Entering the middleground of two Koreas

Entering the middleground of two Koreas

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South is blue and North is grey when it comes to the fine borderline between the two Koreas. Photo: Chanvetey Vann

It is the table where the officials and families of a nation torn in two sit down to discuss matters of mutual importance.

South Korea sits on one side of this basic bit of furniture, North Korea on the other. They never swap sides, as one is for the North, the other for the South.

And no-one sits at the head of the table, as UN officers monitor the meetings, with soldiers from both sides lurking in the background.

This is where the best-known demilitarised zone hosts meetings between one people of two opposing regimes – communism in the north and democracy in the south.

Although the Cold War between East and West is over, it has not ended in the north and south of Korea. Communism has evolved in China and Vietnam, but North Korea’s leadership has remained a sustained dynasty that modern vernacular calls a dictatorship.

Although communism was ultimately rejected by Cambodians after 1979, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge were sent on the run – ironically, by Vietnamese forces – the north and south of Korea have remained in a civil war where battles are few but animosity is intense.

It’s a psychological civil cold war.

To get a closer perspective about the history of this bitter divide, a trip to the demilitarised zone, or DMZ, is essential.

It’s perhaps the most historically interesting place to visit in Korea: a strip of land 257km long and 4km wide that cuts across the Korean peninsula and serves as a buffer zone between the North and the South.

But there are areas along the DMZ where the two sides face off within metres of each other.

The DMZ centres on an area known as the Joint Security Area (JSA).

At the front of the JSA is Camp Bonifas, home of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, where Republic of Korea (ROK, informally South Korea) troops, US soldiers and delegates of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission from Sweden and Switzerland are stationed.

This is the home of the table.

On the way to the DMZ, our tour guide, Lee, introduces a female North Korean defector named Park who fled to South Korea via China three years ago.

“In North Korea, when girls want to be successful, they have to join the army,’’ Park says of her various reasons for leaving.

“I served in the army for seven years, and also had to teach at a school without any payment. They gave me a piece of land to grow crops, but no matter what I did, we couldn’t make a living. So I decided to escape.”

There are around 28,000 defectors living in South Korea. The southern government welcomes all defectors and supports them for three months, providing education and support for them to earn a living.

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Park was dropped at a tourist site halfway to the DMZ, as she is not permitted to visit the area.

According to Lee, only foreign tourists are allowed to enter the DMZ. Individual trips are banned.

It is quite tough for local visitors, as they have to apply six months in advance for a trip to the area.

Once I entered the DMZ, I was told that taking photos was also banned. There are no exceptions.

The bus stopped at a building where we watched a 20-minute film about the DMZ, then we all had to sign a waiver absolving the UN of all responsibility should a firefight break out.

Again, our guide Lee reminded us about the dress code: no flip-flops, high heels, mini-skirts or shorts. She laughed as she said:

“We don’t want North Korean soldiers to see us wearing something short and think we have no money to afford for proper clothes.”

We eventually ended up at a place called Freedom House, where the table is located.

It stands at the centre of the room, a long, dark wooden meeting table with microphone cables bisecting its – a table with a border.

If we step to the other side of the table, technically we are on North Korean soil.

Inside the room, we are allowed to take pictures, and everyone is snapping away.

“Ladies, please,” our guide warns, “You can take photos with the North Korean soldiers, but don’t touch them or stand too close to them . . . at least six centimetres away, everyone!”

It is intense to be a civilian inside this enclosure. North Korean soldiers watch us from every direction through windows. They watch every step we make. If anything was going to happen, it would take only seconds. It was nerve-racking.

Visiting the DMZ was an overbearing experience.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chanvetey Vann at [email protected]

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