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October 3, 2022

DMZ: At the border of two worlds

“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury and death as a direct result of enemy action. The Joint Security Area is neutral but divided and is guarded by United Nations Command military personnel on the one side (South), and Korean people’s Army personnel on the other (North). Guests of the United Nations Command are not permitted to cross the Military Demarcation Line into the portion of the Joint Security Area under control of the Korean people’s Army. Although being on the alert of unexpected conditions, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act”.

This is the first paragraph of the “Visitor Declaration” each tourist who arrives to Panmunjon, to the Joint Security Area (JSA), in order to visit the  Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), is demanded to sign after instructions provided by the military personnel in the base. It was a declaration I have also signed on May 19. It was a day I would not forget easily, and which definitely represented the starting point of one of the most impressive and sensational experiences I have lived as a journalist. It was the day we have entered the DMZ and discovered the historical realities of one of the most challenging regions of the world, with an unique and highly special status. Yet, moreover, arriving to the building where, in 1953, they signed the truce that ended the Korean War, I found myself, for a few minutes, on the territory of North Korea as well. Which, I must admit, gave me a terribly weird feeling, especially that I have heard various legends about the door of the building that led to the North-Korean side, and one of them was that it might open at any time, if you get too close to it, and you risk being kidnapped by the “other side”.

Visiting the building where the truce was signed gave me a peculiar feeling of having reached, both concretely and metaphorically, the border of two worlds. Two completely different worlds, two diametrically opposed ideologies, two countries that were once one, yet they were separated some 70 years ago, due to historical circumstances, by a border I symbolically crossed on May 19, once I entered this edifice where the truce was signed, an edifice that was half located in the Southern part of the Korean Peninsula and half in the Northern part.

Ever since I received from Korea Foundation the invitation to visit the Republic of Korea during May 17 – 23, besides other 27 journalists of 23 countries, I confess that, beyond the overall joy of visiting this country again, over 20 years after my first visit there, I felt most fascinated by the perspective of visiting the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)/Panmunjom. A historic place, that holds significance of representing the tension and conflict that existed during the Cold War and is testimony to the division of the Korean Peninsula.

The road from Seoul to Panmunjom lasts for about an hour, but we did not even feel how the time flew until we arrived there. After checking one more time whether we had out passports with us, documents that are compulsory so that visitors would be allowed to visit DMZ, the female guide that accompanied us on this tour provided us a highly interesting presentation of the place we were about to visit, a presentation filled with historical details and stories about the systematic provocations attempted by the North Korea over the years in their relation to the South, despite of the truce reached in 1953, that ended the Korean War.

Traveling from Seoul to Panmunjom, we were accompanied on the left side of our road by river Han for most of the route, yet, there was a double barbed wire fence separating the highway from the river Han, and there were unusually frequent military control points,  that obviously made us seek explanations. We were, still, on the territory of South Korea, why was that barbed wire fence between the highway and Han River?

Anticipating our questions, the guide told us the story of the barbed wire fence and gave us a few examples from the history of border incidents of the two Korean states, pointing out the recurrent violation of the truce by the North-Korean side. She insisted on the notorious incident that occurred on January 17, 1968, known as the Blue House Raid, when a 31-men guerilla detachment from the Korean People’s Army secretly crossed the DMZ on a mission to kill South Korean President Park Chung-hee on January 21, nearly succeeding. The incursion was discovered after South Korean civilians confronted the North Koreans and informed the authorities. After entering Seoul disguised as South Korean soldiers, the North Koreans attempted to enter the Blue House (the official residence of the President of South Korea). The North Koreans were confronted by South Korean police and a firefight ensued. The North Koreans fled Seoul and individually attempted to cross the DMZ back to North Korea. Of the original group of 31 North Koreans, 28 were killed and one was captured. Additionally, 26 South Koreans were killed and 66 were wounded, the majority of whom were soldiers and police officers. Three American soldiers were also killed and three were wounded.

The story of Korea’s division is over 70 years old, yet it is difficult and painful, and it still hides many open, bleeding wounds, but above all, it also includes a delicate human rights issue, as there are families that had spent several decades divided, as a result of historical circumstances that have led to the appearance of the border between the two Korean states. When I asked the guide about this matter and about these family reunions, I have heard her talking with plenty of emotion about the reappearance of these events, symbolically crucial for an entire generation of Koreans who have reached in the meantime venerable ages of 60, 70 or 80. After these reunions were prohibited for a few years, due to the increasing tensions in the relations of the two rival governments, caused by the North’s nuclear tests and armed provocations against the South, the authorities of the two countries agreed in 2014 to reopen the tradition of family reunions as their first serious gesture toward easing frayed ties and rebuilding trust.

