DMZ at the 38th Parallel | Same Show, Two Productions
The Reunification Highway cuts through the green North Korean hills like a perfectly symmetric scar. Along with a few military checkpoints, it’s the only visible sign of human activity in an otherwise eerily empty landscape. There are no buildings, no people and no other traffic in either direction. The mood is set. We’re heading south, on our way to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 4 km wide corridor by the 38th parallel that divides the Korean peninsula. During the lonely two hour drive, our guides intermittently break the silence with a few nuggets of information about the highway, and as with everything else in North Korea, there is a strong sense of occasion and symbolism about it. Completed on Kim Il Sung’s birthday and by (a highly disputed) numerical coincidence, the road’s total length in an unspecified unit of measurement is equal to the number of words in the speech given at its opening ceremony. As the name suggests, it commemorates the narrative that drives the North Korean story: the reunification of Korea through the North’s liberation of the South. The road signs futilely count down the miles to Seoul, and not the DMZ, pointing to what lies so very near but yet so very far away. Because 56 km north of the old capital of united Korea the highway comes to an abrupt end. This is, for now at least, not only the end of the line, but the end of the world for most North Koreans, and the setting for one of the weirdest shows on earth.
The DMZ is a truly bizarre place. Not only is the name highly misleading considering this is perhaps one on the most heavily militarized specks of land anywhere on the planet but here the ritual of war is played out daily and young soldiers are kept in constant battle mode, for a battle that never starts. The friendly North Korean soldier that briefs our tour group appears animated in comparison, as he smiles and points out the places we’ll see on a map with a long stick. After explaining what we can and cannot take photos of and reassuring us that there is nothing to worry about and we’ll be perfectly safe at all times, he gently guides us to our busses. Once on board and seated, we’re accompanied by robotic expressionless armed guards, and the doors are shut. An iron gate creaks as it slides open in a tall concrete wall crowned with barbed wire, and reveals a long and narrow passage way. The bus slowly glides through and into what is technically, if theatrically, a war zone. We’re all stretching our necks in to the aisle trying to look ahead through the front, the soldiers are looking back at us, we hear gravel crushing under the wheels and the gate being closed and locked behind us. No one speaks.
“Do you see that flag pole over there? That’s the tallest flag pole in the world!” our guide proudly proclaims as the bus exits the claustrophobic corridor. At 160m it’s no longer the tallest pole world wide, but it is much taller than the one on the South Korean side, and that’s all that matters. “Almost twice as tall”, our guide adds. There has been a bit of a parallel war of flag poles going on between the two sides, each adding an extra meter or two every now and again to out-do each other with their props, until the North effectively put an end to it by doubling the height of theirs. The giant North Korean flag flies above Kijingdong or ‘Peace Village’, a cooperative farm, we’re told, run by around 200 families and includes several schools and hospitals. “It’s their day off today, so no one is home,” our guide responds to the obvious lack of people. At the North Korea Peace Museum, from the outside a pretty looking building complete with a giant white peace dove – but a vast concrete shell on the inside, the heroic story of how Kim Il Sung almost singlehandedly forced the imperialist Americans to surrender at the end of the Fatherland Liberation War (elsewhere known as the Korean War) is presented in near mythological form. The fact that the original signed armistice document, clearly causing some factual incoherence, is present and referred to as evidence doesn’t seem problematic. We’re hurriedly herded along.
When our bus pulls up in front of North Korea’s border HQ, a large and imposing building with perfectly manicured flowerbeds, our guide’s jolly demeanour changes. We’ve reached the highlight of the tour, the demarcation line. Two armed soldiers lead the way around the corner of the building and two more follow behind us. We catch the first few glimpses of South Korea. Directly opposite is a huge building covered in surveillance cameras pointing in every possible direction, in front are 5 small barracks, two white ones at each end, and three blue ones in the middle, all straddling a thin concrete line that marks the international border. “Anyone trying to cross will be shot”, we’re informed, casually. In the gap between the barracks are three North Korean soldiers in arrow formation with their back to us, staring straight ahead in to South Korea. The southern side is empty. “It’s always empty, they’re cowards and afraid of us. They use all those cameras in stead,” the mocking tone seems genuine. Normally tour groups are taken up to the roof of the HQ building for a better view, but it too has fallen foul of the war that plagued the flag poles. The building is closed while they add an extra floor to it. “Soon it will be taller than the American HQ. Again.” The door in the middle blue barrack is opened, and we enter. It’s blue on the inside as well and there is a very large polished conference table in the middle, with matching chairs. The walls are barren apart from a poster with the UN logo and other Western European flags, “flags of the countries that helped the Americans during the war”. This is the only place the two sides can meet and communicate, and we’re encouraged to move around, play the part of generals and negotiators, and as it straddles the border, cross in to South Korea. A guard blocks the entrance on the southern side. The story of the cowardly imperialist aggressors in the South and the heroic and pure North is repeated, before we’re warned, in a tone of voice that believes in what it’s saying, not be fooled by the peaceful nature of North Korea, “if it’s war they want, we’ll give them war”. 10 seconds later, “let’s go for lunch”. We board the bus and head back north.
