A fading photograph, pinned to the chain-link fence, tells the whole story, identifying the members of a family still divided by the geopolitics of half a century. All the main actors from the military drama of the 1950s are long dead, although many soldiers, civilians and refugees from many countries remember the horrific battles that swept across the whole Korean peninsula for three years. Like most recent wars, no family was left untouched, and fate determined the location of fathers, brothers and sons on the day the armistice brought the whole pathetic saga to an end. Hundreds of thousands of Korean, American, and Chinese soldiers together with a smaller number of soldiers from a handful of other nations fought over the lands so far from the daily responsbility of Truman, Stalin and Mao. Fifty years of subsequent leaders have been unable to solve the dilemma of the Korean divide, and one is left wondering if Korea’s allies have ever had Korea’s best interests at heart. For the Soviet Union and China, it was helpful having a fellow Communist state sitting close to Japan and Taiwan; for the USA, what a great place to base soldiers, planes and ships to patrol much of the northern Pacific Ocean.
Yet for all the superpower posturing, none seem to have made reunification of Korea a real priority over time, preferring to push their own interests.
Here at the wistfully named Freedom Bridge, Koreans tread a solemn constant path to tie their wishes, dreams and hopes to the fence. Until several years ago, the rails of the single railway track were totally silent. Then after a North-South summit in 2001, a station was constucted to the north of the bridge, at Dorasan, a symbolic ultra-modern station waiting for the railway to be allowed to continue the few symbolic kilometres across the plain to Kijongdong in the North. Three trains continue past Imjingak each day to terminate at Dorasan, under signs that already show Pyongyang as a destination. Even with these trains now slowly crossing the steel girder bridge, the symbolism remains. For those released from the North during the last 50 years, the southern side of this bridge was where refugees fell into the arms of their relatives. It was always a one-way journey.
Contrary to what many visitors believe, the other side of the river bank is not in North Korea, nor is it even in the Demilitarized Zone. This makes the extreme sensitivity over photography somewhat curious, and is possibly simply to “heighten the senses” of the border, even though it is some kilometres away. Those are South Korean farmers on the far side of the river.
Imjingak, although distant from the border, remains symbolic and is a key place to visit to get a feel for the situation on the border. While the area may have a funfair look and feel to it, this may be misleading: the activities are mainly to keep the kids occupied leaving Korean parents free to remember, pay their respects and to wonder what the future holds.
As well as the emotional side of Imjingak, the place is used to justify military action, and there is plenty of military and political propaganda. An anti-Communist propaganda exhibition hall extols the virtues of the free world, and nearby there is a huge memorial to Koreans murdered in a bomb attack in Myanmar. A variety of other memorials and statues are scattered around among the trees and the manicured gardens.
The North Koreans have persistently constructed tunnels stretching from the North into South Korea, or at least the part of the Demilitarized Zone controlled by the South. Three tunnels have been discovered – or at least their discovery has been announced – and are now open for visitors, and have had museums and visitor centres contructed at their southern end. There are believed to be more, and American and Korean forces regularly drill into the ground to intercept suspected tunnelling activities.
At the Third Infiltration Tunnel, just to the north-east of the Dorasan Observatory, Korean soldiers patrolling the area on 17th October 1978 saw puffs of sand coming up from cracks in the ground. An intercepting tunnel was constructed and this particular tunnel was stopped. The North Koreans had even gone to the extent of smearing coal dust into cracks to make it look as if they had just been mining coal – a geological impossibility – and had built a slight slope in the tunnel to allow water to drain towards the tunnel entrance.
The tunnel is over 1600 metres long, with 435 metres ito the South. The Third Infiltration Tunnel is usually the first stop on the shuttle bus tours from Imjingak. A short introductory film about the war is shown, but this is missable and you can continue through the rear doors into a small but excallent museum about the Demilitarized Zone. Missing the short film gives more time here before heading down one of two interceptor tunnels to see the North Korean tunnel. The smaller, original interceptor tunnel uses a conveyor system to transport visitors down to the bottom, but most now use the newer, bigger 400 metre long steep pedestrian tunnel. It’s a long walk down – and feels even longer on the way back.
The tunnel is about 1.8m in diameter and was constructed by blasting with dynamite.
It has been calculated that the tunnel had the capcity to move one artillery division per hour, and that the exit point was intended to be just 44km from Seoul – the closest of the three known tunnels to South Korea’s capital. Walking down the claustrophobic but well-lit tunnel, the tour comes to a sudden end by a brick wall and a padlocked door. This is directly below the Median Demarcation Line, and beyond lies a large amount of booby-trapped explosives. CCTV cameras keep a lonely vigil on the closed door.
Out in the fresh air once again, the surrounding forest provide little clue as to the proximity of the heavily mined DMZ (which starts just a few metres away up the slope). There is just a very low, narrow ridge beyond which is the wide plain separating North and South.
