6 February 2014
…….or at least the scariest man-made place on earth.
Up at 5.15 for a 7.30am departure from a hitherto unknown part of Seoul. One of the reasons South Korea is so twitchy about the North is that Seoul is relatively close to the frontier and therefore it took little more than an hour to get to the DMZ. Although there has been an armistice since 1953, no peace treaty has ever been signed and so, technically, the two countries are still at war. We were therefore entering a war zone and it showed in all sorts of ways. Our passports were checked repeatedly, in most areas there was a ban on photography, and the landscape was characterised by tank traps, cleared woodland containing minefields, and razor wire.
Approaching the Joint Security Area the scary started to be accompanied by the bizarre. As we got near the actual boundary we had to walk in single file and all bags ,including handbags, had to be left behind on the tour bus. We had to stand on a plinth while we were given a briefing by a US soldier with the obligatory dark glasses and crew cut.
It seems that the reason for standing on the plinth was so that the North Korean soldiers in a nearby watchtower could take photographs of us (and also take potshots at us if they had a mind to do so). We were instructed not to look at, point at, or in any way gesture towards the North Korean watchtower. on the other hand we were allowed to take photographs looking ahead so snapped this North Korean soldier.
An interesting little point is that some South Korean soldiers appear to be guarding the corners of buildings. In fact this is to ensure that only half their body is a potential target in the event of attack. The poor soul standing in the middle whose entire body is open to attack is of a superior rank!
Incidentally, the concrete upstand between the two buildings marks the actual boundary.
We were then escorted into THE room ie. the room where all negotiations take place and where the negotiating table straddles the actual border.
Today the room was guarded inside and out by elite South Korean troops who adopted a martial arts stance. In fact we thought at first that they were dummies.
Inside the building we were free to move around and take photos. Half the room was in North Korea and half was in South Korea. We were subject to certain restrictions – we couldn’t touch the table or the chairs round it and we couldn’t go within 12 inches of any of the soldiers in the room. Despite the fact that both of us can say that we set foot in North Korea John is most disappointed that they didn’t stamp his passport!
Next stop was an observation point. From here we saw the Propaganda Village – so called because it is fake. The windows and doors were merely painted on and the buildings had no floors. Beside it was the North Korean flagpole – a mere 100 metres high, and with a flag so heavy that they have to lower it in adverse weather conditions. (This flagpole was erected to trump the earlier South Korean effort which was 60 metres high which itself outdid an earlier North Korean effort!) All this was symptomatic of how quite trivial matters get blown up out of all proportion.
More sinisterly, in the distance there was a large radio mast used to jam all radio communications. This may explain why we had no mobile phone signal at all while in Seoul. We saw the Bridge of No Return, so called because at the armistice prisoners were exchanged and were offered the chance to return home or remain in their country of captivity. If they crossed this bridge they were not permitted to return.
Nearby was the site of a particularly unpleasant incident in 1973: a detachment of US troops was cutting down a large tree which was preventing intervisibility between two observation points, when they were attacked by a much larger force of North Korean troops wielding axes. Two US troops were hacked to death and the incident provoked a major crisis resulting in the deployment of lots of US ground, air and naval forces in the wider area. This memorial, which is the same diameter as the tree they were cutting down, was erected in their memory.
Although standing in the South the other 3 sides were all North Korean territory. The silly grins on our faces were our attempt at staying relaxed.
Lunch was something that happened but not to be remarked upon save for a slight digression: we had previously commented that Korea seems a lot more like Japan than it does China. This was borne out by the toilets. Although they were spotlessly clean, I had the same problem that I had in Japan. With all the buttons and controls I couldn’t work out how to flush it!
After lunch we were taken to another observation point with a particularly panoramic view of the North. Yet again pettiness raised its head and we could only take photos from behind a yellow line some distance away from the edge of the viewing platform – rendering them virtually worthless.
An adjacent museum gave a good overall picture of the geography and in particular the models on display made up for the earlier prohibitions on photography.
The horizontal dotted line is the boundary, the blue buildings are the UN and the white buildings beyond the dotted line are North Korean.
The final visit of the day was to a tunnel. South Korea has so far discovered four tunnels dug by the North Koreans apparently with the intention of facilitating a future invasion of the South. One of these has been preserved and opened up for tourism. We, even John, went down. It was the equivalent depth of a 25 storey building. The length of this tunnel took us to within 100 metres of the frontier, Again restrictions applied and cameras, handbags and even mobile phones had to be left in lockers at the surface.
There is so much more that I could say but the above is a necessarily condensed version. We learnt a great deal and in particular our US army security mentor turned out to be highly informative, at times entertaining, and not at all like the Uncle Sam acolyte which he first appeared to be.
Tonight we are both reflective and thoughtful.