Abroad Thoughts from Home

Clive Schofield for Ian Townsend-Gault
Director of the Centre for Asian Legal Studies
Faculty of Law, University of British Columbia
Vancouver, Canada

Postcard from the Edge

Clive Schofield

As this article was being finalised, relations between the two Koreas deteriorated sharply with the North declaring that it had entered a "state of war" with the South. This Geopolitical Tale recounts a (cautious) peek over the front line of this confrontation during an earlier Korean crisis - two weeks after North Korea became an unwelcome gatecrasher to the nuclear club by detonating its first nuclear bomb in 2006. The visit proved, by turns, alarming, astonishing, laughable and downright bizarre.

A bus tour out of the ordinary
My visit to the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) came as a fieldtrip as part of an academic conference that took place in Seoul in October 2006. The South Korean capital is a vibrant, bustling, modern metropolis and the overwhelmingly dominant city in South Korea, with the National Capital Area, commuter belt and nearby port of Incheon comprising almost half of South Korea's total population of almost 50 million. However, it is also a city where mass air-raid and civil defence drills are a regular fact of life. The prime reason for this is that an estimated 70 per cent of North Korea's army of over a million men is deployed within 60 miles of the DMZ, a mere 50km or so (just over 30 miles) north of the city.

Heading out of the city along "Freedom Highway" (by no means the last piece of crude propaganda encountered during the trip) and one will soon run into the first signs that this is no ordinary road. Instead of a promenade along the banks of the Imjin river, there are tall chain-link fences topped with coiled razor wire, flood lights and numerous watchtowers. The waters of the river are also, we were told, replete with sensors, nets, spikes and traps designed to forestall communist infiltration from the hazily present north, across the river.

This is no idle threat either, as there have been documented cases of the North Koreans deploying mini-submarines to aid their efforts to circumvent the South's defences. Perhaps the most infamous among the many cross-border infiltration attempts are North Korea's audacious series of incursion tunnels dug deep beneath the Korean divide. To date the South Koreans have discovered four tunnels. The latest of these, discovered on 3 March 1990, runs for an estimated 1.6km, 150m below the DMZ and is, allegedly, large enough to allow the passage of an entire division of North Korean troops in an hour. Invasion was surely the purpose for which they were dug, given their north-south orientation, coupled with the fact they do not branch and are dug largely through granite. This is despite North Korean assertions that they were searching for coal, with parts of the tunnel walls being painted black in an apparent attempt to bolster these claims!

As we approached the DMZ the landscape became steadily more militarised and the civilian traffic fell away. After the busy streets and frantic bustle of Seoul, this was almost eerie.

Extreme Sports
After a slalom among road blocks and tank traps across the optimistically-named "Unification Bridge" and a passport check as we traversed the 3-12 mile deep "Civilian Control Zone" - a high-security buffer flanking the DMZ itself - we arrived at Camp Bonifas. This military base is located on the southern margins of the DMZ and is the gateway to the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Pan Mun Jeom, our destination.

Camp Bonifas is home to United Nations Command Special Security Battalion - Joint Security Area, whose motto, In Front of Them All, provides some insight into their exposed position on the front line with North Korea. Originally a US contingent, the battalion is now overwhelmingly manned by Republic of Korean (i.e. South Korean) soldiers whose task it is to patrol the DMZ and provide security in the Joint Security Area (JSA) within the DMZ and the key objective of our tour.

First, though, we were whisked into a lecture hall and subjected to a "background briefing". The video briefing, predictably, painted the North Koreans as aggressors and murderers and the South as defenders of liberty and democracy with the JSA Battalion safeguarding "the front line of freedom". The presentation was certainly heavy-handed and it was tempting to dismiss it as an almost laughably biased propaganda reel.

However, the Korean confrontation is no joke for those on the front line. Skirmishes between rival forces patrolling the DMZ are a fact of life (and death - these clashes having resulted in an estimated 1,400 fatalities since the end of the war in 1953) and the threat of confrontation and conflict with the North is ever-present. This was also particularly the case given the heightened tensions in the immediate aftermath of the DPRK's successful nuclear test. Certainly the legal release forms we had to sign before proceeding into the DMZ, effectively absolving the UN of any responsibility should one be unfortunate enough to be shot, grabbed the attention and emphasised the seriousness of the situation:

A visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death. Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.

We also received a stern warning not to try to communicate with or respond to personnel from the North, not to make eye contact and not to wave point or gesture towards the North Korean side.

