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.
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.
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.