After having discussions with several conversation partners during my visit to ROK, I was to find out how impressive and emotion-filled these family reunions were, brimming with tears and hugs among relatives that had to spend over six decades separated by the border between the North and South, people who, regretfully, are fewer and fewer, and increasingly challenged by age. A touching, overwhelming eye sight, that can leave anyone speechless, was offered by some elderly people who, despite being disabled by age and powerless, insisted on passing the border to the Diamond Mountain at the last round of meetings even in a wheelchair, in order to see and hug their brothers and sisters living in the North, as some of them felt that it might be their final chance to do so before passing away, mentioned the guide who accompanied us on the DMZ tour.

Actually, the humanitarian wish of Koreans separated by the war to see their families again has been, throughout the years, one of the most sensitive points of the barometre of relations between the two countries.

The two governments did not agree to hold family reunions until 1985, but no reunion was held for 15 years. A breakthrough came when Kim Dae-jung, then the president of South Korea, traveled to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, for the first inter-Korean summit meeting in 2000.After this moment, the two Koreas held up to three rounds of reunions a year until 2008, when a conservative government deeply critical of the North’s nuclear weapons program took power in Seoul.

The family reunions were revived in 2009, but were suspended again the following year amid souring relations. The two Koreas offered their elderly generations the joy to hold their last family reunions in 2010, resumed only in 2014.

According to latest statistics, a total of 22,000 people from both Koreas have participated in past Family Reunions. However, about 71,000 South Koreans — more than half of them 80 or older — remain on a waiting list for a chance to hug their relatives in the North.

I was told that South Korean participants are selected by lottery, but it is a mystery how the North chooses its candidates for these reunions.

It is no doubt that it is a heart-wrenching issue that could leave anyone lost for words, especially that, of those on the waiting list, 3,800 die each year without fulfilling their dreams to meet the family members living across the border.

On the route towards DMZ, we were explained that Panmunjom is on the Military Demarcation Line, which is the actual border between North and South Korea, and that the site of the former village is 53 kilometers north-northwest of Seoul and 10 kilometers east of the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). I must confess that, as I saw on the road to Panmunjom trucks coming from or going to Kaesong (the guide of the group showed them to me in the traffic), I felt a keen interest to visit KIC, this living example of a successful common project of the North and South, despite of all tensions that existed during the 70 years of ideological separation.

Regardless of these moments of impasse and increasing tensions among the two sides, KIC has shown for over a decade how both Koreas can cooperate to their mutual gain: the park which employs about 55,000  DPRK workers and some 1,000 ROK staff,  allows South Korean companies to employ labour force, whilst providing North Korea with an important source of foreign currency (about $ 90 million each year).

According to Seoul’s unification ministry (MOU) statistics from August 2014, since 2005, this successful combination of Southern capital and technology with Northern discipline and diligence has produced goods worth US$2.3 billion and generated US$9.45 billion in trade.

Resigned that my thought to visit Kaesong could not be but a mere sample of wishful thinking, I was curiously waiting for the visit to KIC of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, scheduled two days later. Nonetheless, the visit was canceled because the North-Korean side refused to grant him access, without any explanations.

It is useless to say how deep my curiosity and impatience were, as well as those of the rest of group members, to arrive as fast as possible to the area  filled with such special historical connotation, to discover what DMZ means,  a buffer zone along the north and south sides of the MDL (2 km into North Korea and 2 km into South Korea), to see what could possibly be seen of the Northern side and to step on North-Korean territory in the building where the Military Armistice Commission had met in July 1953.

Almost an hour after leaving Seoul, we arrive to the first checkpoint, at Camp Bonifas, a JSA military post inside the DMZ, with American and South Korean troops. Our passports are checked by an American officer who also informs us on the first strict rules we must obey while being in the area controlled by the UN officers.

Camp Bonifas is a small base where about 5,000 U.S. and South Korean soldiers reside just 402 meters south of the DMZ. Here, all visitors are disembarked from the buses and head to Ballinger Hall to watch a slideshow, hear historical facts about the JSA’s significance and receive a briefing.

Similarly to all groups of visitors who arrive at that location, our group was compulsorily led in Ballinger Hall, where the same American soldier who had checked our passports held us a briefing about special rules and restrictions in the area, and afterwards, demanded each of us to sign “Visitor Declaration” by which we assume that we will follow the regulations. We are instructed, among other things, that “fraternization, including speaking and making gestures or associating with personnel from the Korean People’s Army is strictly prohibited”.

