Sunday, February 11

The day I went to North Korea

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A television documentary on the KTX, South Korea's high-speed train, brought back memories of my brief visit to North Korea. In September 2003 I found myself in Seoul for a business meeting. With a weekend to fill I booked a day tour of the DMZ (Demiltarized Zone) that separates North and South Korea. The DMZ extends across the entire Korean peninsular for 248kms. It's a strip of land 4km wide, largely devoid of a regular human presence.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall it's become one of the world's last remaining vestiges of the Cold War. Seoul is less than 56kms south of the DMZ putting it in range of North Korean artillery. As a result, the border remains a highly militarized area, with troops constantly on high alert.

I was able to secure a last-minute cancellation seat on tour into the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom. Access to the JSA is restricted. Most Koreans are not permitted to enter the zone under any circumstance. As a result, on the day of my tour we were required to carry passports and dress smartly. We were warned that jeans were not permitted. Apparently North Korea has used photos of tourists in casual clothing as propaganda. It cites their casual dress as an example of Western disrespect for its status as a nation state.

As you approach Panmunjoem it becomes apparent that you're entering a war zone. Towering barbed wire fences line the highway preventing access to a river that marks the border between the two Koreas. At regular intervals, towers with armed guards monitor the surrounding area. Military vehicles, including tanks can be seen from time to time.

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Our first stop was the Freedom Bridge. This old wooden structure just outside the DMZ was the main transfer point for POW exchanges at the end of the Korean War. The experience is rather surreal. As you cross the trestle bridge you eventually come to a barbed wire fence barring entry into the DMZ itself. Here flowers, protest flags and banners are piled against the fence.

Local Koreans throng around these emblems of peace. This is as close as they're ever permitted to get to North Korea. The scene becomes increasingly surreal as US servicemen off duty, but still in uniform, stop to take their photo in front of the jumbled emblems. Their presence is sobering reminder that the area remains on a war footing.

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Our next stop was Camp Bonifas on the southern edge of the DMZ. Outside the camp we were greeted by a Military Police escort which remained with us throughout the tour. After a brief lunch and the ubiquitous multimedia presentation, we reboarded our bus and headed towards the JSA. At this point the sense of danger increases dramatically. First, our escort loads his weapon with live ammunition. Signs outside the bus remind military personnel to wear kevlar helmets. Our tour was then joined by an armed vehicle mounted with machine guns and filled with armed soliders.

A short ride takes you into the JSA itself. Here, straddling the border between the two Koreas, lies five UN-blue huts. The hut in middle is known as the Armistice Hut. Inside sparodic peace talks are held. The hut is guarded by Korean soldiers striking an aggressive closed-fist pose. Each man stands with half his body projecting from the side of the hut giving him partial protection from enemy fire. Bullets really have been fired across this space on more than one occasion.

Behind this string of huts loom two concrete Freedom Halls - one on the North side of the border and one on the South side. These were built in the 1990s after the introduction of South Korea's Sunshine Policy of engagement towards its neighbour. The North Korean building has a fake floor on top added after the taller South Korean building was completed.

Our tour was permitted to climb an observation tower beside the Freedom Hall. From here one could clearly see the border area, the soldiers on both sides and bright blue huts in between. It's an unnerving experience. Less than 200 metres away on the opposite hillside sit men with loaded weapons pointed in your direction.

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Approaching the Armistice Hut itself was another unnerving moment. Before exiting Freedom Hall we were instructed by our Military Police escort to walk at a steady pace, in single file towards the building. We were warned not to stray from the group. These instructions were repeated more than once. We were also reminded that the area was a war zone and that soliders on both sides have "shoot to kill" orders. I guess it doesn't get much clearer than that!

Armed soldiers then escorted our group across the open space between the Freedom Hall and the Armistice Hut. They flanked us on either side, motioning for the group to continue moving at a steady pace. Inside the hut sat a simple dark wooden table. It was placed exactly halfway across the border. On one side is South Korea, on the opposite is the territory of North Korea. A solider stood to attention at the end of the table straddling the border. A second solider stood guard at the opposite end of the hut blocking the doorway leading to the North Korean side of the DMZ.

Our tour group spent almost half an hour inside the Armistice Hut. After some brief instructions we were invited to walk around the table and enter North Korea. We were also permitted to take photos with the solider guarding the northern door. You can see me with him at the top of this posting. I spent more than 15 minutes north of the table visiting the hermit state of North Korea. Through the hut's windows you can see South Korean soldiers striking their pose, partially protected by the neighbouring hut. A line of concrete between the huts marks the border. It's clear you're north of this line.

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The remainder of the afternoon was spent visiting other infamous locations within the JSA. From a military vantage point you could see Gijong-dong in the North. The Americans call this Propoganda Village. This entire town is a fake. It was built to tempt soldiers north and is completely uninhabited. Timer switches light up its windows each evening to give the impression of villagers at home. In the centre of the village an enormous, ugly girder flagpole, said to be the world's largest, proudly flies the North Korean flag. Large billboards on the hillside proclaim the joy of living in the North.

The final stop inside the JSA took us past a memorial near a short bridge that crosses a stream into North Korea. It was here in 1976 that two American soldiers were hacked to death by axe-welding North Korean soldiers. The Americans had attempted to trim trees obscuring views of the bridge from a nearby observation tower.

Charles Jenkins, the renowned US serviceman, also defected to North Korea at this point. He finally returned to the West in July 2004, was charged with desertion and aiding the enemy, served 24 days confinement and given a dishonourable discharge. Today he lives in Japan with his wife, who'd been abducted from Japan in 1978 by North Korean agents.

After more than four hours inside the JSA our bus finally departed the DMZ, leaving its armed escort to prepare for another night on high alert. As we drove back in South Korea I paused to reflect. I'd actually visited North Korea and witnessed part of Cold War history still frozen in time.

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