North Korea South Korea border

North-South Korea border: zone of fear and hope

Despite a slight easing of tension in the Korean Peninsula, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea remains the world’s most volatile border.

As often happens in global politics, technology was at the forefront of the recent groundbreaking events in the Korean Peninsula. Several days before I sat down to write this feature, a sudden glimmer of hope appeared in the seemingly endless North-South Korea standoff.

On 3 January 2018, after two years of lying dormant, a direct telephone hotline between the North and the South at the border village of Panmunjom was reopened for possible negotiations about North Korea’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South Korean province of Gangwon. There was even talk of a face-to-face meeting between the representatives of the two warring sides (for the truth is that North and South Korea are still technically at war, interrupted by the July 1953 Armistice).

As I write these lines, such a meeting has already taken place for the first time in a couple of years, and North Korea’s participation in the Olympics has been agreed – a real breakthrough!

The technical side of that unexpected change was limited to an ordinary secure phone line, which was deemed a far safer option than internet communications. In general, it has to be said that, apart from the cutting-edge electronic surveillance and warning systems, the technology of Korean cross-border relations remains traditional, and, apart from the ‘hot’ telephone lines, is limited to good old loudspeakers through which both sides (particularly the North) keep blaring propaganda at their neighbours.

I was able to hear snippets of Northern loudspeaker-enhanced broadcasts, brought in by the wind, during my recent visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – a 250km-long and 4km-wide buffer dividing the Korean peninsula. Those ecstatic sounds, almost inhuman in their aggressiveness, were mixing with the jolly carefree rings, bleeps and dingles of the rides and merry-go-rounds of the funfair on the southern side, from where I was listening – an amazing cacophony of confrontation and defiance.

The South, it has to be said, often responds in kind. In a recent episode, they bombarded the North with the loud recording of the latest K-Wave pop music. The North Koreans, reportedly, hated the music so much that they pleaded for it to be stopped in exchange for turning down the volume of their own broadcasts in turn.

In 2016, South Korea purchased a new stereo system to outshout the North.

I can clearly visualise the historic meeting of the North and South Korean military envoys on 9 January. It happened in the Joint Security Area, or to be more specific, inside the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) Conference Building, next to the so-called Peace House (the better name for which,until very recently, would be War House, of course), sitting astride the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) – a paved narrow stretch of ground which leads to a row of blue United Nations huts straddling the border.

Inside the oblong bungalow of the Conference Building, this line bisects a small polished conference table, running straight through the middle of it. I managed to stand on both sides of that permanently unattended (if you don’t count tourists) piece of furniture, marking the spot of the world’s most volatile frontier, which, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, has every reason to be called ‘The Mother of All Borders’.

As Paragraph 1 of the July 1953 Armistice Agreement goes: “A Military Demarcation Line shall be fixed and both sides shall withdraw two kilometres from this line so as to establish a Demilitarized Zone between opposing forces.” Behind those dry lines are years of suffering and grief, thousands of separated families, hundreds of defectors on both sides (yes, in the 1960s, several American soldiers chose to escape to the North!) as well as killings and kidnappings.

Among the defectors from the North was 22-year-old Russian Vasily Matuzok, a Soviet citizen and a trainee with the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang, now living in California, who, in his own words, used his life’s very first opportunity to escape to the West when he sprinted across the border to the South Korean DMZ sector, chased by North Korean soldiers, firing Soviet-made pistols and AKMs at him, in 1984.

That was one of the very few ‘lucky’ escapes, with the main legacies of the DMZ remaining gruesome: fear and mutual distrust that still keep the Korean nation apart. That is why the initial peacefulness of my DMZ excursion was a surprise.

Our coach rolled through the endless suburbs of Seoul and soon entered the DMZ, less than 50km away. After the first Korean Army checkpoint, we drove across the so-called no man’s land. In nature, everything is balanced and while the buffer zone was liberally dotted with unexploded landmines from the Korean War and hence became a no-go area for humans, it had turned into a sanctuary for wildlife. Never before have I seen so many herons, cranes and other rare birds and animals. Hundreds of majestic wide-winged Siberian eagles were floating in the skies above our heads. I later read that Asiatic black bears, leopards, Goral sheep and the near-extinct Amur tigers have all rebuilt their populations in the DMZ.

At the same time, it was impossible to ignore countless watch towers and observation masts at hilltop points, from where South Korean, American and UN soldiers kept a constant lookout across the border for any signs of suspicious military activity.

I noticed some white-marked stones pushed into the endless wire fence along the road. Those were simple detection devices that would fall out if anyone tried to climb over.

