The Reunification Highway
Time to contemplate or speculate.
Getting to Panmunjom, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ )and the border with South Korea requires a 175 kilometre trip from Pyongyang along the Reunification Highway (also called the Pyongyang-Kaesong Motorway). While the highway continues on a further 70 kilometres to Seoul it is closed at the border and a through journey in either direction is not possible.
The journey from Pyongyang to the DMZ takes about three hours though we spent a night in Kaesong some ten kilometres short of the DMZ prior to our visit to the DMZ the following day.
The highway was built between 1987 and 1992 and comprises four lanes in each direction. Rather an overkill if you subscribe to the view that the highway was built for civilian traffic or that civilian traffic was even a consideration in its construction. Traffic is extremely light on the highway (picture 1) and many times we travelled for five minutes or more without sighting anything more than a soldier or farmer on a bicycle.
Our guides assured us that the highway was built in the expectation that reunification was imminent and such a highway was entirely appropriate for the anticipated increase in traffic and trade that would result from that reunification. Indeed that might be so but the more cynical visitor might observe how suited such a wide and generally straight highway might be to the mass movement of troops and military equipment. Such a cynical visitor would undoubtedly also note that the central reservation between the two four lane roads is absent for 3-4 kilometres at regular intervals and might conclude that substantial aircraft could land on and take off from the highway.
The rather cracked and rough surface of the highway, while very noticeable and making for a rather uncomfortable journey by bus as the driver weaves from one side of the road to the other to avoid the worst of the unevenness, would present very little impediment to the military use.
The highway is punctuated with army checkpoints though we drove unhindered through most of these. I read somewhere that local people need clearance to use the highway but I think it is more accurate to say that locals need permission to move around within the country rather than to actually use the highway. Our guide certainly confirmed that access to Pyongyang was controlled though she emphasised that this was so that authorities were aware of who was in Pyongyang rather than any desire to restrict people from entering the capital.
At about the midpoint between Pyongyang and the DMZ we stopped for a leg stretch at what appeared to be the only comfort stop along the route and certainly the only place I have heard of tourists stopping along the highway.
As we approached the DMZ the number of checkpoints increased and with it the army presence though the existence of both was well less than I anticipated. This army presence, here and elsewhere, brought back memories of growing up in Northern Ireland through the worst of the “Troubles” in the 1970s and early 1980s and didn’t really phase on me after a day or two.
Something I did see in North Korea, especially as we approached the border, which we didn’t have in Northern Ireland was tank traps and other devices which could be used to disable the highway in the event of an incursion from the South. Large concrete pillars along the roadside (I didn’t get a picture) supposedly contain sufficient explosives to blow them up and consequentially close the road if necessary without unduly damaging the road itself. We passed these pillars/traps at regular intervals. Personally I would have though that it would have been much easier to take the road out with a few bombs dropped from an aircraft should the need arise than maintain a series of these pillars/traps on an ongoing basis but then again I imagine the pillars could be detonated more quickly by local military than it would take to scramble aircraft. I would also imagine that, should all out war break out, each side would have plans in place to disable land communication systems of the enemy at a very early stage of conflict.
Defenses within the DMZ and at the actual border (picture 2 courtesy of Association D’amitié Franco-Coréenne) are probably of more immediate use especially in the case of a surprise attack. The large concrete cubes pictured could be fairly easily dropped down to block the road – especially if supported by a small explosives charge. Incidentally this picture is of the actual entry road into the DMZ from the Visitor Centre. I would not have been game to take it!
In addition to contemplating the military implications of the Reunification Highway do take time to view day to day life along the highway. All along the highway is basically arable land (picture 3 – actually within the DMZ) and farmers were readying themselves to transplant the rice crop from growing beds into the already prepared fields. This is a major annual job and our guide explained how office workers (including tour guides!) from the cities and the army ‘volunteered’ and assisted the farmers with this work. While there was certainly evidence of mechanised farming techniques such mechanisation appeared basic and manual labour remains the key input into agricultural output. I noticed little or no livestock along the highway.
Before we prepare to enter the DMZ lets have a closer look at the comfort stop I referred to earlier in this review - “Dining al fresco en route to the DMZ”.
- Road Trip
Dining al fresco en route to the DMZ
The majority of our trips outside Pyongyang involved travel of less than a couple of hours. There were a few exceptions and apart from the trip between Pyongyang and Kaesong/Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) we were exhorted to ensure we had taken care of ablutions and other needs we might have as the bus would not be stopping en-route.
En-route to the DMZ from Pyongyang one official stop is made at what is referred to a service area (Sohung Rest House). This service area is set up solely for tourists and has all the trappings deemed necessary for the visitor to North Korea.
While there is a large building straddling the highway at the stop, the only thing accessible therein was toilet facilities making this perhaps the largest toilet block in the world. I read afterwards that it houses a restaurant – this certainly was not evident at the time of my visit.
The car-park (or rather bus park) is set-up with an al fresco teashop right by the Reunification Highway (see separate review) where tea is served by Korean ladies in national dress. Other beverages including beer can be procured here, as can fairly tasteless ice-cream. There is no need to worry about petrol fumes as you imbibe by the highway as there is practically no traffic on it.
