagged roof several times.
Construction of the tunnels was an impressive feat, a two metre by two meter swathe cut through solid granite. If there had been seismic detectors deployed in the DMZ, they would certainly have picked up the amount of blasting that must have been necessary. We were told that through each of the tunnels the North would have been able to get 30,000 infiltrators an hour. That’s an impressive figure considering it means more than 8 per second. Even two by two, that is four rows of people passing a point every second.
After walking down the tunnel for about 170m we reached a steel door, with considerable amount of barbed wire in front of it, and a small window. All I saw through the window were more steel doors and more barbed wire.
To round off the trip we were shown a film that described the tunnels, their discovery, and the benfits of the DMZ as a wildlife resort and tourist destination. It played heavily on unification, something which may have felt within grasp when it was made a few years ago, but is temporarily further away. The train it was proud of, which I mentioned earlier, no longer runs.
On the bus back we were shown another film, “Korean War in Color” (their spelling). It spent about 75 minutes on the first two years, and the other 15 on the final two years, which might sound an odd balance, but seems to reflect on the progress of the war.