Three passport controls later, we arrived at Camp Bonifas, the US Army base just outside the DMZ. “In Front of Them All” was written (with a touch of bravado) in large white letters on top of a round control tower dominating the camp, which is named after US Army Captain Arthur Bonifas, one of the two victims of the ‘Axe Murder Incident’ on 18 August 1976. On that day, the camp commanders, having preliminarily agreed with their North Korean counterparts, sent a small group of soldiers and officers on a fairly mundane mission to trim the branches of a tall poplar tree in the buffer zone next to the Bridge of No Return (through which POWs were exchanged during the war) which blocked the direct line of sight to the next Allied Forces checkpoint. Despite the agreement, they were brutally attacked by axe-wielding North Korean soldiers, who killed Captain Bonifas and his colleague First Lieutenant Mark Barnett. Three days later, the Americans returned in force and, backed by helicopters and fighter planes, completed the tree pruning.

Having received a thorough briefing from a couple of young American soldiers, both speaking with a distinctive Texan drawl, and having signed a somewhat bizarre Visitor Declaration, we proceeded to the actual border line, from where we were able to eyeball a motionless North Korean officer in a vast Soviet-style peaked cap who was eyeballing us in return from the steps of a grey and dull office building. “We call him Bob,” US Army Private Earp, our guide, explained. “And inside there’s another dude whom we call Jack.”

He explained that more ‘Bobs’ and ‘Jacks’ were staring at us from the dimmed office building windows. I could almost feel their heavy unblinking stares on my face.

Private Earp then gave permission to take photos, having forewarned us against using cameras with over 90mm zoom lenses.

Rules for visitors to the DMZ


From Visitor Declaration UNC REG 551-5:
Fraternisation, including speaking, making gestures or associating with personnel from the Korean People’s Army/Chinese People’s Volunteers (KPA/CPV) side is strictly prohibited.
Visitors will not point, make gestures or expressions like scoffing, abnormal action which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda material against the United Nations Command (UNC)
There is no drinking alcohol, and those who have consumed alcohol in the last 12 hours will not be accepted.

The following civilian attire and accessories are strictly prohibited within the UNC Military Armistice Commission Headquarters Area:
■ Shirts/tops without sleeves or which expose the midriff
■ Ripped jeans or trousers which expose undergarments or private parts of the anatomy
■ Shorts or skirts which are shorter than knee length
■ Shower shoes, sandals or open-toe shoes
■ Oversized clothing or excessively baggy trousers
■ Sports uniforms, logos or athletic clothing of any kind
■ Umbrellas (except for during periods of precipitation)
■ Tripods (except for authorised media)

DMZ facts:
■ Length – 250km long and 4km wide
Built by North Korea, South Korea, the USA and the United Nations
■ Buffer Zone width – 4m (2000m from the front line on each side)
■ Settlements inside the Demilitarized Zone – villages of Daesong-dong and Kijong-dong under the UN protectorate
DMZ    Rules and DREss Code for Visitors

We entered the Conference Building, guarded inside exclusively by US military policemen of Korean origin. Private Earp explained that they were all taekwondo black belts and added somewhat mysteriously that as Koreans they were “less likely targets in case of an attack”. “But there will be no attack of course, and you are safe here with me,” he hastened to add with a smile.

Inside the building, I stepped over the invisible Demarcation Line and thus found myself de facto back in a totalitarian state for the first time since my defection from the USSR in 1990. The sensation was ticklish.

On the way back to the camp, I asked Private Earp about the latest North Korean defector, who survived but had to undergo five medical operations. “We’ll check him for being a spy, and if not, we’ll give him citizenship, a flat and freedom,” the soldier shrugged. Well, by all counts, it sounded like a risk well worth taking.         

We toured a number of other DMZ ‘venues’. Each had a regulation Souvenir Shop doing brisk trade in ‘DMZ vinegar’, ‘I’ve done the DMZ’ T-shirts, DMZ chocolates, laminated North Korean banknotes and such like. Interestingly, the plastic statuettes of North Korean soldiers on sale in those stores looked kindly, benign and even smiley.

Those plastic goodwill ambassadors were not the only ones around. I noted that South Koreans rarely spoke badly of their Northern neighbours. In a truly Buddhist manner, which requires you to treat everyone, even your enemies, with ‘metta’ (‘kindness’), they talked about the northerners as parents will about unruly children, and would never forget to mention that yes, they (the North Koreans) seemed to truly love their leader; that their lives appeared to be improving, that in North Korea they didn’t pay taxes, and healthcare and education were free…

Not once did I feel any outright hostility, although most people would regard any prospect of reunification with scepticism. To quote our DMZ Korean guide: “There won’t be war. Stock prices in the South are the highest ever; businessmen would not invest in a potential war zone. In future we’ll have cooperation with the North, but not reunification. Cooperation as a precondition for coexistence is the most we can expect.”