Before, after or indeed instead of a cuppa spend some time souvenir shopping or stock up on snacks imported from Singapore. All souvenir shops in the DPRK stock pretty much the same things. Here you can find postage stamps, lapel pins (but not those of the Leaders which you see everyone wearing – they are bestowed on citizens), a very limited range of t-shirts, ginseng, feather fans, cigarettes, alcohol, overseas snacks, mushrooms and a tonic for expectant mothers. A young gentleman in our group procured a bottle of the tonic for his mother having no idea what it was given his inability to read Korean. Others, including me, stuck to stamps, t-shirts and snacks.
A popular activity at this point is to have your photograph taken standing in the centre of the highway, totally devoid of any traffic.
My, what fun you can have in North Korea.
Let us move on now to the Demilaritized Zone (though in reality we had an overnight stop in Kaesong before going to the DMZ the following day). Prior to receiving a briefing and entering the DMZ proper there are a couple of murals worthy a few minutes of your time - Reunification Murals.
- Arts and Culture
- Road Trip
Just prior to entering the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) we entered what I would describe as a sort of compound area. Here we were asked to get of the bus and attend a briefing session prior to continuing on into the DMZ. At this point the bus was searched ( I imagine for stowaways) and our local guides and the driver surrendered their identity documents to the military. They picked them up on our way out. This collection of identity documents is clearly a precaution against defections at the border itself though the risk of such must be miniscule as all guides are clearly party approved and 100% loyal to the leadership. Further, readers may be aware that defection by North Korean’s is not an action they take lightly. Putting it bluntly, a defector can anticipate that his or her family, close friends, etc will be rounded up and most likely killed.
This security detail does not involve tourists and I will presume that you would not enter North Korea in the first place if you desire was to defect from it! They will very willingly let you leave in more conventional ways should you wish to do so before your tour officially ends.
Do forgive me, I have digressed from the purpose of this review.
Having alighted from the bus I was drawn to two large murals as depicted.
While the subject matter of the murals is not surprising I did find their positioning a little perplexing.
Both murals yearn for a reunified Korea.
The first one shows happy smiling children, one from the north and one from the south, together in front of a map of a united Korea. This depicting of (always happy, smiling) people from north and south on murals and other propaganda material (including the Arch of Reunification at the beginning of the Reunification Highway just outside Pyongyang) is common and guides, to make the point that there is no difference, will ask you to spot the difference between the North Korean and the South Korean featured.
The second mural reminds the viewer that Korea is one and points to a reunified homeland.
What I find perplexing is trying to work out who these particular murals are directed it. Typically murals, etc are directed at North Koreans but there are no North Koreans in this area apart from those already fully converted to the cause. Also the murals face southwards so presumably directed at those coming from that direction. No-one comes from that direction with the possible exception of South Koreans working in special economic zone set up in nearby Kaesong wherein over 100 South Korean business including Hyundai have opened factories. I don’t know if this is the entry point for these workers. Barring this possibility I can only presume that the intended audience of these murals is indeed tourists.
Having examined the murals it was time to visit the DMZ Visitors Centre and adjacent toilets.
- Arts and Culture
Armistice Talks Hall
This was our first stop within the Demilitarised Zone.
The Korean War started on 25 June 1950 with the North’s invasion of South Korea (denied by the North which claims the South started the war). Three years later on 27 July 1953 the hostilities came to an end when an armistice agreement was signed. By this stage nearly 3 million people had lost their life in the war. The majority of the dead were, not surprisingly, Koreans – North and South. Nearly 50,000 Americans died as a result of the war.
Notwithstanding the tragic loss of life, the Korean War became the forgotten war of the 20th century, particularly so when it was eclipsed by equally tragic (and equally pointless) events in Indochina within a few short years.
Preliminary armistice negotiations had actually commenced in December 1950 between the United States and North Korea. South Korea, at the time, was against peace talks wanting instead to advance to the Yalu River (the Chinese border) and establish a unified Korea.
The South Korean position had changed by 1951 by which stage a stalemate seemed inevitable and formal talks began on 10 July 1951 with primary negotiators General Nam Il representing China and North Korea and Vice Admiral Charles Turner Joy, an American, representing the South, or more correctly the United Nations Command, an amalgam of countries with around a million troops in Korea ( well over 90% of which was from South Korea and the United States).
Armistice negotiations took place in this especially constructed building – the Armistice Talks Hall - at the edge of the then village of Panmunjom. The actual village of Panmunjom was destroyed in the war and not rebuilt. The Hall is located about 1km into the Demilitarised Zone and 1 km from the Border with South Korea.
The building, as you can see from the attached images, is small and basically holds a table and ten chairs for the negotiators (supposedly originals from the early 1950s) and some seating for officials.
Having completed negotiations and agreed on an armistice document both sides agreed (a rare occurrence) that the Armistice Talks Hall was to small for the signing ceremony. What each side had in mind in terms of where the agreement should be signed differed, of course.