Heading out of Camp Bonifas and on towards the DMZ proper, we stopped briefly to catch a glimpse of "the most dangerous golf course in the world", at least according to Sports Illustrated in 1988. This consists of a par-three one-hole, 192 yard (176m) "course", ringed on three sides, at least in former days, by minefields. The mines have, allegedly, now been cleared but in the circumstances a dropped ball and penalty stroke may still be advisable rather than a search for any sliced balls in the ‘rough'!

Our guide (courtesy of the JSA Battalion) claimed that the Camp also boasted the most dangerous tennis court in the world, on account of the local snake population's propensity for basking on it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) this was the only joke he offered.

Into the DMZ
Negotiations to end the Korean War started in July 1951 and continued through two more years of heavy conflict. Eventually, the peace talks yielded an agreement, dated 27 July 1953, on a ceasefire and the establishment of an armistice line flanked by a demilitarised zone (DMZ). The resulting military demarcation line (MDL) marks the front line at the end of hostilities in 1953. Under the terms of the cessation of hostilities, both sides agreed to pull back 2,000m from the MDL, thus creating a 4km (2½ mile) broad DMZ stretching for 155 miles (248km) across the Korean peninsula in the vicinity of but not coincident with the 38th parallel (the MDL trends south of the 38th parallel in the west and north of it in the east). The MDL itself runs precisely down the centre of the DMZ and is marked by 1,291 yellow-painted signposts and concrete sleepers. These rusting signs, marked in Korean (Hangul) and Chinese on their north-facing sides and Korean and English on their south-facing sides, stand as mute testimony to the longevity of the Korean divide.

Almost as soon as we left Camp Bonifas heading north, we entered the DMZ. In fact the terminology is misleading, as the DMZ is by no means wholly demilitarised. Indeed, along the way we passed the barracks of the JSA's quick reaction force - a squad of soldiers who are trained, we were told, to be ready for battle within 38 seconds - something that apparently leads them to sleep in their gear, boots and all, for days on end. While most troops and all heavy weapons are excluded from the DMZ, both sides have sought to fortify their respective sectors. No photography was permitted as our bus passed through the layered defences that make up the South Korean side of the DMZ. These include numerous watch towers, extensive minefields, fences, razor wire, and anti-tank ditches and embankments. While undoubtedly sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment is deployed here, no doubt invisible to the untrained eye, what was perhaps more intriguing were the decidedly low-tech solutions in evidence. For example, between a pair of high wire fences topped with barbed wire was a stretch of groomed sand designed to betray intruders by their footprints. Additionally, mini pyramids of whitewashed stones were leant, at intervals, along the southern side of the fence, the idea being that if the fence is disturbed, the balanced stones will fall and provide a visual indication of the point of infiltration.

Pan Mun Jeom
The drawn out peace negotiations that brought an end to hostilities in the Korean War took place at the "truce village" of Pan Mun Jeom (often termed Panmunjom) where over 1,000 meetings were held over a period of just over two years. The original village was located 1km north of the present location that bears the name but was destroyed during the war. As part of the agreement that ended the war, a Military Armistice Commission (MAC) was established to oversee the implementation of the terms of the ceasefire agreement. To facilitate the work of the MAC, a Joint Security Area (JSA) was created and it is this locale that now bears the name Pan Mun Jeom.

The JSA is roughly circular enclave, 800m in diameter, which is outside the administrative control of either North or South Korea. The JSA straddles the MDL, serves as the site of all post-ceasefire negotiations between the UN Command and North Korea and thus provides the only official interface between the two Koreas. According to the terms of the armistice agreement, each side is to have no more than 35 security personnel present in the JSA.

On arrival in the JSA, we were formed up into two lines and escorted through the cavernous "House of Freedom", apparently built as a venue for divided family members to be reunited, but rarely used due to ongoing political tensions. On the far side we were confronted for the first time by the armistice line. Between the House of Freedom on the southern side and North Korea's equivalent pavilion on the far side are a series of rather ordinary-looking sheds which, in fact, possess some quite exceptional characteristics.

In particular, the MDL not only cuts through the JSA but also some of the structures on the site. The buildings in front of us were thus half on the northern side of the line and half on the south, the concrete sleepers between them denoting the path of the MDL. One of them, an unremarkable-looking blue-painted hut, serves as the MAC Conference Room and, rather more remarkably, we were going to venture inside.

