A Trip to the Cold War’s Last Border

Posted: April 29, 2011 in Interpreter
Tags: , , ,

A new post for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog – a good foreign policy blog that does not originate in the US. About a trip I recently made to Seoul, during which I had to make a pilgrimage to the border with the North. Interesting experience and one day I guess I would like to try to do it going the other way. One detail I realise I did not mention, I actually was visiting a Korean friend in Seoul, but he was not allowed to come on the same trip as the other foreigners. I did not quite catch if they are ever allowed to go and would welcome anyone who can tell me this. Thanks as ever to darling Sue Anne for her great photos.

A trip to the Cold War’s last border

By Raffaello Pantucci – 29 April 2011 3:26PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Stepping into North Korean territory was not quite as dramatic as I thought it would be. The small huts straddling the demarcation line between North and South Korea in the Joint Security Area are small plots of land that are each half owned by each side.

Essentially neutral zones in which the two sides have official discussions when required, but that in true capitalist style, have been turned into part of a tourism trip by the enterprising South.

The trip to the DMZ from the South is one that starts in a hotel in Seoul where you take an hour and a half bus ride to the border.

A rather tall and camp Korean chap who referred to himself as the ‘Handsome Mr. Kim’ was our guide and spent the time regaling us with stories of North Korean activities .

Massive speaker systems that blasted propaganda to either side. Competitions between the two sides to build ever bigger buildings and flags. And stories of North Korean workers in the Kaeson industrial complex who would only get paid $5 of the $65 the companies were paying for them and would sneak out choco pie snacks that they would be given as an afternoon snack to sell on the black market.

He also warned of things we could not do: take pictures unless explicitly told to, attempt any communication with soldiers in the North or point across to the other side.

Failure to heed these warnings and we could be shot.

An older European woman who was on our trip looked horrified, wondering what on earth her gleeful looking husband had dragged her along to.

Once at Camp Boniface our passports were checked and they verified that no one had cameras of too high a resolution. Amusingly enough, the only chap whose camera was of too high a resolution was a Chinese tourist who had joined our group — them’s the rules the guides told us, but I have a feeling he felt singled out.

Then once at the border we were told in quite strict terms that no pictures could be taken of anything on the South Korean side — one American in the group transgressed and was forced to delete his pictures while a sunglassed Korean soldier loomed over him.

On the Northern side, only one soldier came out to stare at us as we watched the Hermit Kingdom from the comfort of the South.

Scanning us using binoculars, he unfortunately did not encourage his friends to come out and perform for us.

Inside the hut where I crossed the border, we were shown flags on the South side that had been placed behind glass since North Korean soldiers had come into the hut while former President Bush was in Seoul and blown their noses and shone their shoes with the US and South Korean flags that used to be there on little stands.

Having had our moment in the North, we were taken around the rather desolate area that makes up the official DMZ by bus, with a pass by the infamous spot where a tree being cut down almost led to war and to the Taesong (freedom) village that sits inside the DMZ, with a giant flagpole and cathedral and where people are encouraged to stay and be farmers with large subsidies and a tax free lifestyle.

The equivalent village in the North we were reliably told, was a Potemkin village with no one living in it, but with a giant 600kg DPRK flag flying high above it.

The final stop was the souvenir shop where we could buy seemingly unlimited supplies of mint North Korean currency and bottles of blueberry wine or an alarmingly bright green pear brandy.

I was of course tempted, though I did wonder where on earth they got this seemingly unlimited supply from and hoped that my money was not ending up in the North.

On the journey back, our guide complained about how bitter he and his countrymen were at all ‘their money’ that the previous government had been dishing our to his ‘greedy brother’ Kim Jong Il. I can only hope that my money did not also end there.

Back in Seoul we went past a square where preparations were underway for an anniversary event to commemorate the first anniversary of the sinking of the Cheonan.

While Mr. Kim told us how lots of young Korean men had streamed to join the marines after that event, a number of the other Europeans on the bus had absolutely no idea what had taken place.

Photo by Sue Anne Tay.

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