The signing pavilion (now the Peace Museum) where the agreement was signed is next door to the Talks Hall so lets go there now - Armistice Agreement Signing Hall – Peace Museum
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Armistice Agreement Signing Hall – Peace Museum
After over 2 years of negotiations in the Armistice Talks Hall (see my separate review) and the death of nearly 3 million people the two combatants in the Korean War, North Korea/China and the United Nations Command or UNC (South Korea, the USA and about 10 other “minor” participants –importantly, under command of the US and not the UN) agreed on the terms of an armistice. In simple terms, the agreement to be signed would provide for an end to hostilities (a cease-fire), the creation of a demilitarized zone, the repatriation of prisoners and an agreement to continue peace negotiations.
The Armistice Talks Hall was deemed to small for a formal signing of the negotiated agreement.
Our guide explained how the defeated United States wanted the “surrender” agreement signed outdoors such that there would be no reminder left of the shameful defeat of the US in the Korean War. North Korea, he added, insisted that the agreement be signed in a building which would remain for ever a memento of the North Korean defeat of the US. The fact that no suitable building was available in the area was not a problem – the North Koreans built one (now the Peace Museum and subject of this review) in two days. The UNC paid for it. The building, adjacent to the Armistice Talks Hall, is basically a large shed – totally functional and appropriate to the task on hand at the time. An interesting feature is the inclusion of a peace dove above the entrance door – picture 1.
At 10 am on 27 July 1953 the armistice was signed (picture 4) by Nam Il, delegate of the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers, and William K. Harrison Jr., United Nations Command delegate. Kim Il Sung and his Chinese counterpart were barred from attending the signing ceremony due to their demands that if they attended officials from South Korea and the press could not be present.
The wording on the steele outside the building resonates with what our military guide told us:
It was here on July 27, 1953 that the American
imperialists got down on their knees before
the heroic Chosun people to sign the ceasefire
for the war they had provoked June 25, 1950.
It is important to remember that the armistice was only a cease-fire between military forces and not an agreement between governments.
As General Clark of the UNC stated at the time "I must tell you as emphatically as I can," in a statement, addressed to all members of the United Nations Command, "that this does not mean immediate or even early withdrawal from Korea. The conflict will not be over until the Governments concerned have reached a firm political settlement."
I suspect not even General Clark could have imagined that over 60 years later a political settlement remains to be agreed upon and, as such, North Korea and South Korea officially remain at war.
On the tables (claimed to be the originals form 1953) in this building are two signed copies of the Armistice Agreement (one in Korean and one in English) and what are allegedly the flags displayed by the parties at the signing ceremony
Our military guide asked us to look closely at the flags and note:
(1) that the surrendering Americans were too ashamed to use the US flag but rather decided to hide behind that of the UN, and
(2) how the UN flag had, over the last 60 years, faded to the extent that it is barely recognisable while the flag used by the North Korean delegation was as new looking as it was on the 27th July 1953.
I will leave you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusion on the authenticity/age of the North Korean flag based on the attached images – two and three.
The signing pavilion is now called the Peace Museum and, in addition to the artifacts I have just referred to, it contains a large number of photos (picture 5) extolling the virtues and greatness of Kim Il Sung, the wickedness of the US Imperialists and shows how all the woes of life can be attributed to Uncle Sam.
Also on display in the Peace Museum is an axe. This is worthy special mention so I invite you read about – The Axe Murder Incident - prior to our continuing on to the Joint Security Area.
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Kijong-dong Village. Is it or isnt it real ?
When the Korean Demiltarised Zone (DMZ) was established in 1953 two villages were permitted within the zone – one on the North side and one on the South side (Taesong-dong).
Tourists are not permitted to visit either village.
The village in the North’s half of the DMZ is Kijong-dong (picture 1) and was built in the early-mid 1950s. According to the North Korean Government the village is home to 200 families who operate a collective farm. It is fully equipped with kindergartens, childcare centre, schools and a hospital.
Southern/US sources contend that no-one lives in the village and it exists purely for propaganda purposes, built to entice the defection of soldiers from South Korea. These sources contend that the buildings are room-less concrete shells, the windows are glass-less, electric lights (unheard of anywhere else in rural North Korea in the 1950s) operate on a timer and the only people there are maintenance teams who occasionally sweep the streets to give the illusion that the village is occupied. It is further argued that the very orientation of the village is proof of the propaganda nature of the village with the bright blue roofs and white sides of the buildings orientated such that the best view of the village is that from the border.
Given the level of lies, deceit and propaganda generated by both sides it is impossible to know which story is true.
My image attached was taken from the Joint Security Area with a 20 times zoom lens but does not, alas, provide conclusive evidence of habitation or lack there-off. Other pictures I have seen of the village are as inconclusive as mine.
While I cannot draw a conclusion on whether the village is real or a fake I can make three observations based on my visit to the DMZ.
(i) Unlike the southern side of the DMZ which is, in the main, not farmed, land on the northern side of the DMZ is intensively farmed. My second picture shows farming land just to the east of the village with the village itself unseen but just across the horizon. The people who work this land clearly live somewhere – why not in Kijong-dong? As authorities deem it safe enough to have farmers working in the DMZ they would have no qualms about them living there in government provided housing. The granting of free/very low cost government accommodation to workers elsewhere in North Korea is common practice.
