In the balmy summer of 1989, there were two major global events taking place which would change the course of modern history as we know it. The first was a chain reaction of radical political changes, including the liberalisation of the Eastern Bloc’s authoritarian systems and the erosion of political power in the pro-Soviet governments, leading to the destruction of the Berlin wall; and the second, occurring a little further west, was my 4th birthday party where I was enjoying not only an excellent bouncy castle, but also that most coveted of childhood birthday accoutrements – a caterpillar cake. I’ll let you decide which was more crucial in shaping the modern socio-political word we know today.
Unfortunately 16 years on, with the Berlin wall smashed to bits and distributed throughout the world’s museums, Korea has yet to learn the lesson of the caterpillar cake, and so remains the only divided country in the world. Officially split in half along the 38th Parallel, Korea is now divided into two distinct sovereign states by the 4km wide, 250km long Korean Demilitarised Zone (D.M.Z for short) – The Republic of Korea (South Korea) sits on one side, and the infamous, almost mystical, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea) on the other.
The most heavily militarised border in the world, between two countries who are still officially at war isn’t the obvious choice for a tourist attraction, but with the establishment of the D.M.Z. that’s exactly what this place has become, and thousands of tourists a year head here in the hope of a glimpse of the global quandary that is North Korea.
With only a couple of days left in Seoul before my flight onto the Philippines, I thought I would follow the tourist trail, and see how close to North Korea it would allow me to get. There are two options for tourists, the standard D.M.Z. tour, and the ‘proper’ tour which heads into the Joint Security Area (J.S.A.) and allows you to see the arbitrary line which has been drawn (literally) between these two countries. The J.S.A tour seemed like the best option, if only for the photo opportunity with a North Korean soldier in one of the ‘peace rooms’ where the line continues to run down the middle of the room, and even onto the table, and is where all the peace talks since the establishment of the D.M.Z. have taken place.
Unfortunately due to my failure to consult the latest copy of ‘Herbs and their Festivals’ magazine, I was unaware of the national Korean ginseng festival taking place near the border which clearly constituted a massive security risk, meaning the J.S.A tour was off limits. A more considerable risk may have been the incursion exactly two weeks prior to my visit by an 18 year old North Korean defector – it boosted my confidence that he apparently had to knock on the door of the South Korean barracks to let them know he had arrived after walking unnoticed across the D.M.Z.
Standard tour booked, I was up early and ready for my trip to North Korea – or at least as close as you can get to it without spending a fortune, or having government officials question your motives. Generally speaking I’m not a huge fan of organised tours, but for somewhere like the D.M.Z. there really isn’t another option, and so with a rapid, frantic knock at the door which set the pace of the day, I found myself being bundled into a black people carrier along with another 6 similarly confused and bleary eyed tourists. This wasn’t so bad I thought, an intimate small group of likeminded people, a comfortable ride, and a driver who seemed to be showcasing his impressive evasive manoeuvring skills which although unnecessary on the empty back streets at this time of the morning, might prove useful later on – I might have this organised tour business wrong.
Unfortunately this was only the transport to the 52 seater coach that was full to bursting with aging tourists complete with high socks, floppy hats, and enough cameras and accessories to make the paparazzi blush. I found a seat next to an eager American chap who immediately introduced himself and began showering me in Korean War facts and spittle before he was interrupted by our even more eager Korean tour guide called Sunshine: “Hi, call me Sunny!” Sunny by name, sunny by nature, I wasn’t sure this petit Korean lady with tourist board approved shirt and smile was the most suitable front woman for the highest concentration of military forces in the world, but I had been wrong before, and so tried to listen to what she had to say between bouts of “Did you know…” from my slobbery seat mate.
The bus pulled out into the organised traffic of Seoul, and headed north on the hours’ drive towards the D.M.Z. As we left the towering city behind Sunny began to tell us some of the rules and regulations of the day: No photos here…no photos of that statue…don’t talk about North Korea in this area…we only have 12 minutes 47 seconds at this place etc. It looked like it was going to be a day of being herded around like cattle, and not actually seeing very much, Mr projectile-saliva beside me could barely contain his excitement. As we approached the first checkpoint we drove alongside a river with our first hazy view of the barbed wire of the D.M.Z. on the other side. The side we were on was lined with guard towers, and more barbed wire to stop people getting blown up by the landmines which apparently get washed out of the fields into the river before being carried downstream towards the South Korean capital. Interestingly despite this, The D.M.Z. was the only place which was exempt from the USA’s 2014 pledge to eliminate anti-personnel mines.
After a few armed checkpoints “NO PHOTOS” and a South Korean soldier counting us twice like a diligent school trip leader, we drove across a bridge to our first stop of the day – the brilliantly named ‘third tunnel of aggression’. I wasn’t really sure how a tunnel could be aggressive, a shady alleyway -certainly, an underpass at night – perhaps, but tunnels have always seemed more functional than ferocious to me. This animated name wasn’t a mistake or a poor translation, it was another example of the not-so-subtle propaganda which became more and more apparent as the day went on – at every opportunity we would be reminded of North Korean ‘acts of aggression’, and how the war had been started by the North, and the only reason Korea was still divided was because the North wanted it to be. The same was true when I had visited the informative yet slightly biased Korean War museum in Seoul the day before, after realising that I knew next to nothing about the conflict in Korea. Although I did learn about the origins of the conflict, and some of the key facts and dates, (in between posing for pictures with South Korean school children – their idea not mine!) the main message I came away with was how everything was the North’s fault followed by a wealth of examples of how they had broken the armistice and continued to attack the South – needless to say the ‘aggression tunnels’ featured heavily.
