A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensionsOliver Wendell Holmes
Travel is all about experiences. They may seem quite small at the time, like a chance but memorable encounter with a local person that changes your perspective on the world. Or they may seem huge, visiting an iconic world sight that you’ve dreamed about seeing for years. But whether large or small, long-planned for or serendipitous, the experiences of travel are, in my opinion, among the best to be found.
For this week’s Lens Artists challenge Anne has asked us to share a new experience that we had. In North Korea every moment felt like a new and surreal experience.
As I said in my first post about that visit, there are two sides to every story. It is only by engaging with others that we start to understand their point of view. Yes, even if we don’t agree with it. And through the experience of visiting the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ for myself, I began to understand that the reasons why North Korea is as it is are more complex than most of us in the West tend to assume.
Two countries still at war
More perhaps than anywhere else we visited in the country, it was on the border with the South that it became most apparent that the perspective on historical events in the DPRK is somewhat at odds with that outside the country. I will endeavour to reflect the divergent views as fairly as I can. But as this post is primarily about my experience, I must for completeness reflect what we were told while here.
What everyone accepts is that this is a border between two countries still technically at war. The two sides signed an armistice in 1953. This was designed to ‘ensure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved’. To date however that ‘final peaceful settlement’ has not been achieved.
The North Koreans however would prefer that I talk about a single country that has been unfortunately divided, its two sides set at odds with each other through outside interference. I’ve written more about the North Korean perspective on the war and its impact on the country’s world view in a previous post, So who did start the Korean War?
The armistice discussions started in July 1951 and lasted more than two years and 565 meetings. By the end of the process the two sides were more or less back where they had started, on the 38th parallel. However the North managed to paint the armistice agreement as a victory. Their original goal had been to ‘drive the enemy into the sea’. But some time in 1951 they quietly changed this, and their slogan became to ‘drive the enemy to the 38th parallel’. This enabled them to claim to this day that the North won the war.
As a result of the armistice a four kilometre wide demilitarised zone was established between the two Koreas. One thing that struck me as odd was seeing such a tense border patrolled by soldiers apparently carrying no weapons. It really is ‘demilitarised’.
At Panmunjom, just north of the border, a Joint Security Area (JSA) was formed. This is a roughly circular enclave, approximately 800m in diameter, straddling he border and bisected by the Military Demarcation Line. It was designed to serve as a neutral area, with free movement of both sides within it. The agreement held, despite ongoing tensions, until 1976, when what became known as the Panmunjom Axe Incident (more on that below) brought an end to all freedom of movement within the JSA. Since then the two sides have stayed firmly on their own side of the border. The only exceptions are the occasional meetings between the two which take place in the much-photographed huts straddling the border.
Entering the DMZ
Visits to the DMZ are unsurprisingly very strictly controlled. Tourist buses can’t just drive into the zone but must go through stringent security checks and be accompanied by a member of the military forces. Our visit started with a briefing by an officer on the background to the DMZ and layout of the area.
After the briefing we exited into the yard, where we lined up in twos and walked through the gate into the DMZ. There we boarded a bus, which had been driven through separately. From this point on we were accompanied by a very serious young soldier throughout our visit.
On our drive into the DMZ we passed some old signs and some distance away a cluster of houses. I was surprised to see that people lived and farmed within the DMZ, although our guide told me it was only around this part. The rest is left as open ground and unused; unsurprisingly, when much of it is a minefield. No photos were permitted from the bus but we were free to take what photos we wanted once off it.
The Armistice Talks Hall
The first building we visited was the Armistice Talks Hall, which is situated a little distance back from the border. It was here that those interminable meetings took place. Along with a number of other tour groups we gathered around the table (said to be the original one used during the talks) and a few of us grabbed a seat on one of the chairs (ditto).
A military guide told us about the armistice discussions, with a naturally DPRK perspective. Any difficulty in reaching agreement was due to the obstreperous attitude of the US, and eventual success the result of the North’s genuine efforts to bring about peace. We were also told which side of the table was used by which side. I was seated on the side of the US Imperialists and was consequently on the receiving end of a glower!
The Peace Museum of the DPRK
From the Armistice Talks Hall we walked to the nearby hut where the armistice was actually signed. It is now called the Peace Museum of the DPRK. There was a lot to see here and I spent more time looking around and taking photos than I did listening to the guide. That’s something I do quite often, to be honest. I can always read about a place later but I can’t replicate the experience of actually being there!
I did however take in his words about the two flags displayed on the table where the armistice was signed, which he told us were the original ones used on that day. According to him, the US refused to sign the document under their own flag, the Stars and Stripes, so the UN one was used instead. In fact, it was the United Nations Command who signed the armistice, not the US, along with a delegate from the Korean People’s Army. No individual nation is signatory to the agreement; it is purely a military document, and thus merely a ceasefire.
Around the walls is a fascinating collection of old photographs, newspaper cuttings etc. They document not only the armistice signing but also subsequent significant events along the border.
