06 September 2008

The Korean DMZ

As I prepare for my latest Seoul visit, I went through some photos from my previous visits. These photos, from my June 2004 trip (which had started very nicely, with a free upgrade to business class on United Airlines), stood out, as it marked my visit to the world's most heavily armed border (and North Korea itself, for a few minutes).

I had to reserve three days in advance through an authorized travel agency in Seoul, so that the United Nations command would be able to put together a list of visitors, and share it with the North Koreans. South Korean and Chinese visitors need to apply 60 days in advance for background checks. Nations that have been blacklisted by the United States (the leader of the UN command), such as Cuba and Iran, cannot send their nationals on this tour. As I reserved, I was informed of strict dress codes in effect - for example, my trademark miniskirt suits were not welcome.

This is a memorial at Imjingak Pavilion, on the shores of the Imjin River. On National Highway 1, which used to be the main road between Seoul and Pyongyang, this is as far north as most people can get without special permission. Lots of South Koreans, mostly the elderly who had left their families behind in North Korea, linger here. I felt fortunate to be able to go a bit further north than them.

Imjin River. A restored railroad bridge (on the left) leads to Dorasan Station, South Korea's last station on the Seoul-Pyongyang-Sinuiju-Beijing rail line. Dorasan Station was made famous for W's visit there in February 2002. My tour, which covered the Panmunjom Joint Security Area (JSA), didn't include Dorasan Station, and due to W's presence, I am in no hurry to go back.

Since last December, South Korean freight trains have been running into North Korea once a day, to serve a South Korean industrial park in the city of Kaesong. The industrial park is also served by a new South Korean road as well as South Korean electric power; South Korea's then-President, Roh Moo-hyun, used that road last year to drive to Pyongyang.

At Imjingak, I could also find this "Peace Stone" collection. These stones were collected from noteworthy battlefields all over the world, and put on display to wish for a peaceful unification of Korea. Barring any nasty surprises, most people believe that the Korean unification will follow the German model, with North Korea gradually opening its society up and integrating itself into South Korea. The hard part is the opening up, as the cult of Kim Jong-il is much harder to maintain in an open society.

Crossing the Imjin River, I had to go through a checkpoint, on the Civilian Limit Line. A soldier checked my passport against a list of authorized visitors for the day, before letting me through.

This United Nations-owned Hyundai Aero City bus, with US Army plates, took me into the actual demilitarized zone (DMZ). Only UN vehicles are allowed on the southern side of the DMZ.

A short drive on the UN bus brought me to Camp Bonifas, right outside the DMZ and administered by the US Army. Here are the flags of the sixteen nations that contributed troops to the United Nations command to defend South Korea during the Korean War; a further five nations sent non-combat personnel.

Ballinger Hall at Camp Bonifas, where I was briefed on what to expect at the JSA, including how to identify UN and North Korean personnel and buildings. I was warned not to gesture at the North Koreans, as they could use my gestures for propaganda purposes. Finally, I was required to sign a waiver, in English and prepared by the UN, US, and South Korean forces, stating that my safety could not be guaranteed in the unlikely case of enemy hostile action.

After the briefing, I re-boarded the bus to enter the DMZ itself, after passing through some of Camp Bonifas' facilities, such as a swimming pool and a one-hole golf course. No photos were allowed for any of these. The DMZ looked deceptively lush and peaceful, even though it was covered with thousands of land mines. The DMZ also featured a South Korean agrarian village, Daeseong-dong, with a small population exempt from income taxes and military draft. The village is best known for a 100-meter high flagpole, the highest in the free world. I also noted that inside the DMZ, speed limits were posted in miles per hour, due to the US Army administration.

I arrived at the JSA, where I was required to leave all bags on the bus for security reasons. I was led into a Military Armistice Commission (MAC) building right on the border. This frame has the flags of the US, UN, South Korea, and the other pro-South participants of the Korean War; the flags are now plastic, because when they used to be cloth, North Koreans used the American flag to wipe their shoes.