(ii) In addition to claiming that this village is a fake, for a long time the US and South Korea claimed that the large gray building - Panmumgak Hall - in the Joint Security Area, less than 50m back from the border was not a building but rather a facade only. As I was in this building I can debunk that view – it is a real three dimensional building. Extrapolating from this, Kijong-dong village may indeed be real too!
(iii) Why does the South/US not publish pictures taken with zoom lenses, etc not available to the average tourist? That said, I imagine any such pictures would be derided as fakes by the North and as such may have answered my own question.
Whether the village buildings are real or fake one thing was certainly for real until 2004. From circa 1953 to 2004 large speakers were mounted on many structures and blasted propaganda for up to 20 hours a day into South Korea. In the beginning the North’s broadcasts were aimed at enticing defections by relaying the virtues of living in the North. Later, when this was seen to be having little or no tangible impact, broadcasts switched to anti-Western propaganda speeches, Communist operas, and North Korean military songs. The South responded by broadcasting popular music and lectures on freedom and democracy.
Perhaps it was the Communist operatic broadcasts that shattered the glass in the buildings and caused the inhabitants to flee!
While it is not certain that both villages have residents in common there is one thing they certainly have in common and that is a big flagpole and flag, both of which can be seen from the Joint Security Area – “Mine is bigger than yours – The Flagpole War.”
- Historical Travel
Mine is bigger than yours – The Flagpole War!
The Korean War is now (in 2014) in its 61st year with no end in sight. Physical hostilities with a few very notable exceptions ceased on 28 July 1953, the day after the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in the Peace Museum (see my separate review) here in what is now commonly referred to as Panmunjom.
Since the Armistice Agreement the War has been a propaganda war played to the full by both camps. This propaganda war has been fought, and continues to be fought, on many fronts within Korea and around the world. Within the Demilitarised Zone and Panmunjom we have or have had the alleged existence of a Korean Wall, an allegedly fake village and other buildings – see my separate review, “Kijong-dong Village. Is it or isnt it real ?", loudspeakers broadcasting propaganda up to 20 hrs a day, leaflet drops, murals and electronic sign boards, oversized soldiers and last but not least flags.
When it comes to flags and their related flagpoles, size is of great importance. Big and small are represented in Panmunjom/DMZ. This review concentrates on the Big flags.
In the 1980s South Korea started what some refer to as the ‘Flagpole War’ - a game of one-upmanship and grandstanding - by erecting a 98.4 metre tall flagpole with a 130kg flag (picture 2) in Taesong-dong – South Korea’s Demilitarised Zone village.
North Korea was quick to respond to this 'sign of aggression' by the South with a 160 metre tall flagpole carrying a 270kg flag which it erected in its Demilitarised Zone village - Kijong-dong. When it rains, the weight of the flag is so great that it is taken down to prevent structural damage to the pole.
At the time this was the second tallest flagpole* in the world – second to an Azerbaijan flagpole in Baku which measured 162 metres. In 2011 a 165m flagpole was erected in Tajikistan pushing the North Korean flagpole into position number three. This is not a big concern for North Korea as its flagpole is still bigger than the South Korean one and that's what matters.
*There is some debate as to what constitutes a flagpole – some distinguish between flagpoles and flagtowers. This matters little here as the important point is the last sentence in the above paragraph.
Both flagpoles are visible from the Joint Security Area with the North Korean one also being visible from the entry to the Peace Museum where the Armistice was signed in 1953.
Above I indicated that both big and small flags have played an important role in the DMZ. While strictly out of sequence in terms of my visit, return with me, if you will, to the blue conference building straddling the border to consider the role of small flags - Little Flags and Naughty Soldiers
The Joint Security Area & Meeting Rooms
When most people think of the Korean Demilitarised Zone the image that most often comes to mind is one of Joint Security Area (JSA), and in particular the three blue and two white buildings therein which straddle the border between North and South Korea (picture 1). The JSA is the only place where visitors from both North and South Korea visit - albeit (with one exception - see below) their respective part of the JSA.
From within the JSA, those visiting from the North can have a close up look into the South while those visiting from the South can have a close up look into the North. It is where North and South Korean military personnel come face to face.
In one small part of the JSA you can actually cross the border, albeit temporarily.
As explained in my review, the Armistice Agreement Signing Hall – Peace Museum
military action or hostilities of the Korean War, with a few notable exceptions came to an end with the signing of an Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953. Notwithstanding this agreement both countries officially remain at war.
One of the outcomes of the Armistice Agreement was that both governments undertook to continue negotiations with a view to concluding a formal peace agreement that would end the war. Negotiations, such as they are, continue to this day.
To facilitate such negotiations a small area – roughly a circle of radius 400m straddling the border – called the Joint Security Area was set aside as a place where both parties, under the auspices of the Military Armistice Commission, could continue negotiations. The JSA was first utilised in 1953 for the exchange of prisoners of war following the end of hostilities.
Troops (subject to certain limitations in terms of numbers and firearms) from each country were allowed to patrol the JSA and each side was permitted to set up buildings, etc to facilitate diplomatic and military negotiations. Originally there was total freedom of movement of both sides within the JSA.