The Panmunjom Axe Incident
In one display case I came across the axe that I mentioned above. The Panmunjom Axe Incident occurred in 1976 and brought an end to the ‘joint’ in ‘Joint Security Area’. Several US and South Korean soldiers started to cut down a tree with this axe because it was blocking their line of sight from a lookout post. The North Koreans saw this as breaking the agreement which stated that all activities in the area should be jointly agreed. In the ensuing fight two Americans were killed, one of them with the axe itself.
The US unsurprisingly retaliated, three days later, in what they termed Operation Paul Bunyan, employing numerous ground vehicles, heavily armed special forces, attack helicopters, fighter jets and more to cut down the tree in 42 minutes. The tension between the two sides was such that for a while it seemed inevitable that the Korean War would be reignited. But thankfully it was in neither side’s interest to do so and sense prevailed. Since then, however, both have stuck firmly to their own half of the JSA.
To the border itself
Visits here are on a strict schedule and suddenly we were hurried back to our bus. We drove the last stretch to the Panmun Pavilion which overlooks the actual border, here known as the Military Demarcation Line or MDL, and alighted near a large stone slab engraved with the autograph of Kim Il Sung and a date.
We were told that on this date, 7 July 1994, the Great Leader signed a document relating to reunification. This was to prove his last act as Leader, as he died the following day, thus demonstrating that he was striving for reunification on behalf of his people until the very end. As with so many of North Korea’s monuments commemorating the Great Leaders, this slab is designed with many symbolic features. It is 7.8 metres wide, as he died on July the 8th, and its base is 9.4 metres wide, as he died in 1994. Eighty two Kimilsungia flowers are carved at the base of the monument, representing his age when he died.
The Military Demarcation Line
Making our way around the pavilion we arrived at the viewpoint that more than any other we had come to see. Straddling the MDL is a row of huts that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a news broadcast about the DPRK’s dealings with its southern neighbour and more recently the US.
There are seven huts in total, all with a door at each end, one opening to the North and one to the South. Behind the huts, the South Korean equivalent of the Panmun Pavilion, called the House of Freedom, was facing us. I scanned it for signs of life but there was no one to be seen on its terraces and the reflective glass of its windows gave nothing away. The security cameras pointing in our direction were however clearly visible.
Disappointingly we were not able to go inside the main hut, known as the Military Armistice Commission Conference Hall. Many tour groups do, and are able to walk around the central table, thereby briefly crossing the border into the South Korean part of the JSA. This is the only place where crossing that border is permitted. Anyone trying to do so elsewhere risks being shot at, whether tourist or local. No explanation was given for that part of the tour being omitted. According to our UK guide Carl, it just sometimes happens, unfortunately. We could however clearly see the actual border as it runs between the huts, marked by a simple concrete kerb.
The Panmun Pavilion
The Panmun Pavilion was built in 1969 and was for many years claimed to be a façade by the US. However I, along with everyone else in our group and presumably anyone who’s visited the DMZ from the North, can vouch for the fact that it is not, as we entered and climbed the stone stairs to the balcony on the third floor from where we got our excellent view of the MDL and beyond into South Korea.
We also saw two tall flagpoles. The one in the North flying the DPRK flag is noticeably the taller, at 160 metres. The one beyond it in the South is ‘only’ 98 metres. The DPRK one was erected in a direct response to the South’s, in the 1980s. For a while North Korea could boast the tallest flagpole in the world. It has since been overtaken, following a similar ‘flagpole war’ in the Islamic world, and is now only the fourth tallest. But as it remains taller than the South Korean one, and taller than anything the US can boast, it seems likely that Kim Jong Un is happy with the status quo – for now.
Once we had taken our photos of the huts, we were summoned to pose for group photos on the balcony. This reinforced my impression that the DMZ is a very strange place, to say the least. Because of the large number of visitors and the slick operation that bused us in and guided us around the main highlights, it was sometimes easy to forget that we were on one of the most tense borders in the world. At times it felt more like a tourist attraction. But then I would see something that reminded me of just where I was, like the South Korean cameras opposite.
But one more slightly surreal DMZ experience remained. While most of the tour groups were visiting from Pyongyang on a tight day trip schedule, we were staying in nearby Kaesong. So we were able to spend a little more time in the DMZ and enjoy lunch in a former army restaurant, Panmunjomkwan. This was once used by Polish and other Eastern Bloc Troops overseeing the armistice and is the only restaurant within the DMZ. We were welcomed at the door by smiling waitresses dressed in pseudo military uniforms. After the stern demeanour of the real military this added further to the oddness of the experience.
Inside, we could have been in any of the many restaurants we visited in North Korea, apart from those uniforms. So again I had to keep reminding myself of where I was!
Here our time in the most famous section of the DMZ ended, although we were to visit another area later in the day. That however is a story for another time …
I visited North Korea in 2019