Saturday, March 05, 2005

Panmunjeom and the DMZ

The journey from Pyongyang to the Demilitaried Zone (DMZ) is a couple of hours by road, but the journey says much about the oddly confused rhetoric of North Korea. The drive is a majestic trip down the Reunification Highway - a six lane highway that runs from Pyongyang to the border, and then one day hopefully to Seoul, 60km further south. It's a top quality road, wide and smooth, with a crisp easy glide that makes time pass quickly. It's also a ghost road, with barely a handful of vehicles ever using it. One day it may become a major trade route, but as it is now it's a road that leads to a place that people don't really want to go to, and don't have the vehicles to get there even if they wanted to.

On the road to Seoul.


Along the way we passed through the Reunification Arch, with an oft-repeated symbol that may one day by the symbol of One Korea. We also passed through numerous well constructed tunnels which passed through the mountains that obscure the path. The engineering was surprisingly good, and we were informed along the way by our guide that the road had been built by the Korean People's Army, in one of their more useful projects.

Aint to mountain high enough...


After spending the night in the nearby town of Kaesong, we headed down to the DMZ bright and early on a Friday morning. First up was an NK observation post, patrolled by a small team of lazy but content soldiers, no doubt satisfied that this morning was going to be no different to the tens of thousands which preceded it, and there would be little to actually observe over the DMZ. Through half a dozen binoculars, would could see out to the concrete barrier constructed by the south to protect itself from northern tunnel diggers, as well as the SK flag fluttering in the sky. The scene appeared strangely peaceful, with few soldiers visable in front of us, and a wild collection of flora and fauna dominating the vista. Perhaps if we were keen on a bit of 'Extreme Bird Watching' then we would have been in our element. Otherwise, a little underwhelming. The solider guiding us around this site became increasingly playful, and after the usual respectful photos of him and the group, he played along as we each took turns wearing his KPA hat around and just generally saw the absurdity in this absurd place.

Now you've worn my hat, you think like me.


After stopping at the obligatory souvenier stand to buy a serve of Ginseng and propaganda, we moved into a room with a small relief map of the DMZ. Through a translator, the soldier on duty pointed out the various attractions contained within one of the most hotly contested 4km strips of land in the world. It was here that the recurring DMZ theme emerged - the Northerners believe they have been harshly dealt with by the Southerners, and if the south would only be reasonable, things would be okay.

Every step you take, I'll be watching you.


A basic security check later, we found ourselves inside the DMZ. Looking up, you notice the two prominant flags phallicly pointing skyward. Close to us was an enormous DPRK flag fluttering in the cool winter breeze, whilst a short distance ahead of us a large RoK flag also marked its territory. The flags appear remarkably close together, and it is jarring to think of just how trecherous a journey it is to go from one flag to the other.

Finally, we moved on to Panmunjeom, the front line between North and South Korea. Whilst this site is visited from the south by hundreds of tourists daily, those approaching from the northern side are just a trickle. Which is strange, really, given that car parking is much easier on the northern side. A series of small buildings are built across the DMZ, and we were free to wander within them. At the back of the mind is the thought that if we were to attempt to leave from a different door to the one we entered from, we would probably by shot. Nonetheless, inside we noted the SK tribute to its allies during the Korean War (a rather odd collection including Luxembourg, Thailand, Colombia, Ethiopia and Australia) that would seem tempting at an All You Can Eat bistro, but perhaps not so much in military combat.

Where the action is.


Outside the buildings, soldiers from both sides eye each other off disdainfully. On the southern side, the combined SK and US forces stand with weapons by the side, appearing bored and looking like they're on a permanent smoko. The northern soldiers, however, stand to attention and offer their most threatening menace. Given the monumental lack of action at the DMZ over time, the menace seems a little unnecessary. Given the proximity and the boredom, it seems likely that there is some small talk that goes on between soldiers across the divide, although there was none evident when we were there.

All quiet on the southern front.


Moving away from Panmunjeom, we visited other sites of historical interest in the DMZ. Included in it is the table over which negotiations occurred more than one hundred times during the Korean War. Interestingly, whilst the North always represented itself at these discussions, the South were representated by the UN, usually through the US military. One wonders whether the presense of non-Koreans at the negotiating table made the North psychologically less willing to compromise. We also visted the site where the armistice agreement was eventually signed in 1953. In the Northern telling of history, those pesky Southerners capitulated to the might of the North, and begged for mercy, which the North in its compassionate wisdom granted. Not negotiation, but capitulation, according to the North.

With this thought fresh in our minds, we headed back for Pyongyang, having completed our DMZ experience. Like most tourists in this part of the world, we'd only ever seen the DMZ from one side - although for very few is that side the north.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

excellent observations great stuff S

Jesskimo said...

Really interesting reading, Ari. I particularly like the photos!