Following the murder, within the JSA, of two American officers in 1976 – the famous Axe Murder Incident - the JSA was split into two along the actual border line (also called the Military Demarcation Line or DML) and the former freedom of movement within the JSA ceased for both sides. Each side, from that date, was confined to their own side of the border. Picture 2 is a sketch of the JSA post 1976.
Five of the buildings in the JSA – UN Conference Row - the blue and white buildings you can see in picture 1 – straddle the border. In the centre blue building, the Military Armistice Conference Room, both sides meet at a table, the centre of which (identified by a row of microphones) marks the actual border between North and South Korea (picture 3).
The other four buildings in the UN Conference Row have varying uses. If Wikipedia is to believed (and our North Korean guides presented a different view) the white building on the left (looking into South Korea) officially called the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Recreation Room lacks recreation equipment and “North Korean Soldiers would go into the building during MAC Conferences, part the curtains, and make both rude and threatening gestures through the windows. U.S. and ROK troops gave the building the derisive nickname "The Monkey House" because of these antics.”
Visitors are only permitted to enter the central blue conference room (with guides) and this is the only area of the DMZ where we could freely walk around the table between both Koreas without running the extremely high (ok, almost certain!) risk of being shot. Do take my word for that if you visit. No-one, in 60 years, has succeeded in crossing the border in this area unless by prior arrangement!
Tours of the JSA are carefully arranged such that you will not encounter a tour from the South in the blue conference room while you visit from the North. The blue buildings are maintained by South Korea, while the white ones are maintained by the North. When tourists enter the blue conference room they are accompanied by soldiers and guides from the country from whence they came. A soldier or soldiers will stand in front of the door into the other country such that you cannot enter (picture 5).
Visiting from the North you are permitted to sit down at the table, visiting from the South you are not!
Between these buildings the raised concrete plinth marks the border (picture 4). You are not permitted to enter this area from either side.
Visiting this area you cannot fail to notice the positioning of soldiers. Do continue your journey with me and I will tell you a little about the soldiers here in the Joint Security Area - Soldiers on the border in the Joint Security Area
- Historical Travel
The Axe Murder Incident
With the signing of an Armistice Agreement in 1953 Korean War hostilities came to an end and former combatants commenced negotiations to bring about a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War, a war which gained practically nothing for either side but cost the lives of almost 3 million people.
At the time of my visit in April 2014 these peace negotiations were in their 61st year and peace between the two belligerents seemed no closer than it did when the military truce was called in 1953.
Since 1953 there have been nearly 1000 fracases and other incidents recorded in the demilitarised zone. The fracases and incidents to which I refer have ranged from fist fights, to shouting matches, to spying, to digging/finding tunnels and a number of deaths.
Many of these incidents occurred within the Joint Security Area (JSA), a circular area of around 800 metres diameter straddling the border set aside to allow both sides to physically meet and negotiate peace, post the Armistice Agreement. Given the close proximity of enemy personnel (both sides were initially totally free to intermingle and go anywhere – on either side of the border within the JSA) tensions were always high and very little provocation or the slightest slip-up could, did and do, cause serious problems.
The best known (and the one reported with most variability as to the details of what happened) of these incidents within the JSA is the Axe Murder Incident in which two US army officers were killed by North Korean forces on 18 August 1976.
The two officers were part of security detail protecting a working party engaged in trimming a poplar tree which was blocking the line of sight between a South Korean checkpoint and an observation post. Allegedly, the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) had tried to abduct Southern personnel from the checkpoint and drag them into Northern territory, hence the need to trim the tree.
On the morning of the 18th August 1976, armed with mattocks and axes and escorted by a security team of around 12, including US soldiers Captain Bonifas (in charge) and Lt Barrett, a working party went into the JSA to prune the poplar tree as previously agreed with the KPA.
The trimming group commenced work and within minutes about 15 KPA soldiers appeared under the commend of Snr Lt. Pak Chul who after about 15 minutes ordered that the trimming cease “because Kim Il Sung personally planted it and nourished it and it's growing under his supervision”. Bonifas ordered to trimmers to continue work and turned his back on Pak Chul.
Having brought in additional resources Pak Chul again ordered that the trimming cease. Bonifas reacted as before at which point Pak Chul shouted “ Kill the Bastards!”.
Wielding axes dropped by the tree trimmers, the KPA attacked the Bonifas security team. Within 20-30 seconds the ensuing fight was over and Bonifas lay dead on the ground. Barrett was found close by some time later. Seriously injured from axe wounds he died on his way to hospital - picture 2 - US Army picture in open domain
Shortly after the incident North Korean media reported it thus:
"Around 10:45 a.m. today, the American imperialist aggressors sent in 14 hoodlums with axes into the Joint Security Area to cut the trees on their own accord, although such a work should be mutually consented beforehand. Four persons from our side went to the spot to warn them not to continue the work without our consent. Against our persuasion, they attacked our guards en masse and committed a serious provocative act of beating our men, wielding murderous weapons and depending on the fact that they outnumbered us. Our guards could not but resort to self-defense measures under the circumstances of this reckless provocation."