First though, we had a chance to observe the scene from the safety of the steps of the House of Freedom. One of the immediate things that strikes the visitor about the scene is the difference between the guards of either side. On the day of our visit, only one North Korean guard was in view, on the steps of the North Korean plaza opposite us, dressed in old-Soviet style olive drab uniform and occasionally peering at the curious tourists from beneath his peaked cap.

In contrast, the UN (South Korean) JSA Battalion troops were very much in evidence, no doubt to ensure our safety. The guards adopt a curious-looking half-exposed stance on the corners of the buildings straddling the MDL. This is designed to make them harder targets for the North Koreans, should shooting start. We were informed that the North Korean soldiers instead stand face-to-face. This has been the case since 1983 when a Soviet dignitary, visiting the northern side of the JSA, rushed across the MDL shouting that he wanted to defect. North Korean soldiers opened fire and pursued him across the armistice line and a gun battle ensued. One South Korean JSA soldier was killed, as were three North Koreans, but the defector made it through to safety on the south side of the line. It is worth noting here that defections haven't been exclusively from north to south. In the 1960s four US soldiers separately defected to North Korea.¹ The North Korean guard's therefore now stand facing one another so that potential defectors can't approach them, and the MDL, undetected from behind.

We formed up into our two lines again and were escorted into the MAC Conference Room which, for all its unprepossessing appearance, is quite arresting. The MDL runs right through the building and even bisects the conference table where the North Koreans and UN Command delegations (primarily South Korean and US personnel) meet, literally face-to-face across the dividing line. We were able to wander to the far side of the table and thus, technically at least, on the North Korean side of the armistice line. The door to the north was, however, guarded by a stern-faced UN JSA Battalion trooper.

As noted, the conference room has hosted negotiations and liaison meetings related to the armistice agreement between the two sides' over five decades. It has also been the scene for some near ludicrous, but undoubtedly serious, expressions of rivalry and confrontation across the ideological divide. For instance, we were told of an incident were two North Korean soldiers had used the miniature flags of the countries that contributed to the UN Command in Korea to polish their boots (the flags are now in a case on the wall, behind glass). Indeed, the North Koreans seem particularly concerned with flags, always attempting to ensure that their flag is larger, higher or more prominently displayed than that of their rivals. Another flag-related episode was the time when, in the course of negotiations, the North Koreans attached their miniature flag on the conference table to a car aerial, so that they could ensure that it stood higher than the other side's flag.

This kind of game of one-upmanship, in many ways evoking those of the school-yard, is certainly played by the UN/Southern side as well. For example, we were told another anecdote of an occasion when the North Korean delegation to a MAC meeting arrived with AK-47 rifles clearly hidden under their jackets - an overt armistice agreement violation - the JSA troops responded not by confronting the North Koreans, but by sharply increasing the temperature in the conference room and watching the North Koreans sweat in their heavy uniforms jackets which they were unable to remove without revealing the offending machine-guns.

Then there are the uniforms and poses of the JSA troops. In the first place, JSA soldiers are chosen for their stature, being on average two inches higher than the average Korean male. The JSA uniform is also intentionally aimed to intimidate. Each soldier wears a steel helmet and their faces are depersonalized not only by a forbidding expression, but because their eyes are hidden behind huge aviator-style sunglasses. As they move, they also make a jingling noise as though they have ball bearings sewn into the bottom of their trousers. Apparently, this is a trick left over from the Korean War where the outnumbered South Koreans attempted to make their numbers seem larger by making more noise whilst marching. We were informed that all JSA soldiers have to hold a black belt in Taekwando and, when on guard duty, they adopt an imposing, fists-clenched martial arts stance with a view to daunting their adversaries.

In This Issue

Postcard from the Edge
Clive Schofield

An Introduction to Geopolitical Tales II
Mladen Klemenčić

Geopolitical Tales II

The Flight to Sarajevo
Mladen Klemenčić

Untried Photo
Mladen Klemenčić

Aftermath of the War
Vladimir Kolossov

A Somali on Somalia
Aweis Issa

Thinking Again About Reparations for Africa
C.G. Bateman

Self-defeating Regulation
Patrick Walker

Japan's Right Turn
Brent Sutherland

The Bridge of No Return
The next stop on the tour was a drive past one end, but certainly not over, the ominous-sounding "Bridge of No Return". A key point of contention in truce negotiations was the issue of how to deal with prisoners of war (POWs). In particular, large numbers of captured North Koreans and their Chinese allies had no desire to be repatriated but their governments were insistent that they be returned. Eventually, a compromise was reached. Those prisoners refusing return to their native lands were placed under the authority of a neutral commission for a period of three months. After that interlude POWs were offered a free choice of staying in the country where they had been captured or returning to their country of origin. Those taking the latter option were taken to this bridge across the MDL which took its name from the fact that if POWs chose to cross the bridge, there was no going back. Over 75,000 communist prisoners took just this option.

