The De-Militarised Zone: the DMZ for short. It’s the border territory dividing North from South Korea. Bill Clinton called it, “The scariest place on earth”. And it’s where we went on the last full day of our tour.
The DMZ, scarily enough, is only 40 kilometres away from Seoul. For us though, heading to the DMZ from Pyongyang, it was a two-and-a-bit hour bus ride down the cracked and pot-holed Reunification Highway.
Google Maps says that the journey should take only one and a half hours by car, but road conditions and the fact that we were in a bus aside, we also made a couple of stops along the way.
The first stop was at the Arch of Reunification, about fifteen minutes out from our hotel. The Arch consists of two Korean women in traditional dresses reaching out towards each other over the road and jointly holding a disc bearing a picture of the entire north-south Korean land mass.
We all hopped out, took our snaps of the monument and of the empty road. While I stood on the curb gazing at the monument, one of the tour guides approached me and asked me to guess which woman represented South Korea.
‘Um… The less attractive one?’ I joked.
‘No, they’re both identical,’ he replied. ‘They represent a single, united Korea.’
I looked upon the monument again, this time with a deeper appreciation for its symbolism. Regardless of the politics, I can’t help admiring things which people have imbued with great meaning. I even felt a little ashamed at my quip.
On the bus ride, we were treated to commentary by Miss Pak about the Korean War. We had already been primed for some aspects of the talk, having visited the DPRK war museum. Miss Pak emphasised the collective Korean desire for reunification and certainty that this day would come.
Our next stop was for a toilet and drinks break. There was no lighting in the bathroom, and per usual the water for flushing your squat toilet and washing your hands was contained in a massive barrel with a plastic saucepan dunked into it, and there was no toilet paper or soap. That’s one thing I don’t miss about DPRK. The amenities.
The scenery outside our windows was largely unremarkable. Barren fields covered in patches of snow, spindly trees, mountains in the distance. The odd frozen body of water. I perked up though and pressed my nose and camera lens to the window whenever we approached islands of civilisation. I was keen to observe what I could of life outside the show city of Pyongyang.
Occasionally we’d pass someone on a bike or just… walking. Out there in the middle of nowhere, seemingly miles away from anything purposeful.
As we got closer to the DMZ, things started to get a little interesting. By this stage, Joseph had joined me in the back of the bus so he could sort the presents for our Korean guides. We started passing great concrete columns that straddled the road. In querying these, Joe replied that at the base of those columns lie explosives. Should enemy forces try to advance up the highway, detonating the explosives would create a barricade and prevent them from proceeding any further.
Joe gestured to the hills that bordered the highway. ‘If you look closely, you might catch sight of a sentinel. There are a few of them hiding in the hills, on alert.’
We both peered out the window, eyeing the hills intently. I took some photos of the hills to examine later. I’d been very trigger-happy, actually, on the bus ride, but at one point Joe politely reminded me that we weren’t technically meant to be taking any photos of the countryside. The north Koreans are concerned that photos of the countryside will give those viewing them a misleading impression of DPRK. He added that the bus driver behind us could probably see me snapping away out the back window.
I put my camera away.
We were given the official warning to stow away our cameras as we neared the checkpoint at the entrance to the DMZ. At some point a bit before or after that, our bus, and the buses behind and in front of us that were part of the greater tourist convoy, were stopped while some paperwork was checked. Then about a hundred metres from the checkpoint, the buses stopped again and we all disembarked.
It’s an oddity and an irony of sorts when the gateway to the “scariest place on earth” is also home to a large gift shop. We were encouraged to peruse the counters of herbal products, handicraft, t-shirts proclaiming that we’d visited the DMZ, and paintings of such scenes as an adult tiger in a rainforest setting, before being ushered into a room that held a large fixed map of the DMZ and two framed portraits of the deceased Dear Leaders.
In this room, a serious-looking soldier with a pointer stick illustrated where we were on the map and where we were headed to. Miss Pak translated for the soldier, who spoke in Korean. After the mini-lecture was over, we were free to take photos.