During the briefing, visitors are firstly warned how dangerous the area is.  “This is the kind of place where a firefight really could break out at any moment,” we were told. Then our host, the American soldier, ran through the history of the Joint Security Area (JSA) and provided us with a description and photos of the buildings in the area, both in North and in South. Once the briefing was over and the “Visitor Declaration” signed, we went back on the bus for the short trip north into the heart of the JSA.

This was the place where we had to leave the civilian bus that has brought us from Seoul, living our bags and all our personal belongings inside.

After receiving special badges, we were announced that we may only carry with us our passports, telephones and cameras and we were moved to a South Korean Army bus that took us to Panmunjom itself. We were warned that, from that point on, taking photographs was only allowed under special circumstances and when it was mentioned to us.

After passing at checkpoint no. 2, where our passports were checked again, the army bus left us at the Freedom House. This is a four-story building topped with a transparent roof, a facility that functions as a liaison between the South and the North, supporting various forms of inter-Korean dialogue, contracts and exchanges.

This is the point where we left the army bus and where we could observe the symbolic place of divided Korea: the blue UN conference room that straddles the border, half of the building being located in North Korea and half of the building in South Korea.

The show of the border between the two Koreas, two worlds such strikingly different, revealed to visitors that enter DMZ is amazing: a double barbed wire fence, military guard checkpoints at every 200 – 300 metres and a road filled with traps are living proof, over 60 years later since the truce was signed, of a painful conflict, as well as of the final remains of the Cold War.

Indeed, lying on the Military Demarcation Line, which is the actual border between North and South Korea, Panmunjom, really gives the impression of a unique living relic of the Cold War era.

It is a small village that happened to lie at the final battle front of the Korean War and has become a point of reference of the DMZ , the buffer zone along the north and south sides of the MDL (2 km into North Korea and 2 km into South Korea).

The truce that ended hostilities was signed here in 1953, but as peace was never agreed to, the two sides are still officially at war over sixty years later and a million men stand guard around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). There are no troops in the DMZ itself (except in the JSA), although both sides of the 4-kilometer strip of land separating the Koreas are the most heavily armed in the world: Pillboxes, land mines, barbed wire, and tank stoppers line the entire border and stretch back halfway to Seoul in the South and Pyongyang in the North. This section is often referred to as the Militarized Zone. In South Korea there are also adjacent border areas called Civilian Control Zones where public access is restricted. One kilometer east of the former village (now deserted) is the Joint Security Area (JSA), an almost circular patch of land with an 800-meter diameter. The area is jointly policed by the South and North, and the two sides occasionally meet for discussions . Most of the time the soldiers glare at each other across the border and have not been allowed to cross the demarcation line into each other’s side since the Axe Murder Incident in 1976, we discovered in the booklets presenting the history of the location, provided to us by the organizers of the tour.

The JSA/Panmunjom is what most people are referring to when they talk of visiting the DMZ. Situated in the middle of the DMZ, this former ‘truce village’ was the site of the 1953 armistice, ending the Korean War and splitting the peninsula in two. The JSA was established as the negotiating site between North Korea and the United Nations Command (UNC) and is now used for diplomatic dialogue by the two Koreas.

The feeling that we were at the border of two worlds, persisted throughout all the DMZ tour. By example, when I saw, while riding the bus, Daeseong-dong, known as the Freedom Village, from the South Korean side. Or when I saw Kijong tong, widely referred to as “Propaganda Village”, from the North Korean side. Here Korea’s division is starkly apparent: rival national flags can be seen on gigantic flagpoles that have been erected in the two villages. However, Propaganda Village’s flagpole dominates in the landscape, being the world’s fourth-tallest, 160 m in height, flying a 270 kg flag of North Korea.

The same feeling prevailed intensely as I saw the Bridge of No Return, first used for prisoner of war (POW) exchanges in 1953. The bridge was named for the irreversible choice of whether to remain in the country of their captivity or return to their place of origin.

The feeling that we were at the border of two worlds came back when, at the end of the DMZ tour, the bus brought us back to Ballinger Hall, to the souvenirs’ shop. We took photographs with American soldiers and then, at departure, before exiting the area, we were provided the opportunity to take a photo of a steam-fueled locomotive, which has become a museum. Thrown off the tracks by bombs during the Korean War, the rusty locomotive that still carries, over the years, the traces of over 1,000 bullets, was declared in 2004 Registered Cultural Heritage and is proof of the tragic history of Korea’s division.

An impressive moment occurred as we exited the DMZ. At the border of the two worlds, an elderly lady of respectable age, who was probably a child at the time of the war, greeted us with a smile and with the most appropriate and meaningful word for that place: “Peace”!


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