Although we were only allowed to spend 20 minutes at the site, this was long enough to walk down into one of the four discovered tunnels (although there are believed to twenty more!) which were dug under the D.M.Z by the North. Each tunnel was a staging point for an invasion, and it’s reported that they could deliver 30,000 fully armed troops from the North into the South an hour! One of the tunnels is apparently even big enough for tanks – alas not the third one though, no, the third tunnel seemed only big enough for toy soldiers considering the number of times I hit my head on the rusty girders lining the ceiling, providing a route for the rusty water to drip down my tourist board approved yellow hard hat and onto my face. Obviously we weren’t able to walk the full length of the tunnel which at a length of 1.7 km would take you almost into North Korea proper, instead we were allowed to walk about 400m through the tunnel before our progress was halted by a substantial brick and concrete wall with a small, thick, Perspex viewing window built in to allow us to peer into the abyss towards the ‘traitorous’ North. I couldn’t help but think North Korea were missing a golden opportunity to station a soldier on the other side of the wall to wave at the tourists as they shuffled past.
There were dozens of coaches all full with tourists being herded around which made the tunnel more like a conveyor belt than an exhibit, but the concept was intriguing, and the crudely placed gift shop as you exited the tunnel also sold cheap cornettos – a dream in the muggy afternoon, so it wasn’t a wasted trip. Along with various other patriotic trinkets, the gift shop also sold “genuine” North Korean brandy, which I was tempted to buy as I thought it would be a great talking point at a dinner party; that was until I realised that I don’t go to many dinner parties, and am not really a fan of brandy, so I decided to wait until I actually get the chance to visit North Korea for real, and settled on a very authentic South Korean mint cornetto instead.
Next stop on the Sunshine express was the observation post, where you could look through a set of telescopes clearly stolen from a British coastal town, across the D.M.Z. in the direction of North Korea. We were only allowed 15 minutes here, and with an uncharacteristic frown, Sunny reminded us that we were absolutely not, under any circumstances, allowed to take photographs over the very official looking yellow line which had been painted on the floor towards the back of the observation post. Why the yellow line was there in the first place, I’m not sure, as unless you had a giant camera lens with some serious zoom (which is fairly conspicuous) you really wouldn’t be able to take a picture of very much other than a hazy hill – certainly nothing of significant strategic importance, which is probably why “The Yellow Line Rule” was being enforced by a single, timid looking South Korean soldier armed only with a microphone and a whistle against literally hundreds of tourists who were clearly flaunting the rules and taking pictures over the yellow line. I’m not sure what this poor soldier had done to deserve this duty, but he was going about it with all the passion and commitment of a bad supply teacher, with people taking pictures behind his back, distracting him, and generally not paying attention to anything he said. I did see him ask one person to delete a photo, and during the subsequent discussion, I took the initiative, and in a flurry of school boy mischief I managed to sneak a picture of North Korea – a picture which showed absolutely nothing but a slight orange haze, and so was subsequently deleted. (For any Korean military officials reading this, this is most definitely not an omission of guilt, and I’m very sorry for stepping over the line, and I promise not to do it again.)
The view through the telescopes was also nothing more than an orange haze, but I did manage to see some factory buildings, a line of people which looked like soldiers (but almost certainly weren’t), and the giant flag pole which at 160m tall used to be the tallest flag pole in the world built by the North in the 1980s in reply to South’s feeble 98.4m effort sparking the so called ‘Flagpole war’. The North Korean flag flying atop this apparent declaration of war is reported to be the heaviest flag in the world, although I’m almost certain that the South would disagree. (Personally speaking I think the one flying in the Zocalo in Mexico City would give any flag a run for its money.)
The final stop on the ‘Tour’ was arguably the most interesting, and certainly the most forward thinking with regards to the possibility of the reunification of Korea. The newly refurbished and eerily empty Dorasan station stands as a chrome and glass testament to the possibility of a peaceful future between the two sides. Currently it marks the northern most station on the mainline from Seoul with only the odd cargo train being allowed into the D.M.Z. to deliver raw materials and to return with manufactured goods from the joint industrial area; but with the establishment of this station and its northward winding tracks, South Korea is now (in a physical sense at least) connected to Europe by rail. This has huge social and economic implications, and could be the start of a whole new European-Asian economic trade route, but unfortunately until the D.M.Z. goes the way of the Berlin wall, the great idea of travelling by train from London Waterloo to Seoul via Pyongyang will have to remain just that – a great idea.
The optimistic map on the wall of the spotless station alluded to this future, and I hope that perhaps one day it will be possible, but for now I bought a souvenir ticket, and posed for some photos with the friendlier South Korean soldiers who were redundantly sat guarding an empty station, and seemed to welcome the distraction. Once again time was of the essence, and we only had a matter of minutes at the station before we were back on the bus and being asked to handover our cash as the bus raced back towards Seoul. I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t awed by the experience, if I’m brutally honest, then I felt I had been a little bit cheated – the whole day had seemed quite gimmicky and geared up to make as many tourist dollars as possible. Yet, politically speaking, I had just been to one of the most unique places on the planet, an area steeped in propaganda, with an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty covered over with a thin venire of organised tours and cornettos. The truth of the matter is the D.M.Z. is a fragile line across an active war zone, a war which still claims casualties as soldiers from both sides push their luck in a bid to gain the upper hand. The future for Korea as a unified country is more than uncertain, North Korean politics are a widely reported enigma, and until there is a significant culture change I’m unsure there can ever be peace on the 38th parallel, but when that day does come, and one day it will, you can be sure I’ll be at Waterloo station with a ticket to Seoul in my hand.
Andy Browning © 2015