Korea > Seoul > DMZ
16 December, 2010
It’s about -10C as we make our way out of metro Seoul. Traffic is bad as more people drive to work today to escape the extreme cold when using public transportation … and this is a rare sight – two European cars side-by-side in Seoul.
Mr Han proudly displays his credentials in his Kia MPV cab, though I wonder what sort of English test he went through. His English is pretty horrendous, but he makes it up with his niceness.
It’s less than an hour away to the North Korean border via this modern expressway, but do not allow those billboards fool you. They are camouflaging huge concrete structures which can be quickly toppled to provide a potent barrier to invading North Korean tanks and troops advancing towards Seoul.
Note the direction to Pyongyang, capital of North Korea (it’s just for show, you can’t really drive there, hahaha!). This is the so-called Freedom Highway, to emphasize the fact that if North Korea is ‘liberated’, its ‘freed’ horde would come streaming along this way to Seoul. I tell Mr Han, not necessarily a great idea since Seoul, already bursting at it seams trying to accommodate its own citizens, would be swamped with millions of poor, hungry and unemployed North Koreans. He agrees.
I’m reminded by the fact that we are in a war zone by the chatter of an army chopper crossing the expressway.
We round a hill, and there in front of us, the territory of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), separated by the Republic of Korea (ROK) by the Imjin River DMZ. At the nearest point this expressway is just 2.5km from the North Koreans. Needless to say, the river bank is heavily fortified and manned by armed troops.
By the way, I even spot a new Kia model (complete in black camouflage) being test-driven on this not-so-busy road. Business as usual, no problem.
Suddenly the traffic disappears and we are left alone in a desolate part of the road to Pyongyang.
Fortifications on the Imjin river bank is a stark reminder of an unfinished business.
The highway goes on to the famed border village of Panmunjom (and eventually Pyongyang, if you can make it), but we have to exit to Imjingak. With the current very high tension between the two Koreas (thanks to the shelling of Yeonpyeong just 3 weeks ago), the whole place is on ‘amber alert’ here, and we don’t think we can go far if we take that straight road.
Imjingak is a rather clever commercial exploitation of the whole DMZ thingy. This is where visitors come to have a feel at the cold war tension between the only divided state in the world. The DMZ proper (with its fences, border posts, armed guards, landmines, etc.) is just 3km away beyond the hills.
There’s a rail bridge across the Imjin river here, called the Bridge of Freedom for obvious reason, and at the other side (which is South Korean territory), a station is built very close to the DMZ. The train line goes all the way to Pyongyang, but of course no trains ply this route. So this modern functional station is idle, except for daily visits by tourists in special shuttle buses from Imjingak.
South Korean army posts dot the surrounding, and as the notice in the pic above warns, ‘Do not come close or take pictures’, so I snap this one from afar with a zoom lens.
We are shown a simple motion sensor technology still in use at the DMZ. Stones are embedded in the fence, which will fall off if the fence is disturbed or cut. The falling stone will hit the metal railing at the bottom, thus making a sound audible to patrolling soldiers.
And yes, armed guards are on constant patrols here too. I can imagine how jittery the situation is in the DMZ proper just 3km away, with the enemies within sight, all armed to the teeth, and a battle could start at any time. The DMZ is a border strip some 250km long and just 4km wide.
Through the barbed wires and fencing, I spot something interesting – a huge flock of White-fronted Geese, wintering here from the even harsher winter of eastern Siberia. Here they are feeding on loose paddy in the fields. Yes, so close to North Korea, but the government gives incentives for farmers to plant the crop here, rather than idling the land.
When the geese take flight, they make an awesome sight. The DMZ is a 250km by 4km strip untouched by human development. It makes an ideal conservation site for flora and fauna, and birds take full advantage of it. There are many endangered species living in peace in the DMZ, where they are free to come and go. Such irony.
As a wave of geese fly away, maybe to North Korea, I see a wall of colourful ribbons to my right.
These are ribbons of hope and well wishes left by visitors from all over the world.
I found a pair of English messages, most likely typical of what’re written on the other strips. Unification? Maybe not so fast. I visited poor East Germany (and East Berlin) when it existed. Instant reunification in 1990 caused prosperous ‘West Germany’ to suffer socio-economically. South Korea could fare even worse. So maybe best is to keep North and South separated initially, and just let them be friendly parties. Help North to ‘catch up’ first before attempting reunification.
Behind me there’s a relic of the terrible Korean War of 1950-53.
The story tells it all.
