It was dawn in early May and, lo and behold, I was the first one up at the apartment. A rare occurrence I generally reserved for the most exciting of activities. In order to spare my driver a bothersome hunt in the maze of backstreets where I lived, I had agreed to meet him on a main street a short walk away. As such, armed with my camera and my notebook (an actual paper journal), I headed out in crisp morning. I settled in the back of the SUV, eager to get a few more minutes of sleep – I got to sleep quite a while longer as the poor man drove around Seoul in search of another who ended up being a no show.
From the comfort of the SUV, I transferred to the big bus which would take me to two very peculiar places I was most eager to see. You might know them by their acronyms: the DMZ and the JSA. The DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, and the JSA, the Joint Security Area, are two heavily guarded areas that separate the North and the South.
I don’t think I would ever have truly understood the intensity of the tensions between North Korea and South Korea had I not stepped in the JSA. On either side of the armistice line you can see troops of the respective countries facing off rather menacingly. On our side, South Koreans guards stood in taekwondo stances meant to intimidate. Their stance were so rigid, it made me wonder at how they could keep it for any length of time. We were told that, out of all the young men doing their military service (which is mandatory and lasts two years), only the best end up here. It appears to be a very prestigious function.
(Imagine a line traced in the center lengthwise of this conference table,
this is the official border between North and South)
The first thing we noticed was without a doubt the incredible amount of cameras on site. We were told that there were just as many cameras on the other side. Considering the nature of our surroundings, photography zones and angles were very limited. We were warned that if one member of our group did not obey the rules, the whole group would be turned back. The personnel explained that this was mainly due to security concerns, lest the flare in a poor tourist’s lens be interpreted as something else and the poor chap fall prey to a sniper.
(The blue buildings are where joint command reunion take place. The building in the back in is North Korean territory.)
At one point, we had to transfer to a military bus, complete with an escort, to take us further in the area. As we drove around, we were informed that many of the fields we saw were intensively mined. Yet, in this unwelcoming land that stretches between the two countries lies an area that has been reclaimed by nature and is now very prolific for animals and plants.
(Plaque to commemorate where the Ax incident took place)
Being in South Korea, I heard of various incidents. In this area, the Ax Incident comes to mind. On that occasion, two US soldiers who had been sent to cut down a tree that was blocking the line of sight between two South Koreans watchtowers were brutally murdered with their axes. The responsible North Koreans forces managed to evade capture. We also saw the Bridge of No Return that was used for the exchange of prisoners following the war. Since the Ax Incident, the bridge fell in disuse. However, it is still guarded at check point 3 by United Nations Command personnel who have, on occasions, been the targets of kidnapping attempts by the North.
(Beginning of the Bridge of No Return)
Also, one cannot write of this place without mentioning the tunnels dug deep into the ground between the two countries. This knowledge is owed to a North Korean defectors who claimed that as many as 20 tunnels exist. Up to this day, only four of them have been found. When the tunnels first were discovered, North Korea pretended these were mining tunnels (a claim which, for those who don’t know much about geology, any real sampling would have discredited). They had even spread a thin layer of coal dust on the walls of the tunnel to support their claim.
The day provided even more insight as we were told that South Korea has an open policy for defectors. While South Korean doesn’t refuse anyone that defects from the North, the true challenge for North Koreans rests in actually making it to South Korean territory. Most of them try their luck through China and, if caught, China has the last word on where it sends them. Most often than not, they get returned to the North. I shudder to think of what happens to them once they fail to defect. As for the northern soldiers at the border, they get told that their family will get killed if they defect. This is how they are kept in line.
However, this being said, South Korean defections to the North are not unknown either. Actually, it is said that South Korea also did some incursions of its own in North Korean territory.
Our last stop of the day was a railway station that dated back to a time when the border had been open for tourism, This chapter ended abruptly with the execution of a South Korean tourist who, in order to watch the sunset, had strayed from her group and trespassed in a restricted area. She was shot down.
As we stepped into the deserted rail station, I couldn’t help but feel some sadness thinking at all those family that, to this day, remain separated by this arbitrary armistice line. They do hold some very rare family reunions, the last one took place in February 2014, you can read more here and here.
From what I have understood, reunification – let alone any type of collaboration – seems highly unlikely. It is a touchy subject, with younger generations wanting nothing more to do with North Korea and older generations who still have family on the other side, family they are not allowed to see.
As a parting note, most tourists take only the DMZ tour, probably because it is cheaper. I strongly recommend taking the time to go to the JSA. It gives an insight that would be difficult to gain otherwise.
For more information on the tensions between the two countries I invite you to read the series of posts I wrote on the subject. This should give you some historical and political context since I go into events that had a deep impact on the two countries.