The most sobering part of our trip was the day-long tour to the Joint Security Area separating the Republic of Korea from North Korea along the 38th parallel – the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. Ironically, it’s the most heavily militarized border in the world.
The army base is huge and the soldiers are not for show – they are in a state of constant readiness to repel an attack from the North. Miles and miles of razor wire and freshly-painted spiked equipment glint in the sun.
Two hundred and fifty kilometers long, and about 4 kilometers wide, the DMZ is both a testament to hope and an example of blight and discord. All vegetation that could conceal escapees has been cut. The mountain sides are dry wastelands.
The Korean War is the first major event I remember from my childhood, because the grownups would talk about it over dinner. In June 1950, 75,000 North Korean soldiers from the People’s Army, supported by the USSR, poured over the border and kicked off the Cold War.
The Korean War officially ‘ended’ in July 1953 with a brokered truce, after more than five million civilians and soldiers died. The wounds are still fresh.
The TV series, M.A.S.H, was set in Korea but from the museum photos we saw, there was nothing light-hearted about the widespread destruction and cold-blooded assaults on civilians as far south as Seoul. The toll was appalling.
The two countries are still at war. On the outskirts of Seoul, the scenery changed from commerce to conflict. Razor-wire and chain link fences line the muddy river banks and a four-lane strip of highway. Camouflage-painted pillboxes stick up every 250 meters.
Until recently, there were soldiers stationed there; now, they have digital surveillance cameras with night-vision lenses. The far shore isn’t that far away. Thousands have drowned or been shot trying to swim to freedom in the South.
At the entrance to the DMZ, soldiers boarded the bus and checked our passports. This was not a cursory glance, but an intense scrutiny of faces and documents. Polite, but intimidating. One of the passengers didn’t have the proper papers, and was escorted off to wait for our return.
Despite the one-hour wait, the parking lot was crammed with tour buses.We were reminded to pay attention to signage and not to stray from the marked paths. As in Cambodia, the remnants of conflict make exploring deadly.
During the war, so many landmines were planted it’s estimated it would take an army 200 years to clear the land. Instead, much of the DMZ is a nature preserve. Soldiers still patrol the area. Watch towers on the river are manned 24/7.
A few feet away from the warning wires, a tour of school children ate their lunch.I n the land between the main highway and the road leading to the Security Area, farmers cultivate rice. A strange juxtaposition, but life must go on and arable land is scarce.
I’d wanted to visit the invasion tunnels but changed my mind when I heard them described as dark, damp and cramped rock tubes that, due to their steepness, are hard to navigate. There are four Tunnels if Aggression, totalling thirty kilometers in length, dug from North Korea up to forty-eight kilometers from Seoul.
If the network had been completed as planned and not outed by a defector in 1978, up to 10,000 North Korean soldiers could have infiltrated the south.
I satisfied myself by examining the mock-up and watching a film.
Skirmishes continue – remember the USS Pueblo being taken hostage by the North Koreans? North Korean soldiers regularly take pot-shots across the border and often hit their mark – soldiers, farmers, tourists – doesn’t matter. As we stood on the observation tower taking photos, our guide casually remarked that a Hong Kong tourist had been picked off the previous year.
People in the Republic of Korea live in hope that the Ministry of Unification will make Korea whole again.
A beautiful station – used only by tourist trains – was built at the border in anticipation of reunification. It sits shiny and empty, on the edge of no man’s land, a few hundred meters from a gigantic peace bell.
Beyond that is a strip of asphalt road leading North, travelled by the occasional truck bringing industrial supplies to South Korean factories locating in the cities hugging the border. Business is good because labour is so cheap and of course, there are no unions or labour laws to hamper prosperity.
Yes, there is an elite that lives well in NK, but while millions of dollars are spent on armaments and armies, tens of thousands of citizens have perished due to starvation and cold.
Going to the DMZ was something I felt I had to do. Every time I look a the photos, though, and remember the bleak expanse of scrub land and the millions who died, my heart is chilled.