Then it was out another door that took us back outside. After we’d all gathered, we were instructed to line up in two-single file lines. There was no talking, no joking, and definitely no photography. Our buses, which had been idling, now rolled past us, through the checkpoint and across a wooden bridge. I watched, wondering why we weren’t on them.
We were told to walk with our arms by our sides in our formations through a narrow open-air passage ringed with barbed wire, and then down a wooden bridge to the other side of the checkpoint. If my memory doesn’t deceive me, we walked past the very booby-trapped columns we had been “admiring” from the road.
From there, we were able to board our bus again, which took us through the DMZ and into the Joint Security Area.
There are a row of demountables, or “huts” that sit on the border, which were/are used for negotiations between the two sides. Just beyond the huts, on both sides, are the main watch houses/control centres for each side – Panmon Hall on the DPRK side and the Home of Freedom on the other.
During our visit, we were told that when DPRK is hosting tourists, the South Korean soldiers make themselves scarce. And indeed, when we were there it was almost as though the south side was unpatrolled.
As you can see in the photo below, three of the row of demountables are blue. The middle one is the only one visitors are allowed to enter, and it is the only place where the border is porous.
A soldier delivered a brief talk about the room, translated by Ms Pak. He referred to the table in the centre of the room, and pointed out the South Korean side from the north. When he finished, everyone got busy with their cameras. Group members waited in turns to pose, shaking hands, across the negotiating table.
The photo below showing an example of this very scene, I feel, is sort of unique – it depicts two of the three Brothers Karamazov, who are half-French, half-South Korean.
This particular site visit was the only time we were permitted to photograph DPRK soldiers. Throughout our time in Pyongyang, we had been told strictly to avoid doing so out of respect.
And so it was that our group got a photo with one of the soldiers at Panmon Hall, overlooking the border.
We stood there, our faces frozen in grins, while Ms Pak and Mr Cho took turns taking photos with the array of cameras that hung from their arms. A DPRK soldier out of frame, wearing Top Gun-esque ray bans, watched on with amusement.
The soldiers at the JSA were decidedly much warmer than those back at the checkpoint. For both groups though, there’s no doubting that they’ve seen many more tourists than they have action.
There isn’t a whole lot I remember about Panmon Hall, but I do recall one detail about the concrete staircase that led to the level where we walked out onto the balcony and had the group shot. I walked up those stairs with the guy in my group who I crushed on (though I swear this isn’t the only reason why the detail stuck in my mind), and we noted the pair of golden hooks that were embedded on opposite ends of the vertical faces of each step. We guessed at the purpose of these hooks, and now that I think about it, I think he was right. They must’ve been for some sort of cord that would help to keep a (red) carpet firmly adhered to each step of the stairs.
We were escorted from Panmon Hall back onto our bus by one of the soldiers. The soldier rode with us to our next destination – the former village of Panmunjeom. It’s here where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, bringing the Korean War to an official end.
The building where the armistice was signed was later turned into the North Korea Peace Museum, where we were set loose to roam, watched on by a soldier (who obligingly posed for photos).
Three green-topped tables hold some artefacts from the signing beneath plexiglass cases, including a battered copy of the armistice. A square of the UN flag lies under one case, aged into one homogenous flap of pale brown.
Ms Pak proudly declared that the UN (or was it the Americans?) had later tried to reclaim the flag, citing some sort of conspiracy to pretend they’d never been there. But DPRK refused and so it remains in DPRK’s possession.
Touring a giant, cold room decorated with various military-themed pictures of the Dear Leaders past and present was a bit of a comedown after the excitement of earlier. So we didn’t mind all that much when we were rounded up again to be taken to Kaesong – the only city to have escaped serious bombardment during the Korean War.
The end is nigh – my next post on our fleeting visit to Kaesong and afterwards, Sariwon, will be the last in this North Korea series.
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