Sneak peek into North Korea

Panmunjom village, a pocket territory inside the 4-kilometer Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea, is the hottest flash point in the 65-year-old conflict that besieged the Korean peninsula. Home to the so called Joint Security Area (JSA) between the two antagonists, Panmunjom is one of the few places in the world where soldiers of two nations, which are technically in an active war, stare at  one another 24 hours a day. The two sides, positioned just a few meters apart, can literally hear each other breathe or cough.

Viewed from the South, a North Korean soldier is seen posted at the gate of a three-storey building dubbed the Panmun Hall at all times. This soldier carefully watches the activities on the South side of the border only a few steps ahead of him. He is not alone, however.  He has got an audience in the form of a group of military police officers posing in combat position from the South side. And, both sides masquerade as if they are completely unaware of the presence of each other.

For novice observers the situation registers as some sort of a charade designed to depict a model border patrol activity between two hostile nations. Well, the JSA has been an actual border point between the two Koreans since the bloody civil war that claimed the lives of  three million people.  Facing the North Korean Panmun Hall is the South Korrean Freedom building and a row of steel frame conference halls which stands as the only connection point between the North and the South.

These halls are also historically significant since it was inside one of these conference halls that the US-led UN command forces and the People of North Korean Army had inked the infamous armistice agreement that brought the cessation of hostilities to the three-year Korean civil war.

Although some parts of this armistices agreement was later violated or abrogated by each side, the accord gave rise to the stretch of land which has come to be known as the DMZ today. Unlike its name, the DMZ is one of the most militarized areas in the world today patrolled by US-Korean forces and its rival the North Korean army. And JSA is a focal point in DMZ, also most guarded.

The Korean War which lasted from 1950 to 1953 is the first armed conflict of the so-called Cold War faceoff between the U.S led pro-democratic countries and the then U.S.S.R led socialist camp. The Koreans both North and South are the most homogenous people in the world trapped in an ideological conflict which was inherited from the outside world. Park Ju Hwa (PhD), research fellow at the Korean Institute for National Unification, admits that the two Koreans never had any divisive issues prior to the introduction of the ideological credos to the two sides. According to Park, the Korean peninsula was a united kingdom for over 1400 years ruled by successive dynasties, the last of which, Choson Dynasty, was removed from power when the country fell under colonial Japan in 1910. Koreans attest to the fact that Japanese colonial occupation (1910-1945) was one of the worst times for the country and has left long-lasting scars on the Korean psyche. 

However, it was not harsher than what was to follow. Following the rapid advances made by USSR’s red army and US forces on the Japanese stake in the pacific, in 1945, it become clear that the Korean peninsula was going to get its independence from the Japanese occupation. Nevertheless, the red army, which was making rapid advances in Korea was halted by the claim that it should not go beyond the imaginary line that is the 38 parallel. In effect, the move planted the seed for what is now a deep animosity between the North and South.

On the surface, the Korean peninsula after the departure of the Japanese, practically fell under a UN trusteeship rule; but on the ground that trusteeship had divided the country into two spheres of influence. Soon a proposal by the US-backed UN trusteeship to establish a unified Korean state was rejected by Russia in the north. Then in 1948, Syngman Rhee the first president of South Korea, unilaterally declared the unified and independent state of Korea from Seoul prompting another brush young leader in the North, Kim II Sung, to do the same.

Eventually, the 38th parallel line started to grow bolder, leading to the conflict that broke out in 1950. The war started by the full-scale invasion of the North and the associated UN resolution to lend helping hand to the Republic of South Korea. Including Ethiopia, the UN member states contributed troops to the war effort in the peninsula where the US contributed the biggest number of troops deploying close 300,000 soldiers. In fact, these were almost three times the number of South Koreans (95,000) who participated in the war.

Other UN-member states contributed close to 45,000 troops, among which the 6,000-strong was the Ethiopia’s Kagnew battalion, which is still held with high regard by both South Koreans and US forces for its bravery. With 135,000 strong, the North easily took the upper hand in the early days of the conflict. Things began to reverse once the support army started to arrived in the peninsula to an extent that the US-South forces came close to defeating the North completely; that was also the time when China decide to throw its hat into the ring. To make a long story short, both sides decided the war was a stalemate and the  armistice deal was signed. This deal gave rise to today’s DMZ and the JSA pending a formal peace treaty  which never materialized 65 years on.                           

Today, this symbol of one of the greatest human tragedies of the 20th century, the DMZ and, most importantly, Panmunjom village are tourist attractions both from the North and South Korean sides. The tourist traffic is high particularly from the side of South Korea. But, both have schedule visiting parties arriving at the Panmunjom and JSA area every week. For two nations, technically still at war, they sure know not to step on each other’s toes when conducting their guided tours through the JSA facility. Literally, the first-come-first-served rule applies to the visitor parties from each side. If one side managed to arrive earlier in JSA and the conference halls, it will retain the right to lock the door which leads to the other side until it finishes the tour.              

