Thursday, February 25, 2010

Return to the Demilitarised Zone


I first visited the Demilitarised Zone(DMZ) last September and on Saturday I returned, to find out more about the events that have shaped the Korean peninsula since it was first divided in two, following the Second World War.


Like a bizarre Cold War theme park, there are a number of tours you can take in the DMZ and one of the most popular ones is the Panmunjoem tour. During the Korean War, the village of Panmunjeom was at the centre of all peace negotiations from 1951 to 1953. It was here that the final armistice was signed on July 29, 1953, resulting in the creation of the DMZ, along the 38th Parallel.

After the signing of the Armistice Agreement, a new site was constructed approximately 1km south of Panmunjeom for further peace negotiations to take place in. Although the new site is often referred to as Panmunjeom, it is officially known as the Joint Security Area(JSA), an 800 metre square area of land that is policed by the United Nations and North Korea.

After boarding the coach in Seoul, we travelled north towards the Demilitarised Zone along the Freedom Highway. The Han River beside it was frozen and a layer of snow covered the landscape. Once again we passed through security checkpoints and the passports of everyone on the tour were checked by South Korean soldiers.

We then headed to Camp Bonifas, the base camp for the United Nations Joint Security Force, at the southern entrance to the DMZ. After changing coaches, we then went to the Ballinger Hall, for a briefing on the history of the area.

Once inside we were asked to sign a declaration form relieving the United Nations of any responsibility should anything happen. The slide show at the briefing proved to be extremely informative, giving a detailed account of the history of the DMZ and events that have occurred there.Home to 500 South Korean and US troops, Camp Bonifas was originally called Camp Kitty Hawk and was renamed in 1986 in honour of Captain Arthur G. Bonifas.

On August 18, 1976, a South Korean work party supervised by a United Nations Command(UNC) security force was attacked by a group of North Korean soldiers. There to prune a tree obscuring visiblity between two outposts near the Bridge of No Return, what ensued has become commonly known as 'The Axe Murder Incident' and is one of the most tragic events to have occurred in the DMZ since its inception in 1953.

When confronted by the North Korean soldiers, the 5 members of the work detail fled, leaving behind 14 UNC personnel. Outnumbered by the 30 Korean People's Army(KPA) soldiers, during the fight the Joint Security Force Commander, Capt. Arthur G. Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark T. Barrett, were both killed by the KPA soldiers who used their own pikes and clubs, as well as axes left behind by the work detail.


The Joint Security Area

After the briefing we got back onto the coach and then headed towards Panmunjeom. On the way our guide pointed out 'the world's most dangerous golf course'. Located at Camp Bonifas, the one hole, par 3 course, was once surrounded by landmines on three sides and was famously featured in Sports Illustrated Magazine.

We then drove past anti-tank walls and through a gap in a minefield that stretches across the whole country. About seven metres wide, with huge, razor-sharp barbed wire fences on either side, the minefield provides one of the biggest disincentives for anyone wishing to enter South Korea illegally from the North. Along the base of each fence small stones were piled up, one on top of another, the purpose of which is to detect if anyone has infilitrated South Korea.

Upon arriving in Panmunjeom, we were advised not to smile or wave at the North Korean soldiers if we saw any. The reason for this was because if any photographs were taken, they could be used as a propaganda tool. For a brief moment the surreal thought of becoming a media celebrity in North Korea entered my head. We were also warned to only take photographs in the designated areas.

Once off the coach we were escorted to the Military Armistice Commission(MAC) building, which is definitely one of the highlights of the tour as it allows you to actually enter North Korean territory. One of three single storey structures that are light blue with corrugated rooves, it is here that the main peace discussions take place between North and South Korea.

A number of South Korean soldiers were on guard, all of them looking very serious in their dark sunglasses and standing in a taekwon-do stance, which our guide told us was to look more intimidating. Each one of the soldiers outside only had half their body exposed to the North Korean side, so that they could easily escape if they were shot.

Inside the MAC building there were two more South Korean soldiers, both in the taekwon-do stance. In the middle of the room was a table with the flags of the United Nations and North Korea on it, as well as a row microphones going down the centre of it, denoting the border between North and South Korea.

One soldier stood at the end of this table, whilst the other stood guard at the far end of the building in front of a door leading to North Korea. We were advised not to walk behind the South Korean soldier guarding the door, as this would probably be seen as trying to defect.

We then made our way outside to the Peace Pagoda, an observation platform to view the surrounding area. From here it was possible to see all around. On the South Korean side Freedom House and The Peace House. On the North Korean side the buildings of Panmungak and Tongil-gak as well as a guard post.

After taking photographs we were once again ushered onto the coach for the final part of the tour. After a short drive we passed Checkpoint 3, where visiting presidents and defence secretaries often go when they want to gain a closer view of North Korea.


The Bridge of No Return

The coach then stopped at an observation post from which we could see the North Korean propaganda village of Gijong, as well as the world's largest flag pole.

From here it was also possible to see the Bridge of No Return, which crosses the military demarcation line. After the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, prisoners of war from both sides were exchanged on the bridge. It gained its name as prisoners of war who voluntarily chose to return to the North, would no longer be able to return to the South.

The DMZ is one of the most interesting tourist destinations in South Korea, if not the world. Where else is it possible to visit one of the last vestiges of the Cold War and to see first hand a country which President George Bush as recently as 2002, described as being part of 'the axis of evil'?

Although the risk factor in the DMZ is almost negligible, it is still a place fraught with tension. North Korea's relationship with its neighbours and America remains a frosty one and little progress has been made in recent years regarding issues such as its nuclear programme, or the abduction of Japanese citizens during the 1970s. Despite hopes that the two Koreas will one day reunite, at present there sadly appears to be little or no resolution in sight.

You can see all of the photos here.

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