As the tour bus crawls out of Seoul and heads slowly north through the traffic, the seemingly endless urban jungle slowly diminishes in size before disappearing altogether. You’re now well on the way to a place where the mists of the Cold War still linger on, and one that could still be ground zero for the Third World War – the DEMILITARIZED ZONE. More commonly referred to as “the DMZ”, this no-man’s-land is a 4km-wide buffer zone that came into being at the end of the Korean War in 1953. It sketches an unbroken spiky line across the peninsula from coast to coast, separating the two Koreas and their diametrically opposed ideologies. Although it sounds forbidding, it’s actually possible to enter this zone, and take a few tentative steps into North Korean territory – thousands of civilians do so every month, though only as part of a tightly controlled tour. It’s even home to two small communities, Freedom Village and Propaganda Village. Elsewhere are a few platforms from which the curious can stare across the border, and a tunnel built by the North, which you can enter.
While most visitors content themselves with a packaged DMZ tour, there are more adventurous options available. The city of Paju, just southwest of Panmunjeom, has a few sights not at all related to North Korea – a small arts village, and a publishing town whose buildings are among the most adventurously designed in the land. To the east, and actually in Gangwon province, is the remote border town of Cheorwon, where anyone with their own transport – or just a little luck – will be able to take a free tour of the border. And, of course, you could go for broke and book a tour to Pyongyang in North Korea itself.
For the first year of the Korean War (1950–53), the tide of control yo-yoed back and forth across the peninsula. Then in June 1951, General Ridgeway of the United Nations Command got word that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) would “not be averse to” armistice talks. These talks took place in the city of Kaesong, now a major North Korean city, but were soon shifted south to Panmunjeom, a tiny farming village that suddenly found itself the subject of international attention.
Ceasefire talks went ahead for two long years and often degenerated into venomous verbal battles littered with expletives. One of the most contentious issues was the repatriation of prisoners of war, and a breakthrough came in April 1953, when terms were agreed; exchanges took place on a bridge over the River Sachon, now referred to as the Bridge of No Return. “Operation Little Switch” came first, seeing the transfer of sick and injured prisoners (notably, six thousand returned to the North, while only a tenth of that number walked the other way); “Operation Big Switch” took place shortly afterwards, when the soldiers on both sides were asked to make a final choice over their preferred destination. Though no peace treaty was ever signed, representatives of the KPA, the United Nations Command (UNC) and the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army put their names to an armistice on July 27, 1953; South Korean delegates refused to do so. The room where the signing took place was built specially for the occasion, and cobbled together at lightning speed by KPA personnel; it now forms part of most tours to North Korea.
An uneasy truce has prevailed since the end of the war – the longest military deadlock in history – and the DMZ is now something of a natural haven filled with flora and fauna that’s been left to regenerate and breed in relative isolation. However, there have been regular spats along the way. In the early 1960s a small number of disaffected American soldiers defected to the North, after somehow managing to make it across the DMZ alive, while in 1968 the crew of the captured USS Pueblo walked south over the Bridge of No Return after protracted negotiations. The most serious confrontation took place in 1976, when two American soldiers were killed in the Axe Murder Incident, and in 1984, a young tour leader from the Soviet Union fled North Korea across the border triggering a short gun battle that left three soldiers dead.Read More
Panmunjeom and the Joint Security Area
Panmunjeom and the Joint Security Area
There’s nowhere in the world quite like the Joint Security Area (“the JSA”), a settlement squatting in the middle of Earth’s most heavily fortified frontier, and the only place in DMZ territory where visitors are permitted. Visits here will create a curious dichotomy of feelings: on one hand, you’ll be in what was once memorably described by Bill Clinton as “the scariest place on Earth”, but as well as soldiers, barbed wire and brutalist buildings you’ll see trees, hear birdsong and smell fresh air. The village of Panmunjeom itself is actually in North Korean territory, and has dwindled to almost nothing since it became the venue for armistice talks in 1951. But such is the force of the name that you’ll see it on promotional material for most tours that run to the area; these are, in fact, the only way to get in.
The JSA tour
Situated just over an hour from Seoul is Camp Bonifas, an American army base just outside the DMZ. Here you’ll meet your guides – usually young infantry recruits whose sense of humour makes it easy to escape the seriousness of the situation – and be given a briefing session reminding you of the various dos and don’ts. Back on the bus look out for the white-marked stones pushed into the wire fence – these are detection devices that will fall out should anyone try to climb over. On both sides of the road you’ll see hilltop points from where UNC forces keep a constant lookout across the border for any military build-up that would precede a large-scale attack.
Once inside the JSA itself, keep your fingers crossed that you’ll be allowed to enter one of the three meeting rooms at the very centre of the complex, which offer some serious travel kudos – the chance to step into North Korea. The official Line of Control runs through the very centre of these cabins, the corners of which are guarded by South Korean soldiers, who are sometimes joined by their Northern counterparts, the enemy soldiers almost eyeball-to-eyeball. Note the microphones on the table inside the room – anything you say can be picked up by North Korean personnel. The rooms are closed to visitors when meetings are scheduled, which is just as well since some of them have descended into farce. One such fiasco occurred when members of one side – it’s not clear which – brought a bigger flag than usual to a meeting. The others followed suit with an even larger banner, and the childish process continued until the flags were simply too large to take into the room; at this point, both sides agreed on a standard flag size.
