asia · travel

Our Ten Minutes in North Korea

“It is easy to go over the border. It’s much harder to come back,” the guide teases.

As I look on to the thin stretch of elevated concrete, that crucial marker that keeps the peace for one of the most volatile feuds still existing in the world, flimsy is the word that comes to mind. It almost beckons you to at least try to violate it. Well, I say almost, if not for the stern-faced soldiers gravely guarding the demarcation line. They are staggered all over the Joint Security Area (JSA), one of the few things which North Korea and South Korea both agreed to share. Tension hangs thick in the air; the soldiers breathe this in all-day.

As you can imagine, territory is quite a touchy topic here, and it would not be a good idea if someone casually strolled in, only to start a war by accident. Entry into the JSA and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) by visitors is restricted via only guided tours.

The first thing that makes you nervous once you sign up for the trip to JSA is the overwhelming barrage of rules. Rules on what and what NOT to wear, rules on when and when NOT to whip out your camera, rules on where and where NOT to go. There is a lot of emphasis on the nots. I don’t think I’d want to know what would happen, should I feel like being the idiot tourist for the day.

Practicing our poses at the Visitor Centre
Practicing our poses at the Visitor Centre

After about an hour’s drive from downtown Seoul, the bus finally arrives at the South Korean side of the DMZ, where a soldier comes aboard to check our passports. From there, it’s just a short ride to the Camp Bonifas, where we all get out to be briefed in the auditorium. And thus I received the second thing that will make one nervous — a pre-orientation waiver for us to sign. I’m sure it contained a lot of other important notes, but the main thing that stuck to mind was the statement that hostile fighting within the DMZ, while not a given, is still a possibility. My stomach churns.

The lights are dimmed and a guide takes to the stage, explaining the slideshow of the history of the DMZ, and of the North-South Korean conflict in general. One gets the sense that the feud is long from being resolved — there has been a lot of skirmishes even after the armistice was signed (this article keeps a long list, if you’re interested). Our guides tell us of more than a few times when South Koreans and US soldiers alike were killed by North Koreans in this area of truce. I sit back and wonder whether how it would be like if I were receiving the orientation from the other side.

Driving along the highway from the Visitor Centre to the JSA
Driving along the highway from the Visitor Centre to the JSA

The guide decrees a few more reminders, before setting us off to ride a smaller bus going to the JSA compound itself. Right outside the Visitor Centre, the road begins with high fences and abundant barbed wire. Go a little farther, and the highway opens up to wide, and ironically, serene green fields. Except for a pair of cadets walking up a dirt road, there was no soul in sight. It was mentioned that since the DMZ is not exactly the ideal home for humans, one good thing that did sprout from the conflict was the flourishing of wildlife in the area. Carefree cranes and deer were commonly seen prancing about; sightings of endemic tigers and bears have also been reported.

At the JSA

At last, the bus pulls up and we shuffle to a single file as we enter the JSA compound. I am itching to snap away with my camera, but also am wary of inviting too much attention to myself. We climb a flight of stairs and exit on the other side of the building, where we get our first glimpse of soldiers from North Korea guarding their side. As we all line up in a single row to face them, I can’t help but think of how much we resemble a firing squad.

North Korean and South Korean soldiers dutifully guarding their respective sides of the border at the JSA.
The boundary is that low but the tension is THIS high. On the other side of the line, guests of North Korea also hold their own photo-op session.
We look quite happy to be here, don't we?
We look quite happy to be here, don’t we?

In the center of the JSA is a row of buildings, built right on top of the concrete border where North Korea and South Korea touch. It is inside these abodes where both parties conduct their talks face-to-face, sitting on opposite sides of long conference tables which straddle the border. After we had our fill of photos from the platform, our guide motions for us to get back in line, and to follow her into one of the conference buildings.

We shuffle past the unmoving guards at the door, and are engulfed with bright-blue walls all around. I would say a gentle green would work too, if the main goal was to diffuse as much hot-headedness as possible during what must be high-strung negotiations.

In this instant, we are given the freedom to walk past the border, as well as ten minutes to loiter as much as we can in North Korea — but only within the limits of this conference room. The guide warns that if we decide to make a run for the door at the North Korean side, she could not guarantee our return.

That awkward moment when you don't know whether to smile or not.
That awkward moment when you don’t know whether to smile or not.
I peek out the window as I cross to the other side of the border. The smooth pavement at the left is North Korea; the textured one on the right is South Korea. It's still quite crazy to wrap my head around the fact that this is the only thing that is keeping the volatile stalemate.
I peek out the window as I cross to the other side of the border. The smooth pavement at the left is North Korea; the textured one on the right is South Korea. It’s still quite crazy to wrap my head around the fact that this is the only thing that is keeping the volatile stalemate.

A soldier stationed by the door stands unflinching, even as we all take turns standing beside him for a photo-op. I think back to the times when I moan about having a stressful job; here is someone who can’t be over twenty-five years old, and is literally guarding his country with his life.

Our ten minutes is up, and we all get in line to board the bus once again to Camp Bonifas. Along the way, we catch a glimpse of the sole inhabited civilian community within the DMZ. The South Korean residents of Daeseong-dong possibly don’t have much luxury in terms of entertainment facilities, but I’m sure they lead an interesting way of life. They are a mere mile away from the nearest North Korean village, Kijong-dong, which is also within the DMZ (allegedly, the houses in this community are only for show, and are only empty husks upon scrutiny). Even in these peace villages, a minor sort of “war” has been staged — when Daeseong-dong mounted a 130 kg South Korean flag upon a 98-meter pole, North Korea was quick to mount a 170 kg flag on a 160-meter pole. Cue Freudian analogies.

South Korean flags

For us in the bus, we shall carry on with sightseeing in Seoul, and maybe to other parts of the region, before going home to our free-roaming lives. I realize that for the Koreans, however, the concept of “going home” is a bit trickier. True, a border has been put forth, and sides have been drawn. But as our guides have said themselves, it is still hard to accept these lines, as they see the conflict as not necessarily bad versus good, but instead as brother against brother.

For now, peace relies on respect for a low boundary made of concrete.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.