DPRK (and Beijing) Day seven, part two
06.09.2019 - 06.09.2019
We had spent the first part of the morning visiting some sights in Kaesong, but now it was time for the big event of the day, the visit to the Demilitarised Zone, usually shortened to DMZ.
Carl and our Korean guide both briefed us as we drove the surprisingly (to me at least!) short distance from Kaesong, about 15 minutes. As we approached the DMZ Carl pointed out the abandoned buildings off to our right of the Kaesong Industrial Region. This was a collaborative development with South Korea in the early part of this century. The plan was to develop an industrial complex for the mutual advantage of both Koreas, giving the South access to cheap labour while the North would benefit from investment and the employment of hundreds of thousands of its citizens. At the time of its opening in 2004 relationships between the two countries were relatively good as the South was pursuing a policy of reconciliation with the North, which eventually faltered. And as that policy of reconciliation, known as the Sunshine Policy, faltered in the face of increasing tensions between the two, so did this shared initiative. After a series of temporary closures, it was shut down completely in 2016 against a background of nuclear tests in the North and joint US / South Korea military exercises. Needless to say, it was not on our itinerary!
Arriving at the DMZ
More perhaps than anywhere else we visited in North Korea, it is here on the border with the South that it becomes most apparent that the perspective on historical events here in the DPRK is somewhat at odds with that outside the country. I will endeavour to reflect the divergent views as fairly as I can, but as this is a blog about our experiences in North Korea, I must for completeness tell you what we were told.
What everyone accepts is that this is a border between two countries still technically at war – although the North Koreans would prefer that I talk about a single country that has been unfortunately divided and the two sides put at odds with each other through outside interference. I will talk more about the start of the Korean War when we visit the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang in a few days’ time – today was all about the end of that war.
At the DMZ entrance
~ the only outdoor photo that was
While the Korean War on paper lasted for three years, only the first year saw fierce fighting on land; after that followed two years of more or less stagnation, as the two sides fought out a war of attrition, with the front line close to the 38th Parallel. Of course in the air things were very different, and the heavy bombing inflicted on the North had a lasting impact on the country both in terms of how it looks today (almost all its major cities were destroyed) and how, collectively, it feels.
The armistice discussions started in July 1951 and lasted more than two years and 565 meetings. By the end of the process the two sides were more or less back where they had started, on the 38th parallel, although the North managed to paint the armistice agreement as a victory. Their original goal had been to ‘drive the enemy into the sea’, but some time in 1951 they quietly changed this and their slogan became to ‘drive the enemy to the 38th parallel’, enabling them to claim to this day that the North won the war.
As a result of the armistice a 4 kilometre wide demilitarised zone was established between the two Koreas. One thing that struck me as odd here was to see such a tense border patrolled by soldiers carrying no weapons. And at Panmunjom, just north of the border, a Joint Security Area (JSA) was formed, a roughly circular enclave, approximately 800m in diameter, bisected by the Military Demarcation Line. This was designed to serve as a neutral area, with free movement of both sides within it. The agreement held, despite ongoing tensions, until 1976, when what became known as the Panmunjom Axe Incident (more on that anon) brought an end to all freedom of movement within the JSA. Since then the two sides have stayed firmly on their own side of the border. The only exceptions are the occasional meetings between the two which take place in the much-photographed huts which straddle the border.
Entering the DMZ
Visits to the DMZ are unsurprisingly very strictly controlled. Tourist buses can’t just drive into the zone but must go through stringent security checks and be accompanied by a member of the military forces.
We had to wait about 30 minutes for our group’s turn to enter the zone, hanging around in the gift shop. With not much else to do, I splashed 5 yuan (about 60p) on some ginseng jelly sweets, just to say I had had some sort of ginseng while in Kaesong, which is recognised as having the best in the world. Photos were permitted in the shop but outside we were told that only the posters about reunification could be photographed, nothing else. We were also told that from this point no photos could be taken from the bus.
In the gift shop
When our group was called we had to hurry into a nearby room with several other groups where we were briefed on the background to the DMZ and the layout of the area by an officer, while our guide translated his talk into English and another into Chinese.
Map in the briefing room
Soldier giving the briefing
After the briefing we exited into the yard, where we lined up in twos and walked through the gate into the DMZ where we boarded the bus, which had been driven through separately. From this point on we were accompanied by a very serious young soldier throughout our visit.
On our drive into the DMZ we passed some old signs and some distance away a cluster of houses. I was surprised to see that people lived and farmed in the DMZ, although our guide told me it was only around this part – the rest is left as open ground and unused. Unsurprising, when much of it is a minefield.
The Armistice Talks Hall
The first building we visited was the Armistice Talks Hall, which is situated a little distance back from the border. It was here that those interminable meetings took place. Along with a number of other tour groups we gathered around the table (said to be the original one used during the talks) and a few of us grabbed a seat on one of the chairs (ditto). A military guide told us about the armistice discussions, with a naturally DPRK perspective - any difficulty in reaching agreement was due to the obstreperous attitude of the US, and eventual success the result of the North’s genuine efforts to bring about peace. We were also told which side of the table was used by which side - I was seated on the side of the US Imperialists and was consequently on the receiving end of a glower!