The bridge itself looks to be in a poor state of repair, with one of the rusting MDL signs at its entrance. If the bridge looks a little familiar, it may be because it (or, more precisely, a recreation of it) has served as a cinematic backdrop, notably when James Bond crossed it in the 007 movie Die Another Day (2002). This only served to heighten the feeling of unreality that pervaded our tour of the DMZ.

Peace and Propaganda
It was some surprise to come across tilled fields and discover that people do, in fact, live within the DMZ. Each side maintains one village within the DMZ - Daeseong-dong in the south and Gijeong-dong (or Kijong-dong) in the north. Daeseong-dong, called "Peace Village" by the UN troops, was an existing, traditional farming village. Because of its highly unusual location, the villagers, who number around 200, are exempted from otherwise compulsory military service for South Korean men. The inhabitants also enjoy freedom from taxes and the South Korean government guarantees the sale of the crops produced there. These factors have led to average annual family incomes exceeding US$80,000 and making the village arguably an attractive place to live and explain why the South Korean government insists that any new residents must have an ancestral connection to the village.

However, there is a significant price to pay - not least of which is proximity to over a million North Koreans bent on the destruction of the South, and thus the infrequent but nonetheless persistent threat of abduction by DPRK infiltrators. The villagers must also put up with the heavy military presence on their side of the MDL and are also subject to considerable restrictions, for example a nightly military curfew of 11pm to dawn.

The northern "village" of Gijeong-dong, also apparently termed "Peace Village" by the North Koreans, appears at first sight to be a substantial township. Viewed through binoculars, however, and it becomes apparent that many windows lack glass. In fact the grand concrete apartment block facades are largely for show, designed to demonstrate the prosperity and prowess of Pyongyang's supposedly superior system and the virtues of living in the workers paradise to the north. In fact, Gijeong-dong appears to be inhabited by a relatively small number of personnel charged with maintaining the illusion of vitality and the village's extraordinary flagpole (see below). As a result, UN forces, nick-named Gijeong-dong "Propaganda Village". The other reason why this name proved apt was North Korea's practice of playing North Korean slogans and rhetoric from huge speakers in Gijeong-dong across the MDL into South Korea for up to 20 hours a day. The South Koreans responded by installing their own loud speakers and playing a mix of their own propaganda mixed with pop music. Thankfully for the villagers living within earshot, these equally absurd broadcasts ceased by mutual agreement in 1994.

My flag is bigger than your flag...
Flags are, of course, potent expressions of patriotism and symbols of nationalism. Planting a flag clearly sends a defiant message of sovereignty, ownership and faith in a particular cause. This truism has been taken to extremes between North and South Korea in a bizarre competition for dominance through the prominent display of their flags.

In the 1980s, the South Koreans built a lofty 98.4m (328ft) tall flagpole near Daeseong-dong in order to proudly fly the South Korean flag such that it could be seen far into North Korea. Indeed, when Seoul won the right to host the 1988 Olympic Games the South Korean government was presented with a flag showing the five-ringed Olympic symbol. This, we were told, was duly flown from the flagpole at Daeseong-dong as a way of rather unsubtly taunting the North Koreans (who were boycotting the Games) over the South's success.

In response the North Koreans upped the ante and constructed an even larger and taller one in Gijeong-dong. This structure, which has an air of the Eiffel Tower about it, stands at 157.5m (525ft) and is thus the tallest flagpole in the world. The enormous North Korean flag that flies (or when we were there, hangs limply) from the top of this edifice apparently weighs 270kg (595 lb) when dry and must be hastily removed whenever it rains as the flagpole cannot sustain its weight when wet.

Accidental Paradise
While both sides do send combat patrols into the DMZ (but are prohibited from crossing the MDL), the area has been left largely undisturbed. Other than their two villages, there has thus been minimal human impact within the DMZ for over six decades. The ironic and unintended consequence of this is that the DMZ, at 907km2, is the largest block of land to have escaped from the economic development and urbanisation prevalent throughout the rest of the Korean peninsula, especially the south. The DMZ therefore represents a de facto wildlife sanctuary and biodiversity preserve of national Korean and global significance, albeit an accidental one.

