Crossing over to the danger zone

Face-to-face with soldiers from North Korea

Today we crossed over to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and came face to face with some of Kim Jong Un’s men. 

Today we got the opportunity to visit the Demilitarized Zone, otherwise known as the DMZ – a place that is not only considered the most important, but the most dangerous within the Korean Peninsula.

These flags pretty much tell you who is in control of the DMZ.

And should you ever choose to forget, there are soldiers – loads of them – at every turn to remind you of the rules of engagement. Like, absolutely no video recording or picture taking in the headquarters of the Joint Security Area (JSA), or no gesturing to the soldiers, lest they think you are mocking or making fun of them – the consequence of which should be very obvious by now given the history of bloodshed within the DMZ.

Our tour began with a 20-minute video presentation at the JSA, which served as both a warning and a timely reminder of the fickle peace which currently exists between North and South.

Based on that video, it was also very clear who are perceived as the bad guys along the peninsula.

As the video clearly illustrates, over the last 65 years, there have been several attempts to achieve a permanent ceasefire between the two Koreas. However, on every occasion, those hopes have been dashed largely due to the actions of the North, whose provocations of the South pre-date the current supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. They actually began with his father, Kim Jong-il, who was at the helm when the 1950 Korean war ended after three years with the signing of the armistice on 27 July, 1953.

This memorial has been erected in remembrance of soldiers who lost their lives in the Korean War.
The remnants of a train destroyed in the Korean war.

By August that same year, prisoners of war were exchanged in Operation Big Switch – 77,000 Communists for 12,700 UN men, of whom 3,597 were Americans.

But since then, there has been a significant breakdown of trust. This is why the United Nations pretty much runs the DMZ and has had to adopt a 24-7 combat posture in case either side seeks to break the dividing line.

As we drove through the 4 km-wide buffer zone, in the centre of which the line between North and South is clearly drawn, we were reminded of the devastating truck ambush incident that claimed the lives of 44 soldiers in 1968 and the 1975 travesty in which an army major was battered by soldiers.

More famously, the “axe incident” one year later in which two army majors were reportedly hacked to death –  a very violent episode that brought the two Koreas back to the brink of war.

Some 40 years later, the provocation of the South continues at the hands of the North as young Kim, who succeeded his father in 2011, asserts his control.

However, even with all the talk of nuclear weaponry, there is something disarming about the DMZ.

Maybe it is the fact that each Korea has a village in the Demilitarized Zone, and even though the residents are not allowed to communicate with each other, the fact that 200 rice farmers have made a home there and are busy cultivating rice crops for sale on the open market (garnering some US$800,000 per year) contributes to a sense of calm and stability.

Equally neutralizing is the fact that representatives of Switzerland, Sweden and Poland also have a place there as members of a neutralizing commission, while one of the connections to the north leads straight past Pyongyang and into China.

It was also funny to see the North Korean flag flying in the distance at 160 metres high from a flag post, in an obvious show of might by the vertically challenged supremo.

However, our visit turned out to be one of little incident, with little to fear, as the soldiers we met there were serious but accommodating enough to allow us to take pictures as long as we stayed behind the yellow line and there was no evidence of provocation on our part.

Taking a moment to pose with the soldiers on guard in the DMZ.
Soldiers standing guard at the border between North and South.

And while our ride in was a bit frosty at the beginning, with apprehension telling on our faces, by the end of the two-hour visit we were all so relaxed in the “danger zone” that all our apprehensions had vanished.

In fact, we even bought souvenirs from the JSA gift shop on our way out, while a group of Korean women took turns posing with me for pictures and touching my braids.

Who would have thought that a Bajan would become a star attraction in Korea – and in the DMZ of all places – right on Kim Jong-un’s doorstep?

These ribbons have been pinned by family members anxious to have the two Koreas unified.

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