Two Koreas: living on the fault line

This 2008 story seems particularly relevant at this time…

Sixty kilometres from Seoul, a metropolis of twenty million, Stalinist troops, pumped up with fear and loathing, will shoot on sight to defend the impoverished hermit kingdom of North Korea.

Observing North Korea from the Dorasan Observation Tower

Observing North Korea from Dorasan Observation Tower

For my visit to the world’s last Cold War frontier I booked ahead – you can’t go it alone – and dressed more or less smartly for the occasion, as dictated by military authorities. The “Dee Em Zee” is a no-go zone, a cease-fire line which has divided the Korean Peninsula since the 1953 armistice brought the Korean War to an end. Strewn with more than a million land mines it has, ironically, become a haven for endangered wildlife.

The tour coach rolls along the eight-lane Freedom Highway, following the Hangang River northwest out through the satellite cities of greater Seoul. Signs point, optimistically, to Pyongyang, the northern capital. Barbed wire fencing lines the riverbank continuously: in the past North Korean commando squads have penetrated as far as the presidential palace in Seoul.

Within an hour of downtown Seoul, pink-faced soldiers – conscripts, incongruous in their camouflage fatigues – check passports before waving the bus onto the Tongil Bridge, zigzagging between barricades. As foreigners we will be entering a zone barred to most South Koreans without exhaustive security clearances.  The DMZ begins 7 km further on.

Infiltration tunnels constructed by the North have become theme park attractions with a powerful propaganda message. The Third Tunnel, penetrating 1.6 kilometres – that’s a full mile – through solid bedrock only 44 km from Seoul, was capable of moving 30,000 troops per hour.  Led by a defector familiar with its construction, South Korean authorities drilled 107 bore holes before intercepting the tunnel in 1978. Patently transparent attempts had been made to disguise the granite bedrock as coal seams.

Equipped with hard hats, we are led down into the dripping, gloomy depths (where photography is not permitted). Back in the daylight, a shiny visitor centre offers diorama displays and tear-jerking video presentations: children weep, uncomprehending; weather-beaten elders are reunited.

Near the Third Tunnel, Dora Observatory is one of several observation towers where visitors peer through telescopes at the craggy landscape of North Korea and at the deceptively peaceful town of Gaesong, or more precisely at the showpiece industrial zone where Hyundai and other corporations have set up assembly plants. The North Korean flag flutters from an enormous mast.

Dorasan Railway Station is pure propaganda, a symbolic showpiece unblemished by the tramp of passengers’ feet. Although excursion trains arrive sporadically from the south, no tickets are ever sold here as the only way to go is back.  Until the far-off day when passenger trains cross North Korea en route to China or the Trans-Siberian, this gleaming new terminal will gather dust. Equally empty are the highway toll plaza and border station nearby.

At Imjingak it’s pure theme park complete with toy train rides, monuments and manicured gardens, coach park and souvenir stands. Twelve thousand refugees fled south across Freedom Bridge here after the 1953 cease-fire.

A few more kilometres and theme park gives way to chilling reality.

At the base at Camp Bonifas, we change buses and take on a United Nations military escort – that is, a US military escort – to continue on the border post at Panmunjom. Alighting, we form two straight lines, no laughing, pointing or waving. North Korean guards are seen patrolling, but since the notorious axe murder of two American officers supervising a 1976 tree-felling party, neither side’s officers will cross the Military Demarcation Line, the actual border. The so-called Joint Security Area now exists only in name.

We enter the boxy blue cabin in which both sides meet for talks.  Beefy South Korean guards stand alert, faces blank behind aviator sunglasses: no fresh-faced conscripts here. The axe murder and other, more recent, incidents demonstrate that the North Korean officers manifest a fanatic, xenophobic hatred and contempt for enemies of the regime.

After a brief layover at Camp Bonifas, where soldiers’ wives operate a souvenir store stocked with North Korean herbal wines, banknotes, ginseng tea and chocolates, it’s back down the highway to Seoul.

The contrast is overwhelming.

On this sultry summer evening, rock concerts and food festivals get underway in parklands across Seoul; an occasional white-gloved policeman appears positively inoffensive. In Seoul Plaza, a grassy expanse outside the city hall, the H.O.T. Chilli Pepper Festival kicks off with an open-air rock concert and food tastings.

Costumed performers at a food festival, Seoul

Costumed performers at a food festival, Seoul

A few blocks away the Seoul Food Festival is gathering momentum on the banks of Cheonggyecheon, the revitalised rivulet which runs through central Seoul.  I savour the beautifully-packaged rice cakes; in North Korea, food of any sort is scarce.

Tonight, let’s seek out some homespun cooking from the North.

After a few false starts, I find my way to Pyeongyang Myeonok, an old-established restaurant in the Dongdaemun district, which from the street resembles a car dealership.  The walls of the restaurant, which apparently which trades on exiles’ nostalgia, are bare save for a montage of newsclips and smiling faces.  My bowl of naengmyeon, cold buckwheat noodles and meat broth, seems suitably austere until enlivened a little with mustard.

More images from the DMZ and from Seoul

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