Facing the enemy at the DMZThe JoongAng Daily today presents the third installment of a four-part series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953. Today’s article provides a close-up look at the Demilitarized Zone, describing the emotions felt by visitors to the area.
The final article in the series, tomorrow, will focus on the shifting attitudes of South Koreans toward the North, particularly noting the differences in views between the younger and older generations.
Previous articles presented the experiences of anti-Communist soldiers in the North Korean Army who were held prisoner on Geoje island, and the remembrances of South Korean war veterans, as well as civilians.
Order of Series
1. North Korean Army prisoners on Geoje Island
2. Remembrances of war veterans
3. A look at the DMZ
4. Shifting attitudes among South Koreans
PAJU, Gyeonggi province
Kim Hak-seung, 28, gazes far beyond the barbed wire of the Demilitarized Zone and sighs, looking solemnly on the land where time has appeared frozen for the last 50 years. “I can’t believe North Korea was this close,” Mr. Kim says. “It seems surreal.”
He grew up under the military regimes of the 1980s and did his mandatory two-year military service, but he had never visited the DMZ before.
“To me, North Korea seemed like another country and another tale of a far off distance,” Mr. Kim says.
“I mean I watch the news on North Korea but I never really felt it to the bone,” he continues. “It seems so peaceful and beautiful, a place of irony.”
The armed soldiers, barbed wire and bunkers in the hillsides, however, make the tension palpable.
The DMZ is a strip of land 250 kilometers (155 miles) long and about two kilometers wide on either side of the Military Demarcation Line, a 1.8-meter-wide barbed wire corridor that splits the two Koreas along the 38th parallel.
That line was first drawn after Korea gained independence from its Japanese occupiers in 1945 and as the Soviet Union and the United States stationed troops on the peninsula.
After the armistice ending the Korean War was signed on July 27, 1953, the demarcation line was solidified and no Korean civilians except for the residents of Freedom Village, which existed even before the war, were permitted within the area.
Panmunjeom, the truce village, and Daeseong-dong, or Freedom Village, are on the western end of the DMZ.
The zone is a reminder of a war that has been largely forgotten internationally but that has deeply scarred the heart of most every Korean.
Mr. Kim never experienced the war, only hearing stories about it from his parents and grandparents. But seeing the area reminded him of his childhood, when the military governments educated students to hate their northern neighbor.
“I remember how the textbooks in elementary school described Kim Il-sung, the late North Korean leader, and his son as pigs,” Mr. Kim says. “The North Koreans were always described as a pack of ravaging wolves, with beady, evil eyes always plotting a way to threaten our lives and existence.”
Mr. Kim says it was a very different experience growing up in the 1980s than it is for children today.
“Students today are more open-minded about North Korea and see them as our brethren but when I was growing up the general sentiment was the other way around.”
Mr. Kim recalls the time when his school had to collect rice and money to build the Peace Dam, which was to prevent the North Koreans from flooding Seoul.
“On the television news there were illustrations of how the flood would submerge Seoul entirely,” he says. “Half of a 63-story building would be under water. It was a horrifying image.”
Bomb drills were another routine, Mr. Kim says. “The bomb drill is even practiced today, I know, but nobody seems to take it seriously while when I was in school we had to hide under our desk every time a siren went off.”
He even recalls police officers handing out pencils to children who would bring them North Korean propaganda leaflets that usually were transported by balloon.
“As a child I usually searched for the propaganda leaflets having little knowledge of what they actually were, but I just did it and some of the leaflets were actually humorous,” he says.
Mr. Kim began the tour from Imjingak, near the Imjin River, the deepest area in which civilians may enter the zone. On the bus was a group of foreigners; Mr. Kim and the tour guides were the only Koreans.
After passing through a security checkpoint, the bus heads over the Reunification Bridge, which was constructed by the late founder of Hyundai, Chung Ju-yung.
As the bus moved along a road with land mines on either side, Mr. Kim says, “It’s eerie.”
During the tour a British tourist asks a guide, “If this is the Demilitarized Zone then why are there heavily-armed soldiers?”
“This is our territory” was the only reply.
“It would probably be hard for other foreigners to understand the tension here because even for me it’s not easy and many tend to forget that the war hasn’t ended, it’s just taking a long break,” Mr. Kim adds.
A Canadian couple says it appears less tense than they imagined from news reports.
Even Mr. Kim says the DMZ is far removed from his ordinary life.
The Dorasan Observatory generally provides a clearer view of North Korea, but due to heavy fog only part of the North Korean side was visible on this trip. Even with binoculars it was not easy to spot any sign of Gaeseong, the North Korean city closest to the observatory, or the statue of Kim Il-sung located there.
Mr. Kim says the sight of North Korea still seems unbelievable because he couldn’t imagine how similar North Korea could be. “In my youth I was told that North Korea was different. Then you have an image in your head of a foreign land, but look how close it is,” he says.
At the Dora Rail Station, the tour’s final destination, Mr. Kim looks at the construction site of the Gyeongeui railway and the highway to link the two Koreas. The rail station, within the DMZ, is 56 kilometers from Seoul and 205 kilometers from Pyeongyang.