A short stroll away, a portion of the original Freedom Bridge is preserved. Just before armistice of the Korean War in 1953, thousands of refugees from the north straggled here to escape the communists at the last minute.
Nearby, this monument cum altar was built for people like them, as a place to offer prayers for loved ones, dead and alive, left behind in North Korea.
Indeed a poignant memorial for the only divided state in the world today.
As I said, Imjingak is a clever exploitation of the ‘aura’ of the DMZ. There’s a tourist complex here, with the rooftop providing a platform to observe North Korean territory with powerful binoculars. It’s particularly deserted today, save for our black MPV, thanks to the heightened tension due to the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong just 3 weeks ago. To venture closer to the border, visitors must leave cars here, register and board special buses for a fee, but the tour has been curtailed due to the prevailing ‘amber alert’.
Malaysians gawking into North Korea. By the way, we Malaysians require no visa to enter North Korea for 30 days, but must have North Korean contacts first.
It’s a bit of effort climbing up to the top, passing two floors of fancy restaurants and shops.
Pretty decent view from up here, and the mountains on the horizon are in North Korea. A tip: if a mountain is bald, then it’s most likely North Korea because the trees have all been cut down for cooking fuel by the impoverished people. Suddenly I hear bursts of gunfire … trrrrr! … trrrrr! … trrrrr! … coming from beyond the hills. Hopefully just a live exercise, but it hits me that we are indeed in a hostile war zone. War can break out at any time.
The rail line curves into the core DMZ area and on to Pyongyang (220km away), ready to service traffic between it and Seoul (60km behind me), if that ever happens. There’s even a spanking new, functional Korail station just before the border, but is now still deserted.
Another South Korean army post, next to the frozen Imjin river. Patrols by foot and jeep are very frequent.
A useful map to orientate clueless visitors. Shows how close we are to the hostile border.
On the other side of the Imjingak visitor centre, there are funfair, memorials, sculptures, statues and Korean War-era military hardware such as tanks and planes on display. They have done pretty well in making this spot a major tourist attraction, but nobody’s here today for obvious reasons … except foolhardy us!
Saying thanks to the Americans for their very significant Korean War role …
… plus a special one.
It’s getting dark, we have another place to visit, and soon we are back on the highway which skirts the edge of the Imjin river, heavily fortified since the other river bank belongs to North Korea. This is a stretch of the river DMZ.
Our destination is the Odusan Observatory, built atop a hill overlooking the Han and Imjin rivers, and North Korea beyond them.
At Odusan, I view the confluence of the Imjin river (which we followed from Imjingak to the right) and the mighty Han river. Bottom right and extreme left are South Korean territories, the rest in front of us, North Korea. The Han river then flows into the Yellow Sea straight ahead (when it’s not frozen like today) and is the site of several previous naval skirmishes between the two sides.
At the narrowest point, it’s only 3.2km separating North and South. From Odusan, I train my lens on North Korea. Scattered white buildings, but no signs of activities. No traffic, looks like a ghost town, these are probably show buildings only. I saw something similar when I crossed the border from West Berlin into East Berlin in 1988 – vacant buildings.
Below me, at a promontory where the two rivers meet, an army installation. Not surprised if they have artillery down there, ready to pound North Korea.
I look to the south towards Seoul and on the horizon, there’s a new city.
This is Paju, home to LG Display with its huge modern LCD plant. If war breaks out, Paju could be the first casualty. It’s virtually a bordertown.
As the Sun sets on an extremely cold winter evening, the rivers and mountains at this dangerous frontier make a surreal picture.
I glance back at North Korea, and the dusk makes it look even more mysterious. I wonder how a battle here would be.
Look, the mountains still have trees, so they must be in South Korea.
It’s probably -10C now, colder when the occasional wind blows, but I quickly take off my beanie for a photoshoot with North Korea, just 4km behind me – the closest I’d ever get, until I make a trip to Pyongyang itself one fine day.
Brief DMZ visit done, Mr Han punches the GPS in his warm car to take us back to Seoul. What can I say, it has been a soul-searching trip, pun unintended, to see first-hand the only separated state in the world, and a hostile one at that.
As we glide along the modern expressway back to Seoul, the intimidating fencing and barbed wire reminds us the fact that the two Koreas are still at war, and that the heavily-armed North is just a stone’s throw away from dynamic Seoul, across the river literally. They are holding Seoul at ransom, while their own capital Pyongyang is at a relatively safe distance of 250km away. I do hope they’d become friends one fine day, after all they are the same people sharing the same proud history and traditions for almost 2,000 years. They are just unwilling victims on the superpowers’ chessboard.
> THE END