I will not bore my reader with further detail of the incident. Suffice to say:
- a most trivial and avoidable incident lead to the death of two soldiers and the injury of many others
- a most trivial incident almost reignited full scale war
- the tree was subsequently trimmed to its bare trunk by an even lager Southern contingent without incident – Operation Phil Bunyan (picture 4 – on display in the nearby Peace Museum)
- freedom of movement within the JSA ceased following the incident such that, while the JSA remains, neither side can cross the actual border (Military Demarcation Line) which runs through the JSA as indicated by the red line in my attached picture 3
- An axe and other implements captured by North Korea (picture 1) is now on display in the nearby Peace Museum
- The tree trunk was later removed and replaced by a memorial plaque. Being in the Southern part of the JSA/DMZ I was, off course, unable to sight this on my visit to the JSA.
Of particular note is the fact that this is one of the only incidents that North Korea has ever come close to offering an apology for. Kim Il-sung expressed regret without accepting responsibility:-
"It was a good thing that no big incident occurred at Panmunjom for a long period. However, it is regretful that an incident occurred in the Joint Security Area, Panmunjom this time. An effort must be made so that such incidents may not recur in the future. For this purpose both sides should make efforts. We urge your side to prevent the provocation. Our side will never provoke first, but take self-defensive measures only when provocation occurs. This is our consistent stand."
Readers may be aware that in May 2014 the current leadership offered a no strings attached public apology for the death of an unspecified number of people when a partially constructed building collapsed in Pyongyang earlier that month.
The official government news agency, the Korean Central News Agency reported that "[North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un sat up all night, feeling painful…” while "[North Korea's minister of people's security] Choe Pu-il repented of himself…”
Perhaps the tide is turning but, of course, this was an internal apology and not one to American imperialist aggressors!
Having finished in the Peace museum we now move on to the Joint Security Area. On our short walk down to the border with South Korea we were required to pay our respects to the Great Leader - Kim Il-sung - The Great Leader’s last signature
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Soldiers on the border in the Joint Security Area
As I have indicated elsewhere in reviews on this page, the Joint Security Area within the Demilitarised Zone is where North and South Korean soldiers come face to face on a regular basis.
Ostensibly the soldiers are here to facilitate a peace negotiation process, and bring an end to a war which has now being running over 60 years. In practice they seem to do little more than watch each other, spy on each other and antagonize, out-do and outmaneuver each other to the maximum extent possible.
Soldiers here, on both sides, are hand picked. You will notice that they are larger and healthier looking than typical soldiers on either side. Off course, they are picked for their loyalty to their political masters and also their likely resistance to propaganda from the other side and defection.
While you will read much about soldiers standing face to face right on the border line it is actually rare that this happens in the sight of tourists. When Northern tour groups (like us) are visiting, Southern soldiers are no-where to be seen (naturally they see you though) and when Southern tour groups are there Northern soldiers while often seen (with cameras and video recorders) stand well back from the border.
It is interesting to note where soldiers stand when they are actually 'guarding' the border. With Northern soldiers, two stand right at the raised concrete border line while one stands between the buildings straddling the border facing towards the north (picture 1) - Yes that is a Samsung (South Korean) air-conditioner unit sitting in North Korea - this building is managed by the South! With Southern soldiers, two stand half hidden by the border buildings facing towards the north while a third stands, again facing north, between the other two (picture 4 – Wikipedia open license). While the Northern soldiers are clearly more prone to a pot shot from the South they see their positioning as a show of bravery and a willingness to die for the fatherland while their southern counterparts are lily-livered cowards hiding behind brick walls.
The Southern soldiers adopt a supposedly intimidating taekwondo stance, wearing Ray Ban sunglasses and oversized helmets (picture 5 – US Army public domain). The Ray Bans are to stop Northern soldiers looking them in the eye or knowing exactly where they are looking. Uniform-wise the Northern soldiers (pictures 2 and 3) look rather daggy in comparison the their stylish Southern counterparts.
Interestingly, while photography of soldiers is prohibited elsewhere in North Korea it is perfectly acceptable here – in what is undoubtedly the most tense 1000 square metres on the Korean Peninsula. Photography is open here solely because it is very restricted on the Southern side of the border.
Having viewed the buildings straddling the border we walked up to the Panmungak building from which we could clearly see Freedom House on the South Korean side of the border - Watching me, watching you. Panmungak/Freedom House
DMZ Visitors Centre and Toilets
Contrary to what is written by many visitors from South Korea to the DMZ, the “big gray building” - Panmungak - in the North Korean part of the Joint Security Area is not the North Korean Visitor Centre. More on that building in my separate review - Watching me, watching you. Panmungak/Freedom House.
Prior to entering the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) proper, our bus pulled up in a well guarded and secured compound such that requisite pre-entry procedures could be attended to.
Having alighted from the bus we were invited to attend a briefing in the Visitors Centre (It was not compulsory though naturally we all wanted to hear how out visit would unfold). The Visitors Centre, in addition to containing a couple of briefing rooms, doubles up as a souvenir and snack shop.
I have referred to a couple of very interesting murals adjacent to the bus stop in a separate review - Reunification Murals. These should be inspected on alighting from the bus.
Toilet and wash-room facilities are available across the road from the Visitors Centre. I don't normally write much on toilets but do mention these toilets in a little more detail and note that their criticality to many tourists has diminished since tourists have been legally allowed to possess mobile telephones in North Korea.
