Panmunjom

By Jennifer Lee '98

 

The four kilometer-wide Demilitarized Zone cuts a pristine swath through the urban industrialization of the Korean peninsula. Here Northern and Southern adversaries have stood eye to eye in a grotesque stalemate for over 40 years. The DMA is heavily mined, barricaded and patrolled, a veritable no-man’s-land.

Despite its grim name, the DMZ was one of the most engaging and educational places I visited while in Korea. Panmunjom, the Joint Security Area, is one of the world’s most bizarre tourist attractions, a juxtaposition of civilian and military spheres of life—fanatic camera-toting tourists posing next to stern machine gun-bearing privates. Perhaps it is the danger and threat that are so tantalizing. Roughly one hundred thousand foreigners—no South Korean nationals allowed—flock annually to gawk at the immutable terrain, absorb the propaganda, and eat bland military food.

There was nothing to see or do really. There is no beauty or elegance, only blank starkness. There is no enriching Korean culture to learn from, only well-composed military propaganda. Nonetheless, it was completely fascinating to witness one of the few remnants of the now supposedly defunct cold war. The DMZ is more than a line; the military has made an appreciable effort to make the institution tourist-friendly. Included are an information packet, slide show, bus tour, museum displays, monuments, numerous photo opportunities and a gift shop.

From the very beginning the tour takes on a very restrained tone. There are strict requirements about our appearance: no jeans, no sneakers, no unkempt hair, no gum chewing. Apparently it is very important that we keep up our appearance for the North Korean soldiers so as not to feed any of their propaganda about Western decadence. Visitors are typically obliged to reserve seats 48 hours in advance and must have their passport with them at all times.

There is a brief visit to a small museum containing large photographs describing the history of the conflict between North and South Korea. Also contained in the museum is a long glass case displaying daily items used by North Koreans—bowls, utensils, razors—as though they were primitive artifacts of some bygone civilization.

We were brought into a debriefing room and introduced to our guide, a courteous American GI who stood well over six feet tall. At Panmunjom, one really does grow appreciate of the sheer brawn of the American military. Because of the tensions that still exist there, the stationed American GI’s are obliged to meet higher height, weight, and aptitude standards. For a girl who stands 5'2", it was quite intimidating. There are no women at the DMZ.

Documents to sign were distributed. They relieved the military of responsibility and auspiciously began, "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action." Fortunately, in over 30 years of touring, no incidents involving visitors from the South Korean side have occurred. From the North, however, there was one Russian and one Chinese defector who crossed over the line.

The 24-minute slide show was impressive. From a well-rehearsed script, our guide hurled facts, history and anecdotes at us with the polish and efficiency of an AK-47. The information was denser than could be found in any history textbook. It was educational, and the lengthy history gave a firm impression of the bizarre rivalry that exists between the two sides. Brief breaches of the peace have resulted in several deaths over the past few decades. Nonetheless, they deem it secure enough to bring busloads of tourists every day.

On the bus tour, we were forbidden to take photographs between certain checkpoints. The reasoning was so as to prevent North Korean spies from learning the layout of the mines and barbed wires that run parallel to the DMZ from coast to coast. This precaution seemed more to impart a sense of sobriety upon the tourists than for genuine security reasons. Our guide merely shrugged when questioned about the remote possibility that North Korean intelligence could still remain ignorant of the defensive set-up after thirty years. Even if they bothered sending North Korean spies out of the country and around the border, they could hardly be so stupid as to blatantly use point-and-shoot cameras on a guided bus tour.

At the truce camp, the only official point of contact between North Korea and the free world, we were allowed to wander into North Korean territory within a blue-painted hut with a corrugated iron roof. A microphone wire draws the border down the middle of the green negotiation table.

North Korean soldiers gaped at us from outside the window. We were instructed not to gesture or make faces at them in a "do not feed the communists" attitude that I thought had disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. Yet we were told to feel free to take pictures of the North Korean soldiers who gaped at us through the windows. They were used to being treated as spectacles. The wall that lay between us transformed us into each others’ exhibits.

We were shown creations of the North Korean propaganda machine, including the imposing façade of Panmungak across the formal line, a huge building which is more show than substance at less than 3 meters deep. There is also Guijong-dong, affectionately termed Propaganda Village.

From the high vantage point looking out into North Korean territory at Check Point 5, the situation seems more comical than tragic. Guijong-dong, a large modern-looking town placed abruptly amidst picturesque green foliage, stands eerily empty except for the workers who are bused in eery night to turn on the lights in the apartment buildings. The village also has magnificent speakers which blast messages North Korean leaders and defaming American imperialists for hours every night. Hollywood-like displays grace the hillsides proclaiming the more pro-North propaganda. A busload of Asian tourists took turns posing with the American GI as though he were Donald Duck at Disneyland.

The nearly dehumanized area is one of the world’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries, protecting numerous endangered species such as the magnificent Manchurian crane from extinction. The fragile creatures are sandwiched between hypermilitarized belts of armies, military bases, heavy artillery, mobile units, radar and communication stations.

Our tour was concluded with a visit to The Monastery, home to the Merry Mad Monks of the DMZ, full of T-shirts, postcards, caps and other souvenirs which we could bring home as evidence of our brave excursions into enemy territory, and at rather reasonable prices, too.

Back in Seoul, South Koreans maintain only a trivial interest in discussing Panmunjom. The looming shadow of all-out war had been absorbed by the fumes from industrialization. It has become part of the background consciousness. The recent passing of North Korean leader Kim Il-Song created some flurry of emotion, but things soon settled down to their daily routine. Even at Panmunjom, Kim’s death did not increase any tension between the two camps…


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