Cables from Korea #4: my brush with North Korea


2016-02-26 11.27.02.jpgGenerally, the end of the Cold War has made many international borders considerably less dramatic. There was a time when going between East and West Berlin, or Mainland China and Hong Kong meant facing the risk you’d be shot. I’ve done both journeys on the metro without any special paperwork. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula is an exception.

It is generally a mistake to see the frozen conflict between the Koreas as an extension of the Cold War. Rather than being the Stalinist holdover North Korea is often assumed to be, it makes sense to see it as a replica of Imperial Japan: a totalitarian state obsessed with racial purity and built around a hereditary figurehead who is treated as divine. Nonetheless, when you go the border who really do feel like you’ve stumbled into the Bridge of Spies. There are guard towers, razor wire fences and even a Checkpoint Charlie.

As you might imagine the experience of visiting the nascent battlefields of a potential third world war can be both disturbing and surreal. The most obvious and brutal irony is that the 250 km long Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that splits the Korean peninsula is enveloped by three of the largest armies in the world. A fact you are aware of throughout the trip. Our coach was regularly sandwiched between trucks packed with gun wielding soldiers. Our passports were probably checked half a dozen times. Where you can take photos is severely restricted, apparently for fear North Korean spies get hold of them. Many of the roads were lined with heavy blocks and ‘Czech hedgehogs’ that make them impassable for tanks. On a similar theme, the American soldier who accompanied us for part of the trip told us that some of the bridges we were driving over were rigged with C4, so they could be destroyed if that proved necessary to prevent the North Koreans crossing them.

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Offsetting all of this is the strange fact that the DMZ is in effect the world’s largest bird sanctuary. Humans stay out, so wildlife gets the chance to thrive. I’m no birdwatcher but I nonetheless managed to spot some impressive eagle and cranes.

The most disturbing fact about it all is that it’s less than hour’s drive from Seoul. Indeed the anti-fence that keeps out North Korean infiltrators begins before the city ends. That one of the largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world is 30km from a totalitarian nightmare is not only a brutal irony but makes you fear for what would happen if there ever is a war.

During the day my group saw a number of things:

  • One of the tunnels the North Koreans dug to try and get under the DMZ;
  • The Bridge of No Return over which the prisoner exchanges at the end of the war were conducted;
  • The Dora observatory from which you can – using binoculars – see into North Korea and the Kaesong industrial complex that was mothballed followed the recent nuclear tests; and
  • And final South Korean stop on the dormant Seoul-Pyongyang rail line.
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Note the contradiction between the two boards.

However, the most evocative place was the Joint Security Area (JSA). As its name implies the rival militaries generally have to stay out of the DMZ. But in the JSA they come face-to-face. Literally so; the American and South Korean soldiers based there have to wear sunglasses because this stops them making eye contact with their North Korean counterparts and thereby reduces the number of fights that break out.

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The conference rooms at the JSA. The building in the background is North Korean. If you look closely you can see a North Korean soldier in the doorway.

From a tourist’s point of view, this is your opportunity to actually see North Koreans. While you are kept a fair distance away, you can nonetheless spot North Korean soldiers standing sentry in front of their base. According to the GI showing us around, while American and South Korean soldiers are rotated every few hours, the North Koreans have to stand guard for 24 hours at a time without a break; a small but telling example of the disregard with which the system treats the individuals within it.

At the JSA there are a couple of conference lines which span the border line. They exist to allow the two sides to hold meetings. But they also give tourists a chance to go ‘into’ North Korea. That’s of course true in only the most technical sense. A South Korean soldier enters the room before you do and locks the door from the inside. They then stand guard to prevent you from trying to get through into North Korea properly. Nonetheless, for a moment you are north of the border line and therefore in territory that is in some sense North Korean.

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North of the border line

As artificial experience as this clearly is, it’s nonetheless humbling. Talking about ‘the line between freedom and tyranny’ seems uncomfortably George W. Bush like to me. But in Korea such a line is very real and in the JSA you can not only see it but actually cross it.

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