What’s he on, I hear you say. Do let me explain.
In the old days (just a year or so ago) taking a mobile phone into North Korea was illegal even though you couldn’t connect it to anything anyway. This didn’t stop people bringing them in. Many of the rules related to what you can and cannot bring into the country are enforced (or not) at the whim of immigration officials, based, it would seem, as much on their mood on the day as on the existent state of international relations.
In those days these toilets served as a clandestine setting for tourists wanting the make an illegal telephone call out of North Korea. Such tourists would make a beeline for the toilets in the hope that they could pick up a signal from South Korea and make a call.
While you could now openly try to connect to a South Korean network and perhaps get a call through, the bragging rights for so doing have diminished somewhat since you have been able to buy an international Sim card and call overseas from North Korea.
The toilets have thus now been returned to their more traditional use. You still cannot make telephone calls to numbers within North Korea.
Back in the Visitors Centre an officer from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) delivered, with the aid of a large maps, diagrams and a suitably impressive pointing stick, an historical overview of goings on in the DMZ and on the Korean War in general and briefed us on current conditions within the DMZ. The officer advised us that, for our safety and protection, he would be joining us on our tour of the DMZ and ensured us that our safety was of paramount importance to the KPA. To our relief, conditions were such that no trouble was expected on the day of our visit.
The briefing was in Korean (as were all briefings from "on the spot" guides) so it was duly translated by our ever-present local guides.
Feeling suitably briefed and confident that we would be fully protected by the KPA from any imperialist trouble we might encounter in the Joint Security Area later in the tour we made our way out of the Visitors Centre.
It was time to re-board our bus which was now awaiting us just inside the DMZ. Now that we were under military protection and supervision we were expected to up our game a bit. On instructions to do so, we assembled into rows, four abreast, for what amounted to a ten metres march towards the DMZ. Upon arrival at the narrow pedestrian entry point, row one, followed by row two and so on proceeded to enter the DMZ in single file and board our bus about twenty metres march away. Readers who have seen visions of the Korean People’s Army marching in Pyongyang will not be surprised to hear that no one in our group was offered a position in the army for their marching skills. My, what a motley crew we were!
Our first stop within the DMZ, a narrow 4km wide strip of land which separates the world’s largest concentration of military comprising two opposing armies officially still at war, was the Armistice Talks Hall situated about a kilometre from the Visitors Centre and, likewise, a kilometre from the border with South Korea. Do join me there.
- Historical Travel
Watching me, watching you. Panmungak/Freedom House
These are the two largest buildings within the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The buildings, one in North Korea and the other in South Korea are directly opposite each other and about 80 metres apart, separated by the UN Conference Row which straddles the border itself.
The North Korea building (Panmungak – picture 1), which for years the US claimed was a facade only (it’s not, I have been in it - or at least used the internal staircase to access the top floor balcony), was built in 1969.
The three-story building, in addition to affording tourists like me a good view across the border into South Korea, serves as offices for North Korean guards in the JSA as well as waiting rooms for representatives for armistice talks or inter-Korean dialogues. The third story was added in 1998 when Freedom House, in the South, was rebuilt. Contrary to the view of many it is not the North Korean Visitor Centre for the DMZ. The Visitor Centre is located two kilometres north of here at the entry to the DMZ. Picture 2 is an image of the rear of Panmungak.
The South Korean Building (Freedom House – picture 3) was built in 1998 replacing a rather more modest structure which had an octagonal pavilion on the roof. The octagonal pavilion has been preserved and can be seen just to the left of the new building looking at it from the North Korean side – picture 4.
The four-story building is topped with a transparent roof and houses a ‘South and North Liaison Office’ and a ‘South and North Red Cross Liaison Office’. Like its counterpart in the north, it supports various forms of inter-Korean dialogues. A slightly closer look will reveal numerous rather sophisticated cameras and observation devices pointed directly northwards – picture 5. Fewer and less sophisticated looking equipment can be seen on Panmungak – this, unsurprisingly, points southwards.
While Freedom House has one story more than Panmungak I believe the latter is higher perhaps because it sits on higher ground. If you have read or read others of my Panmunjom reviews you will understand that size does matter in the DMZ and bigger is better.
From the third floor balcony of Panmungak we were able to see (in the distance) Kijong-dong Village which the South assures us is entirely fake and which the North assures us is a typical thriving North Korean village. Let us continue and have a look - Kijong-dong Village. Is it or isnt it real ?
Little Flags and Naughty Soldiers
On your visit to the DMZ from either side of the border you cannot fail to notice two massive flagpoles and flags, one North Korean and the other South Korean. I have written a separate review on these flags -Mine is bigger than yours – The Flagpole War . In that review I also mentioned how the Korean War, with the signing of the Armistice Agreement in 1953, in the main, converted from one of direct military combat to one of propaganda. In addition to direct propaganda, one-upmanship and brinkmanship have long (since 1953) been key components in gaining the upper hand and the minds of people on the Korean Peninsula and in the wider world. Every opportunity to provoke and antagonize the enemy is grabbed by both sides. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.