Visitors to the Demilitarized Zone can see the work of engineers at several different sites.

In 1970, Kim Il-Sung, the Supreme Commander of the (North) Korean People’s Army, ordered construction of two tunnels under the DMZ to be used for infiltration and possible invasion of the South. In September 1974, Kim Bu-seong, a North Korean military engineer who defected to the South, said he was a surveyor on the construction of a tunnel underneath the UN Command Guardpost on Mt Dora and indicated the approximate path of the tunnel. The South Korean Army then drilled 107 boreholes deep into the ground and placed PVC pipes in each. Due to the use of granite-blasting explosives by the North Koreans, high-pressure charges of air were sent through the holes, and the pipes were promptly filled with water, thus confirming the tunnel’s location. Having established that, the South Korean soldiers started digging an interception tunnel. Knowing that their tunnel had been discovered, the North Koreans made its sides black, rubbed coal dust on its walls and claimed that the South must have found an old coal mine.

This 1,635m-long and 2.1m-high tunnel, known as Infiltration Tunnel 3 (three more similar tunnels were eventually discovered by South Koreans), runs 73m below ground and is capable of letting through a division of 30,000 armed soldiers within an hour. It is now a museum. Ironically, to keep it in line with safety regulations, it has been extended by South Korean engineers and electric lighting has been installed. Tourists are now able to walk safely underneath North Korean territory.

The Mt Dora Observatory is 1.5km south of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). A former UN Command guard post, it is now a civilian security education centre, with a briefing room and a diorama of the entire DMZ area. From an observation platform on the second floor, equipped with powerful pay-to-view binoculars, visitors can clearly see the North Korean territory, including the outlines of Kaesong, North Korea’s third-largest city, with its industrial complex, and the village of Kijung-dong, better known in the South as ‘Propaganda Village’ – a scattering of neat and permanently empty modern buildings, where lights are automatically switched on after dark, making it obvious that the houses, designed to dupe the South with an image of ‘socialist paradise’, do not even have floors!

Above that real-life manifestation of the ‘Potemkin Villages’ metaphor, and next to the 30m-high regulation statue of ‘the great leader’ Kim Il-sung (one of the 35,000 identical ones across North Korea), flies an enormous North Korean flag which, reportedly, took 50 men to hoist. The flag, measuring 14m by 30m and weighing 272kg, is atop a 160m-high pole, the third tallest in the world. It is substantially taller than the competitive South Korean flagpole across the border.

The Bridge of No Return crossing the MDL was the venue for POW exchange after the Korean War in 1953. It also features in a James Bond movie ‘Die Another Day’ (filmed elsewhere of course). The last time the Bridge became the venue for prisoner exchange was in 1968 when the crew of USS Pueblo, captured by the North, was released and allowed to cross back into South Korea. The use of the bridge was discontinued after the ‘Axe Murder Incident’ of 1976.

Dorasan Station is the northernmost station of the Gyeongui railway line (in the South) that once connected Seoul to China is only 56km away from Seoul and 205km away from the North Korean capital Pyoengyang. Opened for traffic towards North Korea in 2007, at the time of the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ – a temporary thaw in the North-South relations under Kim Jong-il, it was meant to become a working symbol of Korea’s reunification. In 2016, the last freight and passenger services on the line came to a stop, and only platform tickets are now on sale in the station’s solitary ticket office under a large “Road to Unification” sign. The ‘road to unification’ so far remains the line of division, and looking at the empty track stretching into nowhere, I was tempted to brand Dorasan the saddest train station in the world.

Yet, who knows: with all the recent developments, it could be galvanised back to life in the near future and one would be able to board again a 10.21 train to Pyongyang!

We were leaving the Demilitarized Zone, to which Bill Clinton once referred as the scariest place on earth, and I had the last view of North Korea on the opposite bank of the Imjin River. There were trees on the Southern side, yet none on the opposite North Korean bank. Our ever-smiling guide explained that all the trees in the North had been cut and used as fuel.

The North Korean side, in stark contrast to the South, however, had plenty of the most beautiful mountains, clearly silhouetted against the setting sun. There was some vague and hard-to-explain hope in those mountains, which couldn’t be used for fuel and were therefore indestructible.

Our coach kept rolling along smoothly through the burning sunset, towards Seoul.

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