That view made Mr. Kim ponder the reunification process. “Are we really prepared to reunify?” he asks with a note of skepticism. “North Korea seems like a country that’s so close and yet so far. I wonder if we would really reunify after being separated for 50 years.”
Four tunnels dug by North revealed
Along the Demilitarized Zone, South Korean soldiers have discovered four tunnels that were dug by the North Koreans for the purpose of infiltrating the South.
According to data from South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, the first tunnel was accidentally found in November 1974, when South Korean guards patrolling the zone saw steam rising from the ground.
That tunnel was 8 kilometers northeast of Gorangpo, Gyeonggi province, and extended 1.2 kilometers into South Korean territory. It is 45 meters deep, 90 centimeters wide and 1.2 kilometers high. Made of concrete, the tunnel is estimated to allow for the passage of one regiment of troops per hour and permits the transfer of heavy artillery, including gun barrels. The tunnel is only 65 kilometers from Seoul.
A second tunnel was discovered in March 1975 by two soldiers who heard underground explosions. It was found 13 kilometers north of Cheorwon, Gangwon province, and 900 meters south of the DMZ.
This tunnel is 2.1 meters wide and 2 meters high. It is 50 to 160 meters deep and takes the form of an arch, having been bored through bedrock. Lying 101 kilometers from Seoul, the tunnel reportedly allows for the movement of 30,000 troops an hour.
In October 1978 a third tunnel was discovered 4 kilometers south of Panmunjeom. It is 2 meters wide and 2 meters high.
Buried 73 meters underground, it also is estimated to allow for the passage of 30,000 troops an hour. This tunnel is only 44 kilometers from Seoul.
A fourth tunnel was found in 1990, 26 kilometers northeast of Yanggu, Gangwon province. It is 2 meters wide, 2 meters high and 145 meters deep, and lies 203 kilometers from Seoul.
According to Yoon Yo-kil, a former Ministry of Defense researcher, there are more North Korean infiltration tunnels that the South Korean government does not acknowledge.
“There are more than 20 tunnels, approximately, and some may already reach all the way to Busan,” Mr. Yoon says.
Mr. Yoon says he was an adviser on science and technology for the defense ministry until 1992, and since his retirement he has focused mainly on discovering the infiltration tunnels.
“The sole purpose of the tunnels is to infiltrate Seoul and other cities on the peninsula with minimum casualties and destruction,” Mr. Yoon says.
Panmunjeom as the last Cold War redoubt
PAJU, Gyeonggi province
Panmunjeom, the village where the armistice ending the Korean War was signed 50 years ago, is also a place where the last vestige of the Cold War continues to play out.
It is “a place of no change,” says Major General Adrien Evequoz of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, which was established to monitor the truce.
The passage of time seems irrelevant, given the tensions that remain as confrontational armed guards face their counterparts along a skimpy border that passes through the conference buildings.
“It’s clear that they don’t want us to be here,” says Michael Choate, Private First Class of the U.S. Forces’ infantry stationed in Seoul. “You can tell by their look,” Mr. Choate says. Asked to elaborate, he responds, “Ever ate something sour?”
Panmunjeom, an 800-square-meter (8,611-square-foot) area lying 62 kilometers northwest of Seoul, was a small farming village that later was designated as the headquarters of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission. It lies within the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone.
Before 1976, soldiers from both sides were permitted to walk freely in the Joint Security Area, which is exempt from the administrative control of both North and South Korea.
That changed in August 1976, when members of the UN commission tried to cut down a large poplar tree that was obscuring their view of two UN checkpoints. A group of North Korean soldiers came up to the work force and after a brief confrontation killed two American soldiers. The incident lasted only four minutes.
Ever since then, guards have been barred from entering each other’s territory.
During a recent visit, a North Korean guard stood in drizzling rain at the top of a flight of stairs at Panmungak, a liaison office for North Korea, staring down at journalists congregating near conference rooms that are under UN control. Two silver buildings are under North Korean control, while the UN commission has three blue buildings.
Four neutral countries ― Switzerland, Sweden, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia ― were assigned to monitor the armistice. Poland and the Czech Republic left the Joint Security Area at the request of North Korea in the mid-1990s.
“Our mission is to serve the armistice,” Mr. Evequoz says. “We serve it as the third party.”
“We are not the main body but we are part of the mechanism of the armistice commission,” he adds.
In the past, one of the main missions of the commission was to monitor the movement of forces on both sides, but that is no longer the case. And over the years the commission’s role has been reduced.
“We used to have 100 delegates from each neutral country so that would make 400 in total,” Mr. Evequoz says, but “today there are only 12 people from the NNSC.”
Today the commission only investigates confrontations outside of the DMZ, while confrontations within the zone are handled by the UN commission. Commission members also meet with North Korean defectors to try to establish the authenticity of their motives.
“We’re a monitoring body but with our visible presence we make sure that the armistice is an international interest,” Mr. Evequoz says. “It is positive that the armistice has lasted 50 years without any threatening hostility.
“I believe in the future the armistice will go beyond this and move to peace.”
by Lee Ho-jeong