From an outdoor lookout point near the cabins you can soak up views of the North, including the huge flag and shell-like buildings of “Propaganda Village”. You may also be able to make out the jamming towers it uses to keep out unwanted imperialist signals – check the reception on your phone. Closer to the lookout point, and actually within JSA territory, is the Bridge of No Return, the venue for POW exchange at the end of the Korean War (and also for James Bond in Die Another Day – though for obvious reasons it was filmed elsewhere).
Were the two countries not still at each other’s throats, you would be able to walk to North Korea from little CHEORWON (철원), the South’s closest urban settlement to the North Korean border; note that it’s actually in Gangwon province, not Gyeonggi. From Cheorwon, it’s just about possible to take free tours of the DMZ, which given the town’s remote location are far more relaxed than those on offer in Panmunjeom itself. Driving around the area, you’ll notice a substantial military presence, and checkpoints all over the place. It’s not unusual to hear explosions either – training usually takes place once a week, more often if the North has been making similar noises. Be sure to look out for the large lumps of concrete suspended over the roads – their purpose is to block the path of North Korean military vehicles, should they ever arrive. Note that there are landmines and barbed wire around the border area, but you won’t be allowed to venture anywhere dangerous.
Other than the free tour around the border sights, there are few actual sights in Cheorwon. However, before or after you take the tour be sure to head to nearby Goseokjeong (고석정), a rocky crag that pokes up through an extremely pretty section of the river that flows through Cheorwon. Buses head to this countryside location from all across the city; if you have time to kill before or after a tour, head to the riverbank – steps lead downhill from the small restaurant complex – where it’s often possible to hire a boat for small trips.
The Axe Murder Incident
The Axe Murder Incident
Relations between the two Koreas took a sharp nose-dive in 1976, when two American soldiers were killed by a pack of axe-wielding North Koreans. The cause of the trouble was a poplar tree which stood next to the Bridge of No Return: a UNC outpost stood next to the bridge, but its direct line of sight to the next Allied checkpoint was blocked by the leaves of the tree, so on August 18 a five-man American detail was dispatched to perform some trimming. Although the mission had apparently been agreed in advance with the North, sixteen soldiers from the KPA turned up and demanded that the trimming stop. Met with refusal, they launched a swift attack on the UNC troops using the axes the team had been using to prune the tree. The attack lasted less than a minute, but claimed the life of First Lieutenant Mark Barrett, as well as Captain Bonifas (who was apparently killed instantly with a single karate chop to the neck). North Korea denied responsibility for the incident, claiming that the initial attack had come from the Americans.
Three days later, the US launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a show of force that must go down as the largest tree-trimming exercise in history. A convoy of 24 UNC vehicles streamed towards the plant, carrying more than 800 men, some trained in taekwondo, and all armed to the teeth. These were backed up by attack helicopters, fighter planes and B-52 bombers, while an aircraft carrier had also been stationed just off the Korean shore. This carefully managed operation drew no response from the KPA, and the tree was successfully cut down.
“Freedom Village” and “Propaganda Village”
“Freedom Village” and “Propaganda Village”
The DMZ is actually home to two small settlements, one on each side of the Line of Control. With the southern village rich and tidy and its northern counterpart empty and sinister, both can be viewed as a microcosm of the countries they belong to.
The southern village – referred to as “Freedom Village” by the US military, but actually called Daeseongdong – is a small farming community, but one out of limits to all but those living or working here. These are among the richest farmers in Korea: they pay no rent or tax, and DMZ produce fetches big bucks at markets around the country. Technically, residents have to spend 240 days of the year at home, but most commute here from their condos in Seoul to “punch in”, and get hired hands to do the dirty work; if they’re staying, they must be back in town by nightfall, and have their doors and windows locked and bolted by midnight. Women are allowed to marry into this tight society, but men are not; those who choose to raise their children here also benefit from a school that at the last count had eleven teachers and only eight students.
North of the Line of Control lies an odd collection of empty buildings referred to by American soldiers as “Propaganda Village”. The purpose of its creation appears to have been to show citizens in the South the communist paradise that they’re missing – a few dozen “villagers” arrive every morning by bus, spend the day taking part in wholesome activities and letting their children play games, then leave again in the evening. With the aid of binoculars, you’ll be able to see that none of the buildings actually has any windows; lights turned on in the evening also seem to suggest that they’re devoid of floors. Above the village flies a huge North Korean flag, one so large that it required a fifty-man detail to hoist, until the recent installation of a motor. It sits atop a 160m-high pole, the eventual victor in a bizarre game played out over a number of years by the two Koreas, each hell-bent on having the loftier flag. for details of yet another flag-centred battle.