The two large flagpoles and flags are a classic example of one-upmanship and certainly from North Korea’s perspective an example of provocation and aggression on the part of the South which erected its flagpole first.
When the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room, right on the border in the centre of the Joint Security Area (see my separate review) first opened there was a shelf of small silk flags – one belonging to each of the 18 countries in the United Nations Command plus the UN flag – located close to the southern door of the room.
In 2003 two North Korean soldiers in response to statements made by President Bush and in a shameful act of provocation entered the room and deliberately defaced the flags of South Korea and the United States.
The shelf of flags was subsequently removed and replaced with Plexiglas-covered board behind which the flags are now displayed (picture 1).
I wonder what the two soldiers in my picture are thinking – are they eying up us tourists or are they thinking about how they could get out, unnoticed, with the current flag display? To protect the innocent, I should say that these two soldiers look a tad young to have been the naughty soldiers responsible for defacing the flags in 2003.
Another interesting story relates to the size of flags used at early negotiation meetings which were held in tents prior to the construction of the Armistice Talks Hall and other more permanent structures.
In the early days, the story goes that the Southern side, one night, sawed down the legs of the Northern delegate chairs such that at the next meeting the latter were forced to sit lower than their Southern counterparts making them feel compelled to walk out of the meeting to save face. At a subsequent meeting Southern delegates arrived with a small table flag while the Northern side had none. At the next meeting the Northern side arrived with a larger flag than the southern side. At the next meeting the Southern flag was larger and so this continued until a special series of meetings were held just to discuss the size of flags as they had, by that stage, grown to large to fit within the tents!
These meeting eventually set the permitted size for flags for use in meetings and flags have remained about the same size since though with some variation in terms of thickness of trim, size of truck on top of the little flagpoles and such like.
This battle of wills and one-upmanship sounds like great fun and indeed it might be were it not that the DMZ and the JSA is one of the world's most tense military locations, truly a time-bomb that can explode at any second. As anyone with kids will tell you, playful banter and fun can all to easily end in tears. Over the years the JSA has seen nearly 1000 fracas’s ranging from fistfights to shouting matches to a number of deaths.
Quite literally a desecrated or inappropriately sized flag has the potential to re-ignite the Korean War.
On that rather sombre thought our tour of the DMZ and the JSA has come to an end and it is time for lunch. I do hope you can join me for lunch in the DMZ - "Dining in the DMZ"
- Historical Travel
The Great Leader’s last signature
On the 8 July 1994 the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, passed into immortality. On his passing he became the Eternal President of the DPRK still guiding his people from the afterlife and forever alive in their hearts.
The day before Kim Il-sung died at his beloved Mt Myohyang mansion he was serving his people at Panmunjom. Above all, he had committed his life to the ordinary people of Korea and to the cause of a reunified Korea.
It was thus fitting that the last document he reviewed and signed was a reunification-related document to be considered at a forthcoming inter-Korean summit and potential meeting with South Korean President Kim Young Sam.
An enlarged copy of this signature (with the date in the format he always used) appears on this stone monument in the Joint Security Area (JSA), about 50 metres from the border with South Korea. The monument is a constant reminder to soldiers on the border of their calling – a calling to fight to the death, if necessary, for the reunification of Korea.
As is typical with monuments and the like in North Korea, this monument contains more symbolism than immediately meets the eye. The slab containing the Great Leader's final signature is 7.8 metres wide – he had died on July the 8th. The base of the monument is 9.4 metres wide – the Great Leader had died in 1994. Eighty two carved Kimilsungia flowers adorn the base of the monument – the Great Leader was 82 years old when he died.
Unlike everywhere else in North Korea, the JSA is strangely bereft of any statues or murals depicting any of the Kim family. As such, this monument is the focal point in the JSA for worshiping and idolizing the Great Leader. Fittingly it was our first stop within the JSA.
Our guide placed, on the groups behalf, the requisite bunch of plastic flowers at the foot of the monument, we made our bows and were reminded of the greatness of Kim Il-sung. It had been a good 20 minutes since we has last heard of the wonderous exploits of the Great Leader!
Due respect paid and other formalities out of the way we were free to move down the border with our guides and under the protection of the Korean People’s Army. Do join me at the border in - The Joint Security Area & Meeting Rooms
- Historical Travel
Korean Peoples Peace Museum - North Korean Side
This oddly named building is only a museum to peace because the Armistace was signed in it. Otherwise it is a propoganda exhibit extolling the virtues of Juche Ideology, the ruling Kim family, and the glory of protecting a tree Kim il Sung planted (even though it was older than him) by axe murdering 2 US Army soldiers who were cutting it down. It is a sickening place, where little emphasis is placed on peace.
A female tour guide (there are no male ones) will lead you around and extoll the virtues of Dear Leader and Beloved Leader while explaining how the North is just a pawn of the UN to deprive the Korean people of their identity and culture. It has all the tact and honesty of a Nazi leaflet.
Special attention should be paid though, they take their adoration of their leader very seriously. And there is always going to be an escort with you, even when you have the tour guide. Don't make fun of the leaders, don't rag on the Juche ideology. It will not be good for you to do so, if you know what I mean.