A South Korean military policeman stands guard inside the MAC building. The table in front is placed right on the border. By the way, I have crossed into the northern side of the border. This is the first time since my parents' families fled North Korea in the 1940s, that someone from either family has ever returned to North Korea.

The concrete hump is the border. I am still on the northern side, hastily covered with dirt, while the southern side is nicely covered in gravel.

Inside this MAC building, I can freely cross the border at will. But outside the building, crossing the border is an extremely bad idea, sure to cause at least a gunfight and leave a few soldiers dead. That's exactly what happened in 1983, when a Soviet tour guide, on a northern tour, defected south and asked to be taken to the US; several North Koreans and a South Korean died during the gunfight.

I returned south, entering South Korea's Freedom House and its pagoda. Here is a look back north from the pagoda. In the back is North Korea's main building here, Panmungak, very wide but very shallow. It tries to be imposing with its Stalinist architecture, a hastily added third floor, and its location at the highest point of the JSA, but it can't keep up with South Korean buildings. Note a North Korean soldier at the top of the Panmungak staircase.

In front are the MAC buildings. Blue buildings are UN-owned, while gray ones are North Korean-owned. Southern visitors, like me, may enter only blue buildings; conversely, northern visitors are allowed only in gray buildings.

A view southwest from the Freedom House pagoda. To the right is the UN bus and a portion of the Freedom House itself. Ahead is the Peace House, another South Korean building. To the left in the distance is the North Korean town of Kijongdong.

A North Korean watchtower, as seen from the Freedom House. I can't see the North Koreans, but they are in there, watching my every move.

An American soldier and a South Korean military policeman on duty at the Freedom House.

A better look at the North Korean village of Kijongdong, which has no residents at all and is maintained purely for propaganda value. The flagpole stands 160 meters tall, and is the tallest in the world.

A propaganda sign on the North Korean side. It reads: "Hail General Kim Jong-il, the Shining Sun of the 21st Century!" Never mind that Kim, like W, never had real military service.

In the foreground, a rusty sign marks the border. Lots of land mines in this landscape.

In the background to the left, another North Korean propaganda sign is visible. It reads: "Our General Is Number One!" The General, of course, is Kim Jong-il.

This marks the spot where two American soldiers, including Arthur Bonifas (the namesake of Camp Bonifas), were axed to death by North Korean soldiers, in August 1976. The two had been trimming a tree standing on this spot, as part of Operation Paul Bunyan, to improve visibility. Prior to this incident, all of the JSA was open to both sides; afterwards, each side had to stay on its side of the border. The North Koreans had reported to their posts through southern territory, using the Bridge of No Return (see next photo); no longer allowed to do so, they put up the 72-Hour Bridge further north. In the meantime, the tree in question was completely cut down.

The Bridge of No Return, site of the POW exchange after the end of the war. The bridge got its name because the former POWs were allowed to pick one side, and once the choice was made, never allowed to go back. The border runs through the middle. President Bill Clinton walked all the way up to the border. W attempted to do the same, but visiting on the heels of his "Axis of Evil" speech, was advised not to.

I returned to Camp Bonifas to buy a few souvenirs, and to sign the visitor log wishing for a peaceful unification of Korea. A South Korean group, from conservative Busan, was also visiting - and their visitor log comments emphasized less peace and more freedom in Korean unification. Afterwards, I hopped back on the civilian bus, and passed the Civilian Limit Line again to return to the civilian world. From there on, it was only 20 minutes to the suburbs of Seoul - a very disturbing thought.

The JSA is only 10 kilometers from the historical city center of Kaesong, a former capital and a city full of sights. The next time I go up to the border, I want to go all the way to Kaesong. Of course, North Korea needs to open up a little more, and pledge that the money I spend on them will be used to rebuild the economy instead of fattening its military. Bus tours from Seoul to Kaesong have been running for a few years, but are currently suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard in the Diamond Mountains on the east coast, and attempts at investigation have only led to finger-pointing (partly because North Korea is as fed up with South Korea's current President Lee Myung-bak as I am).