Armistice Talks Hall
~ Jane is on the North Korean side of the table
Armistice Talks Hall
~ I am on the US Imperialist side (taken by Jane)
Armistice Talks Hall
~ without tourists
The Peace Museum of the DPRK
From the Armistice Talks Hall we walked to the nearby hut where the armistice was actually signed, now known as the Peace Museum of the DPRK. There was a lot to see here and I spent more time looking around and taking photos than I did listening to the guide - something I do quite often, to be honest, as I can always read about a place later but I can’t replicate the experience of actually being there!
I did however take in his words about the two flags displayed on the table where the armistice was signed, which he told us were the original ones used on that day. According to him, the US refused to sign the document under their own flag, the Stars and Stripes, so the UN one was used instead.
The North Korean and UN flags
The armistice agreement
Around the walls is a fascinating collection of old photographs, newspaper cuttings etc., documenting not only the armistice signing but also subsequent significant events along the border.
Displays in the Peace Museum of the DPRK
In one display case I came across the axe that I mentioned above. The Panmunjom Axe Incident occurred in 1976 and brought an end to the ‘joint’ in ‘Joint Security Area’. Several US and South Korean soldiers started to cut down a tree with this axe because it was blocking their line of sight from a lookout post. The North Koreans saw this as breaking the agreement which stated that all activities in the area should be jointly agreed, and in the ensuing fight two Americans were killed, one of them with the axe itself.
The US unsurprisingly retaliated, three days later, in what they termed Operation Paul Bunyan - employing numerous ground vehicles, heavily armed special forces, attack helicopters, fighter jets and more to cut down the tree in 42 minutes. The tension between the two sides was such that for a while it seemed inevitable that the Korean War would be reignited, but thankfully it was in neither side’s interest to do so and sense prevailed. Since then, however, both have stuck firmly to their own half of the JSA.
The Panmunjom Axe
The Panmun Pavilion
Visits here are on a strict schedule so it wasn’t surprising really that we were hurried out of the Peace Museum and back on to our bus to drive the last stretch to the Panmun Pavilion which overlooks the actual border, here known as the Military Demarcation Line or MDL. We alighted from the bus near a large stone slab which is engraved with the autograph of Kim Il Sung and a date. We were told that on this date, 7 July 1994, the Great Leader signed a document relating to reunification. This was to prove to be his last act as Leader, as he died the following day, thus demonstrating that he was striving for reunification on behalf of his people until the very end. As with so many of North Korea’s monuments commemorating the Great Leaders, this slab is designed with many symbolic features. It is 7.8 metres wide, as he died on July the 8th, and its base is 9.4 metres wide, as he died in 1994. Eighty two Kimilsungia flowers are carved at the base of the monument, as the Great Leader was 82 years old when he died.
The autograph of Kim Il Sung
Making our way around the pavilion we came to the view that more than any other we had come to see. Straddling the MDL is a row of huts that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a news broadcast about the DPRK’s dealings with its southern neighbour and more recently the US.
The Military Demarcation Line from the Panmum Pavilion
~ this is the one place where photographing the military is not only allowed but actively encouraged
There are seven huts in total, all with a door at each end - one opening to the North and one to the South. According to my trusty Bradt guidebook, looking from left to right, the first, second and third huts are administered by the Korean People’s Army (KPA), United Nations Command (UNC) and the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) respectively, while the remaining four are under the jurisdiction of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC).
Behind the huts, the South Korean equivalent of the Panmun Pavilion, the House of Freedom, was facing us. I scanned it for signs of life but there was no one to be seen on its terraces and the reflective glass of its windows gave nothing away. The security cameras pointing in our direction were however clearly visible.
The South Korean House of Freedom from the Panmun Pavilion
Disappointingly we were not able to go inside the main hut, known as the Military Armistice Commission Conference Hall, as I had hoped - many tour groups do, and are able to walk around the central table, thereby briefly crossing the border into the South Korean part of the JSA. This is the only place where crossing that border is permitted - anyone trying to do so elsewhere risks being shot at, whether tourist or local. No explanation was given for that part of the tour being omitted; according to Carl, it just sometimes happens, unfortunately.
The Panmun Pavilion itself was built in 1969 and was for many years claimed to be a facade by the US. However I, along with everyone else in our group and presumably anyone who’s visited the DMZ from the North, can vouch for the fact that it is not, as we entered and climbed the stone stairs to the balcony on the third floor from where we got an excellent view of the MDL and beyond into South Korea.
Photos displayed inside the Panmun Pavillion
Kaesong Industrial Region buildings
We also saw the two flagpoles, one in the North, flying the DPRK flag, and one beyond it in the South, flying their flag. The former is noticeably taller - 160 metres to the South’s 98. It was erected in a direct response to the South, in the 1980s, and for a while North Korea could boast the tallest flagpole in the world. It has since been overtaken, following a similar ‘flagpole war’ in the Islamic world, and is now only the fourth tallest, but as it remains taller than the South Korean one, and taller than anything the US can boast, it seems likely that Kim Jong Un is happy with the status quo - for now.
