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
Postcard from the Edge
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
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.
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
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
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
An Introduction to Geopolitical Tales II
Geopolitical Tales II
The Flight to Sarajevo
Aftermath of the War
A Somali on Somalia
Thinking Again About Reparations for Africa
Japan's Right Turn
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
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
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.
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
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.