Once inside the conference halls, one sees nothing but a set of carefully arranged tables and chairs, evenly distributed on each side of a central table which bears a long stretch of microphone wire pointlessly extending to the windows on each side. These microphone wires are not your ordinary wires. They signify a much higher meaning that is the so-called Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that effectively separates North and South Korean territories. Following the trail set by the wires’ heavy concrete slubs continue to demarcate the MDL, whose integrity is strictly observed by the two border patrol officers on each side.

MDL was not part of the original DMZ plan, historical documents indicate. However, after the establishment of the DMZ, frequent clashes and skirmishes in the DMZ necessitated the devising of the DML and the effective border lines which cuts the JSA into half.

Apparently, the military servicemen/women, who lead these carefully guided tours, looks to be quite oblivion of the fact that Panmunjom is indeed a fragile area where security could go down the drains at any point in time. Some of them have even developed a sort of routine and try to offer visitors all the mystic of taking a rare peek at the closed-off North Korea.

The visiting parties that usually arrive in groups will be told to stand circling the big table in the middle of the conference hall. Then suddenly the guide/officers would point to the group of visitors on one side of the table and say, “those of you standing to the north of this table are practically in the North Korea”. Accompanied by mild rave from the visitors and distance propaganda chatter broadcast from North Korean side, the officer explains how the very table was once where the armistice deal was signed by the two sides.

Away from the DMZ, the ordinary Seoul folk hardly encounter heavy military presence on the streets. Of course, with the exception of Itaewon Street, also known as the international street, where a host of young men and women clearly from the US military contingent in Korea light up local bars and pubs.

A unique scene is a group of military officers fully attired in their military fatigues patrolling all bars and pubs in Itaewon area. In fact, this is a common scene for locals while giving of a feeling of unease for visitors. Eventually, a visitor will be told that military men are there to enforce a curfew that should be observed by soldiers.

This street is where a number of foreign embassies and international bars and restaurants are located in Seoul. A small pub called “club Zion” is that respective meeting place for a small group of Ethiopians who reside in Seoul. A community probably not more than a hundred is largely made up of college students and researchers and factory workers. Most college students are beneficiaries of a Korean government program which offers free scholarships to descendents of war veterans who had fought in the Koran war. Ironically, a couple of Ethiopian students at Korean universities today write papers regarding the political stalemate between the North and the South, a situation in which members of their families have played a part in a no lesser magnitude.

In sharp contrast to the scene in DMZ, researchers at the reunification institution toil day and night to devise the best policy and strategy to reunify the two countries one day. Park is one such researcher. However, he says that research work goes much deeper than policy recommendations and tries to understand what underpin the opaque North Korean system. Still, Park is befuddled with the inner working of North Korean economy and with factors that keeps the regime going for more than half a century.  And to say what befalls the North Koreans regime is anybody’s guess.

It is rather interesting to observe that both North and South Korea have independent government-funded institutions solely dedicated to the unification of the Korean people in the future. However, to date, none of these institutions has tried to establish any semblance of a relationship or tried to reach out to one another in spite of the fact that they are working towards the same goal. According to Park, the biggest problem in this is severance of any form of formal communications between the two countries.  

Although some South Koreans would say that there are some informal ways to communicate between the people of North and the South, the two Koreans have been kept completely separate from one another in the previous years. Nevertheless, attempts to resume relationship between the North and the South were there in the past. One example is the Kaesong industrial complex. The industrial zone experiment was designed to enhance the people-to-people relations with North Korea providing the plot of land and labor for the industrial complex and the South putting up the capital and the technology.

The Kaesong experiment saw South Korean firms investing in the complex that is located deep in to the North Korean territory. Later on, the South decided to discontinue the program as a result of the strong position it took/had to take against North Korea’s nuclear program.

Nevertheless, what looks to be a stiff challenge to the reunification of the two Koreans one day is the fact that the new generations in both nations are increasingly losing the grip on the attachment they once had to one another. Park argues that the new generation on the streets of Seoul is still keen on the reunification of the two nations. However, he did not deny the fact that the level of urgency has shifted massively. “When I was in my twenties, reunification of the two Koreans was a duty for every Korean. Now, I doubt if that was the case,” he says.

On a positive note, the two Koreans have agreed to keep the so-called peace villages inside the DMZ, each having one village. The village of Tae Sung Dong, the village on the South Korean side of the DMZ, is a thriving farming village of 70 hectares in area. With 200 inhabitants who are enjoying USD 120,000 household income annually, the village is a free zone which is administered by the UN and is exempt from any form of taxes and levies by the South Korean government. However, the villages have to spend at least 240 days a year inside the village to retain these privileges.

In sharp contrast to the lush paddy rice field in Tae Sung Dong, the North Korean peace village is called Kijong-Dong or propaganda village. According to observers, the Propaganda village is too shiny for an ordinary rural village. And a close examination of the village via binoculars also reveals that it is largely uninhabited, expect for soldiers patrolling the area.