Going in a few hours from the grasslands of Mongolia to downtown Seoul in the middle of a bank holiday was one of the most dislocating experiences. Seoul was just heaving with people everywhere and loudspeakers blaring into the streets. After getting ourselves settled on the first day with some Korean BBQ we settled into our traditional guesthouse in the Hankok village part of town – an area with old traditional housing, restaurants and more coffee shops than you could shake a stick at.
We headed to the palace nearby which was built in a Chinese style – betraying the heavy influence of the big neighbour next door. Our dainty tour guide dutifully told us about the various halls and palaces of the Jomon kings of old.
Afterwards it was time for some more modern Korean culture – fried chicken and beer! While there we encountered a vision of a lady who was dressed from top to toe in white and was an almost a perfect cone! Sitting watching Seoul streetlife was a sight in itself.
We retired early for we had an early start the next day to visit the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Not knowing much about the Korean War I downloaded an audio book to give a quick overview. The first fact you learn is that both North and South are technically still at war as only an armistice was agreed.
Indeed, our DMZ tour almost didn’t happen as two weeks prior artillery fire had been traded across the DMZ due to a landmine planted by the North injuring soldiers from the South. This had resulted in the resumption of loudspeaker broadcasts into the North of news and, somewhat bizarrely, K-pop girlband songs.
Apparently the North gets particularly het up about the pop music! The Panmunjom armistice area we were due to visit was used by both parties to sit down and work out a de-escalation so, luckily for us, our visit was on.
We headed North from Seoul and as the road went by the fortifications increased: the coast completely fenced off by barbed wire and guard posts to prevent marine infiltration, the road bridged with large concrete blocks which could be dropped to prevent advancing vehicles and numerous checkpoints.
After about an hour we reached the beginning of the DMZ – a 5 km wide strip snaking from coast to coast centred on the military demarcation line – the final stalemate army positions reached in 1953 when an armistice was agreed.
First up was a visit to the third infiltration tunnel – built by the North in order to infiltrate commandos and/or large amount of troops for a surprise attack on Seoul. Several of these tunnels were found although more are suspected to have been created.
The discovery of the tunnel was due to a defector from the North advising of its existence. Indeed another tunnel had been used in a commando raid by the North whose target was to assassinate the President of the South in a suicide mission.
The DMZ tour entry and tunnel were almost theme-park like with fairground rides which was a bit incongruous given the setting.
After viewing the border from a viewing platform the second and more interesting part of the tour began – to the Joint Security Area (JSA) and Camp Bonifas.
Here the full gravity of the situation becomes clear – the ‘demilitarised’ part of the name is a misnomer as it is one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world. Only certain nationalities are permitted to visit by the UN (more on that later) and you need to apply multiple days in advance so your identity can be checked. You sign a waiver form indemnifying the UN in case you are killed and are given strict guidelines on dress-code (no clothes with flags, offensive phrases, non-collared shirts, etc).
What I didn’t realise before was that when the North invaded the South in a surprise attack in 1950 it was the under the auspices of the UN that the force deployed to push them back operated and still does to this day. This was due to a diplomatic blunder by the Soviet Union as they did not veto the resolution authorising this. They were absent when the vote was taken as they had been boycotting the UN Security Council due to China’s seat still being held by the Chinese Nationalist forces who were by then just limited to controlling Taiwan and not the Chinese Communists who controlled the rest of China. By the time the Soviets rejoined it was too late as they couldn’t undo the resolution due to the USA veto!
After a presentation on the conflict in Camp Bonifas we then boarded our bus to the ‘truce village’ of Panmunjom where the North and South come face-to-face, literally.
Our tour guide was a high-energy Korean woman from Ohio. When a clueless Australian young man asked her whether that was in the North or South she replied that it was mid-West not far from Chicago!
In this area there are two large buildings facing each other – apparently for use of yearly reunions of families divided by the war – along with a row of huts and a line down the middle. Step one side and you are in the Republic of Korea (South) and the other in the ‘Democratic’ Peoples Republic of Korea (North).
Opposite and facing us was one North Korean guard (nicknamed Bob – whoever he is) watching the proceedings. The atmosphere was tense and very odd to be a few steps away from one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Some selfie-pouting tourists appeared unperturbed as we filed into the huts where the armistice was negotiated and talks are held to this day.
Inside the huts you can wander between North and South while two ROK soldiers stand guard, one to prevent anyone going out the north door and the other to protect him from being attacked or pulled out by Northern soldiers!
After we had all filed out we headed back to the bus and, inevitably, the gift shop. In this case the proceeds go toward supporting defectors from the North start their new life in the South.
Back in Seoul that evening we headed for some fantastic Korean Tacos washed down by oversized and over-strength frozen margaritas. Downtown Seoul felt a million miles away from the North but you can’t escape the lingering knowledge that we were in fact only 35.