Driving along the Korean freeway, camouflaged military outposts are stationed every few hundred yards and barbed wire fences follow the length of the road, cordoning off large bodies of water to prevent access to Seoul by North Korean spies.
The expensive cars of Korea’s over-worked business men, and the family SUVs heading out on excursions have been replaced with military trucks and large industrial vehicles. At this point, we are only ten minutes north of Seoul but the landscape and the mood has changed dramatically as we drive along the road to Paju, the Northernmost point of South Korea and home to the demilitarized zone – the most heavily fortified border in the World.
After passing through a number of military checkpoints, we approach Camp Bonifas, the US and Korean army base that carries the slogan “in front of them all” based on their location on the Korean border, directly in front of the enemy, and subsequently on the front line should the situation between the two Koreas worsen.
After signing a declaration waving the United Nations and South Korea of any responsibility in the event of our death or injury, we would be permitted to spend the day exploring the infamous demilitarized zone, and learning more about Korea’s tragic history.
The Joint Security Area
Armed American and South Korean military escorts joined our party at Camp Bonifas and accompanied us to the Joint Security Area – a neutral zone within the DMZ used for diplomatic engagements.
Here, North and South Korean forces stand constantly facing each other, observing their enemy in an eerie silence.
We are given specific instruction to ignore any provocation by the North Koreans. Never moving, the lone North Korean guard watches us from the steps of Panmon Hall opposite. The parted curtains on the first floor of the building make way for a recording device, with which we are being filmed, and the occasional twitching of blinds from the other windows at Panmon reveal additional North Korean soldiers, peering at us inquisitively with binoculars. Our military escort predicts that there are at least another 40 or so armed North Korean soldiers inside the hall at any given time.
Previous attempts to cross the border here (admittedly, not from this side of the line) have resulted in shoot outs between the two Korean forces.
We follow our military escorts and enter the meeting rooms in the center of the courtyard. The room is located directly on the borderline – from one side you are in communist North Korea, and from the other, you are safe in the South.
Two intimidating South Korean guards block the doorway to North Korea, just in case you are crazy enough to try and cross the border.
Our entrance and exit to the Joint Security Area is made through the Freedom Building – a large glass structure built on the South side for the purpose of reuniting families that have been separated following the division of the two Koreas. Sadly, the building has never been used for its intended purpose as North Korea refuse to release citizens to the South so it simply acts as an elaborate structure through which you can access the JSA.
Back safely at Camp Bonifas, the museum here provides an interesting history to the demilitarized zone and the Korean war.
There have been numerous aggressive incidents at the border since its introduction, the most haunting of which was perhaps the story of “The Axe Murder Incident” whereby a group of 5 South Korean service corps staff were sent to prune a poplar tree that was overgrown, yet were intercepted by a group of 15 North Korean soldiers who attacked them, and bludgeoned them to death with their own tree trimmers and axes..
Our initial itinerary for the day included a visit to South Korean Checkpoint 3, and the site of the axe murders, however due to the situation with North Korea at the time of our visit, our military escorts would not allow us to visit this area.
Kaesong Industrial Complex
Our escorts advise us that the Joint Security Area is not the only access point to North Korea, and drive us to the entrance to Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Hyundai and the South Korean government developed this industrial estate north of the border in an attempt to reconcile with North Korea – employing 53,000 North Koreans in manufacturing roles and injecting much needed cash into the Northern economy. (Despite their constant bravado and threats of nuclear weaponry, North Korea is an extremely poor country, often relying on handouts from South Korea and China)
South Korea ended this relationship in 2016 when Kim Jong Un started conducting missile tests and North Korea declared this end to business as a “declaration of war”, refusing to return assets and machinery back to the South.
Now, you can walk around the eerie modern, abandoned facility; the roads connecting North and South now barricaded.
We can hear North Korean tannoys blasting messages into the South offering South Koreans paradise “under our great leader” and telling them not to be puppets of Imperialist pigs (Americans).
Arriving at Imjingak border village, we watch as a family of North Korean defectors help their elderly relative onto the ground so that he can bow to his ancestors, and pray for the family that he is separated from in the North.
Imjingak has a peculiarly upbeat vibe for a village located right on the Korean border – there is even a theme park here with attractions like the waltzers, and the pirate ship, that reminded me of those traveling gypsy amusement parks that you often see in the West. It’s a popular family day out and picnic spot, particularly for North Korean defectors, as this is the furthest point north that South Koreans can go freely.
There’s an observatory here, but you really cannot see much at all from this point so I would recommend the observatory at Dorasan, as from that point you can peer into North Korean towns and cities.
The remaining portion of the wooden “Freedom Bridge” that was used to transport POWs back from the North after the war is the main point of interest at Imjingak.
Wishes written on colored ribbons and affixed to the barbed wire fences surrounding the area pray for a reunification of the two Koreas.
The heartbreaking theme consistent throughout my visit is the hope of the South Korean people for a reunification of the two Koreas, and their constant efforts to reach out to the North that have been batted away – from the investments by leading South Korean businesses and the government at Kaesong complex, to handwritten wishes of a reunion scrawled onto colored paper and Korean flags by the elderly and the young generations alike…
The Next Blog Post: Visiting the DMZ, Part Two.
I decided to split this blog post into two as I am conscious that it is becoming extremely long at this juncture.
The next post will follow my visit to Dorasan station (a railway built to connect North and South Korea, now abandoned), Mount Dora observatory, and the third infiltration tunnel. Stay tuned! 🙂
Are you interested in visiting the DMZ? Have you been? Leave your questions and comments below!