The next stop on the tour is usually the Dora Observatory.
Unless the P’anmunjom JSA is on your itinerary, the only time you get inside the DMZ is at the Dora Observatory, which sits on top of a wooded ridge overlooking the wide shallow river valley that separates the two Koreas.
The huge concrete facility was opend in September 1986, and is extremely close to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, although you wouldn’t know that from the lengthy route taken by the tour bus!
The building consists mainly of a theatre room looking out over the plain to the North. A scale model sits by the window, showing all the key points in this part of the DMZ. It is one of the few places that you will be able to see the detail of this area.
Outside the building, a long wall fronts a terrace from where there are unimpeded views of the DMZ stretching away in the haze towards North Korea. Photography is not permitted at the wall, but may be taken from behind a yellow line painted on the concrete some ten metres back – fairly useless really. Quite why this absurd rule exists is not known, but it is enforced by grim-looking guards. The tour guide blandly states that it is because of jumpy North Korean guards, but as they are several kilometres away this is ridiculous. More likely is that there are facilities in the bushes on the slopes directly below the observatory. All very melodramatic.
Just a kilometre south-west of the Dora Observatory, where the wooded ridge slopes down to the plain, is the new Dorasan Station, the new railway terminus. This is most certainly not intended to be the terminus, and signs in the station show directions for trains to both Seoul and Pyongyang. Trains for the former depart three times every day; trains for the latter may be some time in coming. The rails continue for just a few metres towards a short tunnel at the southern end of the ridge, but then the tracks become rusted and decayed. The track bed continues for several kilometres past the village of Kijongdong, in the People’s Republic of Korea. In the middle of the DMZ, close to the MDL, is the rusted carcass of an old steam locomotive.
At Dorasan Station, it is all taken very seriously and there are posters, plans and propaganda showing how one day trains will run all the way from Seoul to London and Paris. Given that they don’t even do that from Beijing or even Moscow, this seems wishful thinking of the highest order.
Visitors can present their passports – or any piece of paper – to have the Dorasan Station stamp applied as a souvenir of this odd monument to hopefulness.
The railway was originally constructed in 1906, and has been out of operation since 1950. The 12km section between Munsan and Imjingang was reopened for service in September 2001, and the continuation to Dorasan a year later.
There is a station in the DMZ, Jangdan, where the old steam locomotive lies. The first North Korean village on the line is Kijongdong, but the line doesn't start again until the North Korean town of Gaesung, 8km away.
It is an unhappy ride for many Koreans, along the coastal highway to Imjin'gak on the banks of the Imjin-gang river. Steadily the fortifications increase, and from the outskirts of Seoul, the Hangang river, and then the Imjin-gang river are bordered by high barbed-wire fences and guard-posts every few hundred metres. Beyond, farmers tend to their crops under the ever-present binoculars of South Korean and American guards. Although the Hang-gang outside Seoul does not face North Korea, there have been persistent attempts by the North to infiltrate the South and using the river has long been a favourite for sending spies southbound. Few ever make the trip northwards.
The range of cultural attractions and interesting sites of the whole area north-west of Seoul have long been overshadowed by the military activities and fortifications in and behind the Demilitarized Zone. Life goes on, but it is under more scrutiny and tension than most citizens would like.
As the Hang-gang bends away to the south for a stretch, the Imjin-gang joins from the north and for a few kilometres, the coastal road is much closer to North Korea than many visitors realise, just across the shifting, muddy banks in the wide river mouth. The misty hills on the north bank are part of the North. However, the Median Demarcation Line starts on the other side of the Imjin-gang shortly, and North Korea recedes physically, but not mentally. The fortifications become ever more obvious, with road obstruction equipment stored under sheets by the side of the highway, and more impressive watch-towers and guard blocks on both sides of the road.
Finally, after another twenty minutes crusing the brand new road, Imjin-gak, now called a 'resort' comes into view. It is a stretch of ramshackle museums, souvenir shops and artefacts from the war, cobbled together with a few quiet, solemn memorials and altars. Around the car park is the most unlikely location for a funfair, but here it is: the free world's testimony to sadness and horror, where you can ride the merrygoround just a few metres away from an old lady weeping for her unforgotten family north of here.
If you are not Korean, the showground appearance tends to trivialise the whole aurroundings. Shops selling wind-up bunny rabbits near the end of the Freedom Bridge; souvenir hats on sale for W7000 within sight of placards stating "No Photography!". It's as if the bizarre, surreal, nonsensical world of North Korea has seeped through the fences into the South.
Imjin-gak is not on the border, contrary to what the first impression suggests, but next to the Demilitarized Zone. In fact, since 1976, when both sides agreed to keep to their own side of the media Military Demarcation Line, the bank on the other side has effectively been as safe as the south side, for the demarcation line is further north, where there the fences are considerably taller, considerably more menacing and the scene of the most frightening military stand-off anywhere in the world.