The DMZ corridor has been described as a treasure house of rare ecosystems including rugged highlands, wetlands and temperate forests. It is thought to host over 1,100 plant species, 50 mammal species, including the Asiatic black bear, leopard, Eurasian lynx, Goral sheep and possibly even Amur tiger. Additionally, it provides a habitat for hundreds of bird species, including the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Red-crowned and White-napped Cranes and Black Vulture. Indeed, many native species no longer found elsewhere in Korea are apparently present within the DMZ.

There have thus been moves towards the creation of a transboundary peace park, partially in order to preserve this unique area on environmental grounds and partially in memorial to those slain in the Korean War. The aim of campaigners is to transform the DMZ from "a symbol of war to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature", and secure backing of north and south to apply for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the DMZ. Advocates of this scheme point to drastic habitat destruction and biodiversity loss elsewhere in Korea and, invoking emotive traditional Korean imagery, promote the DMZ as providing a unique opportunity to preserve Keum-Su-Gang-Sam, or "the land of embroidered rivers and mountains".

These laudable aspirations have yet to come to fruition and it seems unlikely that they will do in the current climate of ideological confrontation and manifest distrust. However, even if others see the DMZ as land ripe for development after eventual reunification, the fact that it is heavily laced with landmines, gives rise to at least some hope that this rare and unlooked for positive by-product of the Korean conflict can be preserved into the future.

A front line ...with a gift shop
The passion of our South Korean JSA guide was impressive. He was keen to emphasise the deadly seriousness of the inter-Korean conflict and his unit's crucial role on the "frontline of freedom". He was also severely critical of Korean visitors turning up for DMZ tours drunk and Western tourists treating the whole DMZ experience as a joke. His resounding speech was, however, somewhat undermined by the fact that it was delivered en route to the last stop of our tour...at the DMZ gift shop back at Camp Bonifas.

This served to underscore the paradox of the DMZ and feeling of disconnection with reality that one encounters during a visit. On one hand the DMZ is heavily characterised by petty political and propaganda points scoring, sabre-rattling and grandstanding to a near ludicrous degree. As a result, the rivalry between the two sides and particularly how it is expressed is difficult to take entirely seriously. Simultaneously, however, the confrontation is undoubtedly in deadly earnest and reflects a division that has had tragic and long-lasting consequences - something emphasised by the fact that millions Korean families were, and remain, divided by the DMZ.

It is also the case that the DMZ is a potential flashpoint for devastating armed conflict. Heavily armed soldiers with itchy trigger-fingers train on a daily basis for a new Korean War - something that does not seem especially far-fetched an eventuality in light of seemingly ever more frantic rhetoric emanating from the North. Such a renewed Korean War would inevitably cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives and cripple the world's 12th largest economy, with equally inevitable but significant negative knock-on effects at the global scale, even without resort to weapons of mass destruction.

All in all, the Korean DMZ makes for a fascinating trip and an object lesson in the lengths states will go to guard against perceived threats to their sovereignty, independence and integrity. It may be somewhat counterintuitive to seek to visit what is, in effect, a sporadically active war zone. However, a tour of the DMZ has no equivalent around the world and is an excursion thoroughly out of the ordinary, bizarrely combining an active military front line with tour buses and a gift shop. A visit is highly recommended, before this last great schism between Cold War ideologies disappears...one way or another.


1. The most (in)famous of these deserters, Sergeant Charles Jenkins, deserted in 1965 whilst on patrol in the DMZ. Whilst in North Korea he married Hitomi Soga, one of five Japanese secretly abducted by the North Koreans to aid in training their intelligence agents destined for Japan. In 2004 he was allowed to visit his wife, who had been released in 2002, in Indonesia. He subsequently returned with her to Japan, gave himself up to the US authorities and served a 25 day term in jail before being released with a dishonourable discharge from the US Army - a surprisingly lenient sentence for almost four decades of desertion. However, his case provoked considerable public sympathy in Japan so that the Japanese government urged the US authorities to take a compassionate view.

Past Issues


We believe the following organizations are making a difference for the better in this world and encourage you to consider supporting them.

Oxfam International

Red Cross International

World Vision International

Copyright 2013 International Zeitschrift