Sitting in front of my computer screen watching grainy security footage from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ; the 248-kilometer area lying along the South and North Korean border) of a jeep crashing into a tree, followed by several soldiers running up to a low wall and shooting at the driver who had stumbled out of the vehicle I feel a chill run through me. It was only a few hours before, that I had been standing mere meters from the place where the North Korean soldier in the video had defected two weeks earlier.
The DMZ is perhaps South Korea’s unhappiest tourist attraction. Visitors from around the world come to the DMZ to get a taste of the forbidden fruit in the form of a military escorted tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) and/or tunnels dug by North Korea in an attempt to infiltrate South Korea.
The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that divides North and South Korea, is often referred to as the 38th Parallel, the line of latitude it was originally intended to run along, though in reality it runs across it on an angle. The line is not denoted by a large, imposing wall in the style Berlin was once divided. Instead, the MDL is marked by 1,292 signs. Though rusted beyond readability, they once read “Military Demarcation Line” in English and Korean on the southern side and Chinese and Korean on the northern.
Driving north from Seoul on a grey day in late November, the landscape changes rapidly from the modernity of the city to the dull brown of farmers’ fields. It does not feel as though we have been driving as long as we ought before the guide, a Korean-Canadian woman called Laura, points out an abrupt break in the tree coverage; the first glimpse of North Korea.
For those not entering the DMZ, the last stop is Imjingak Park, the northernmost park in South Korea. The park hosts regular festivals where farmers from the surrounding area sell rice and beans. It is also home to the Freedom Bridge, or the Bridge of No Return. The small, rickety-looking wooden bridge was built at the end of the Korean War in order to exchange some 13,000 prisoners. Those who crossed the bridge would not be able to cross back. Today, the bridge is fenced off to all but the ghosts of those who crossed it into the freedom of South Korea or the isolation of the North.
To enter Camp Boniface, the United Nations military installation in the DMZ, one must pass through two ID check points. The first stop upon entering the military post is a security briefing given by one of the soldiers stationed there.
The DMZ was created in 1953, at the end of the Korean War. Though Camp Boniface is manned primarily by American and South Korean Soldiers, like most of the military installations in Korea, it is under the control of the United Nations (most military installations in South Korea are under American or South Korean control), meaning the land belongs to neither country. Despite creating what was likely intended to be an uncontestable zone for the two countries to work toward peace and reunification, the section of land has not been incident free.
The North Korean soldiers who stand facing into South Korea within the Joint Security Area (JSA) do so in violation of the July 27, 1953 armistice signed as part of the cease fire. Their violations include not wearing the arm-bands required of any soldier who is armed.
Incidents in the DMZ are unfortunately not all this benign. In 1976, when some UN soldiers went to cut down a tree that had grown to block the view between two UN structures, they were quickly bombarded by North Korean soldiers who hacked two UN soldiers to death with the axes they had brought to trim the tree. This has come to be known as the Axe Murder Incident or Tree Trimming Incident.
In 1984, a Soviet citizen visiting North Korea on a tour of the DMZ ran across the border in an attempt to defect from the Soviet Union, resulting in a shootout. The man defected successfully but one soldier on each side was killed.
In more recent years, North Korean soldiers have been placing landmines in the open spaces along the roads, resulting in two South Korean soldiers losing their legs when they accidentally came into contact with them while on patrol.
The land currently within the DMZ was not empty, but rather the longtime home of the village of Daesong-dong. The 194 farmers continue to live in the DMZ, working in the fields under the protection of the soldiers stationed at Camp Boniface. Women are allowed to marry into the village, but men are not due to South Korea’s mandatory military service. The farmers in the village produce the highly coveted DMZ rice and beans, and because the land now belongs to the UN, are not subject to federal taxes making them some of the highest earning farmers on the peninsula.
The North Korean government, unable to leave anything unmatched, constructed the village of Kiljong-dong merely a stone’s throw from Daesong-dong. Kiljong-dong lies predominantly uninhabited, broadcasting North Korean propaganda music day and night. It is also home to one of the tallest flagpoles in the world standing 160 meters high with one of the largest flags in the world weighing 270 kilograms. The flag pole is positioned only 1.2 kilometers North of the South Korean flagpole in Daseong-dong.
Following the security briefing, visitors heading to the JSA are escorted by soldiers onto military busses, and driven north.
Walking through the Freedom House, there is an unmistakable tension in the air. The building was designed to give families separated by the division created after the war a chance to visit, though it has never been used for this purpose.
It is almost too quiet, the only sound comes from the loudspeaker in Kiljong-dong playing propaganda music. Blue and silver buildings stand on the other side of the Freedom House, all perfectly in line with each other. What looks like a low concrete step runs through the centre of the buildings, giving them the appearance of the players on a foosball table.
Inside building T-2 (temporary building two), one of the blue buildings belonging to the United Nations, are two South Korean soldiers in dark green uniforms, helmets and sunglasses. One is positioned in front of a door at the far end of the small room outfitted with several tables and chairs, and one stands at the head of one table, they are so still one could easily mistake them for statues.
Crossing the North Korean border is not the Earth-shattering moment one may expect. Walking to the back of the room to allow others to enter, it isn’t until looking out the window that one might even notice they are no longer standing in South Korea.
The JSA is disconcerting. Over 60 years of weak international relations feel palpable. The room has been used for meetings about how to run the JSA since in-person meetings about the possibility of reunification have ceased. Everything feels unsettled, like runners at the starting line waiting for the gun.
Driving back to Seoul it takes time to adjust to normalcy. The skyscrapers look different after seeing what lies less than an hour away.
Visiting the DMZ is not a fun tourist trip, but a necessary one. To understand South Korea one has to go beyond the glitz and glamour of Seoul to see the unsavoury realities that shapes one side of the culture and the land.
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