The door in the middle blue barrack is opened, and we enter. It’s blue on the inside as well and there is a very large polished conference table in the middle, with matching chairs. The walls are barren apart from a poster with the UN logo and other Western European flags, “flags of the countries that helped the Americans during the war”. This is the only place the two sides can meet and communicate, and we’re encouraged to move around, play the part of generals and negotiators, and as it straddles the border, cross in to South Korea. A guard blocks the entrance on the southern side. The story of the cowardly imperialist aggressors in the South and the heroic and pure North is repeated, before we’re warned, in a tone of voice that believes in what it’s saying, not be fooled by the peaceful nature of North Korea, “if it’s war they want, we’ll give them war”. 10 seconds later, “let’s go for lunch”. We board the bus and head back north.
A week later I find myself once again on a bus back to the DMZ, only this time driving north from Seoul. Even before boarding the bus I realize this is going to be a different experience. Two fellow passengers are offered to borrow trousers and shoes since they are not compliant with the strict dress code. Apparently the North Koreans have been taken pictures of Western tourists wearing torn jeans, shorts, vests and sandals, and used it as proof in their propaganda that people in the West are poor and can’t even afford proper clothing. The 56 km drive north takes an hour and 40 minutes due to the heavy afternoon traffic. The tours run every other morning and every other afternoon, which curiously fits perfectly with the tour schedule in the North. At Camp Boniface, the southern entrance to the DMZ, an American soldier, fully armed and in camouflage overalls boards our bus, and in typical American military jargon explains that “at this moment in time, I need you to open up your passports and present the picture page to me as I walk along the aisle, do you understand?” We understand. We are then asked to board (in a single file) another ‘vehicle’ (bus), that will be our transportation for the tour.
The ritual of war is skillfully portrayed on this half of the DMZ as well, if in more familiar ways. There is activity everywhere, cadets are jogging in line two by two along the road, another troupe is exercising outside a school building and there’s a skins vs shirts game on at the basketball court. This could be any set location on any American military themed film production. First stop is the Third Tunnel. 73 meters under the DMZ the North Koreans manually dug out several tunnels to be used in a surprise ground invasion (liberation) of the South, so far four of them have been found, but no one knows for sure how many more there are. When confronted with this, the North claimed it was a coal mine, smeared coal on the walls, and retreated. There is no coal in this area of Korea. At the Dorasan observatory we can observe North Korea from ‘a safe distance’, it’s a hazy day but it is impossible not to notice the flag pole towering over Kijingdong. “You see that village? That’s not a village, it’s a set. No one lives there” the guide explains. “Every evening all the lights come on at exactly the same time, and a few hours later they are all switched off again at the same time”.
Before we reach the demarcation line we are asked to sign a statement that we enter the area at our own risk and relieve the Americans of all responsibility should any harm come to us, as they cannot 100% guarantee our safety. We’re are lined up in two files in front of a large door inside the surveillance covered building at the border, and told not to point to the North and if we see any North Korean soldiers not under any circumstances try and make contact as this will be seen as a provocation and they might open fire. The severity of the threat is made very clear. When the doors open, we quietly march out on to the steps. It’s strange seeing it from this perspective. Directly opposite is the North Korean HQ, now draped in scaffolding to add an extra floor. The five small barracks are there, two white, three blue, and in between each barrack are three South Korean soldiers in arrow formation, their backs to us, and staring straight ahead. They wear sunglasses so the North Koreans can’t see their emotions and stand in a combat ready Tae Kwon Do pose. “Remember what I said, if you see anyone on the other side, don’t provoke them. It’s normally empty, but they are watching us. Guaranteed”. The door to the middle blue barrack is opened, and I am back in the exact same spot I was a week earlier, one foot in North Korea, one foot in the South, yet the contrast couldn’t be greater. We are allowed to move around, but asked not to touch anything. It all looks the same, blue walls, polished table with matching chairs, yet somehow different. I tell the guide I was here a week ago but that something feels different and ask if there have been any changes. She says she is here several times per week and it always looks like this. I go through my camera and find the photos form my first visit and realize there is now a UN flag at the table. I show it to the guide and ask if the North removes the flag in preparation for their tours, or if the South brings it in before their tour groups arrive. She mumbles and walks away and we are all guided back to the HQ building. The tour is over, and we return to Seoul.
The DMZ has a reputation for being a dangerous place, a line between two countries technically at war, where tensions run high and hostilities can break out at any time. Yet I left feeling that behind the politics, I had witnessed two different but equally (and skillfully) choreographed productions of the same strange show. An artificially staged ritual of war, performed and kept deliberately authentic, for the benefit of… who exactly?