North and South Korean flags
After we had all taken our photos of the huts and the MDL, we were summoned to pose for group photos here on the balcony, reinforcing my impression that the DMZ is a strange place, to say the least. Because of the large number of visitors and the slick operation that bused us in and guided us around the main highlights, it was sometimes easy to forget that this is one of the most tense borders in the world. At times it felt more like a tourist attraction, and then I would see something that reminded me of just where I was – like the South Korean posts opposite, for instance.
But one more slightly surreal DMZ experience remained. While most of the tour groups were visiting from Pyongyang on a tight day trip schedule, we were able to spend a little more time in the DMZ and enjoy lunch in a former army restaurant, Panmunjomkwan. This was once used by Polish and other Eastern Bloc Troops overseeing the armistice and is the only restaurant in the DMZ. We were welcomed at the door by smiling waitresses dressed in pseudo military uniforms, which, after the stern demeanour of the real military, added further to the oddness of the experience.
Welcome to the Panmunjomkwan Restaurant
Once inside and upstairs we could have been in any one of the many restaurants we visited in North Korea, apart from those uniforms, so again I had to keep reminding myself of where I was!
In the 'ladies'
The Concrete Wall
After lunch we drove back to Kaesong where we picked up another military escort for our visit to the concrete wall. He was much friendlier than the one at the DMZ, setting us a logic puzzle and pointing out some things along the way, like the ginseng fields. Chris decided to set him a puzzle in return, which seemed to both amuse and confuse him!
Ginseng growing on our way to the 'Concrete Wall'
The ride, along a rather bumpy road, gave me a chance to take some photos of the surrounding countryside and villages, as no restrictions were placed on our photography.
Landscapes near Kaesong, on our drive to the Concrete Wall
Villages passed on our drive to the Concrete Wall
On arrival we had a short walk up a steep path from where our bus parked, to a small building just outside the northern boundary of the DMZ. As we walked it dawned on me that this was no normal path but a trench, and the building in front of us a military bunker. Inside this building our escort’s demeanour changed and he was very formal and quite fierce in his briefing talk.
Briefing on the Concrete Wall
Here again the strongest messages were related to the pain of the division of their country, separation of their people, and desire for reunification one day. He talked about the recent North-South summit, at which the two leaders ‘declared to Korea and to the world that there would be no more war on the Korean peninsula’.
But I found myself wondering how easy they will find it to reunite when South Korea seems to lack the strong ambition and incentives to do that? The disparity between the two economies is such that the DPRK would surely prove a drain on any joint arrangements to a far greater extent than did East Germany when the two Germanys reunited. And that is before you even start to create the governance structure that would accommodate their very different political beliefs.
Map of the Concrete Wall in the briefing room
So what is the ‘Concrete Wall’? It depends very much on whom you ask. According to the South Koreans and the US, it is nothing at all - it doesn’t exist. But the North Koreans will tell you that it does, and was built by the South under the instigation of the US, with the aim of creating a permanent division between the two countries, counter to the North’s ambitions for reunification. In our briefing we were shown the line of the wall on a map and told that it is between five to eight metres high, with a gentle earth slope on the southern side that makes it much less visible to satellites. On the far side, he said, are numerous lookouts and border posts.
After the briefing we went outside, where a sunken terrace provides a wide view towards the south. I used my camera’s zoom lens to try to see the line of the wall, and also looked through the provided binoculars. Across the divide of the DMZ were South Korean military posts, with soldiers looking across at us, but for ages I couldn’t see anything resembling a wall.
South Korean military posts
But then I spotted … well, what did I spot? I couldn’t say for sure that I was looking at a concrete wall, but there certainly did seem to be something there.
Is this the Concrete Wall?
The doubters would say that I was looking at a few random earthworks or even natural ridges in the landscape. They would tell me that the wall is a clever invention of Kim Il Sung’s, designed to reinforce mistrust of the US and thus strengthen the love of the people for the Great Leader who protects them. But any North Korean, brought up to believe with unquestioning certainty in the existence of the wall, would recognise these distant smudges as proof indeed of the US’s ongoing aggression against their country.
As for the rest of us, the truth will probably remain as unclear as the view from this terrace. And does it really change anything if there is or isn’t a wall? With or without it this is still a formidable border between two countries still technically at war and for the present at least unable to reconcile their differences.
View south from bunker overlooking the Concrete Wall
As we walked back to the bus my phone suddenly picked up a signal from South Korea, and I got text messages for the first time since arriving in Pyongyang three days ago - a fleeting glimpse of the world beyond this tightly controlled border.
After our visit to the Concrete Wall our sightseeing at the DMZ was over. We drove back to Kaesong, where we dropped off our military escort (having exchanged the answers to our respective puzzles) and continued with our explorations of that city as described in my previous entry.
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!
Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.
This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.
Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.