One of my favourite television programs is Gruen Planet, and one of my favourite segments in that program is “What Would Kim Jong Un Do?”
For those who have not seen Gruen, this segment ridicules the North Korean dictator’s various attempts at propaganda.
Today I enjoyed my own taste of the weirdness that is the frontier between the two Koreas.
Without a visa, this morning I travelled to North Korea, escorted by South Korean soldiers.
Sounds ridiculous? Well it is.
You see, in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) at a place called Pan Mun Jom, there is no razor wire, no land mines, no guard towers with rifle bearing snipers. Only a few concrete blocks and posts spaced apart that symbolically separate North from South.
There are a series of small low-roofed halls that straddle this border at the 38th parallel of latitude, and on our official media tour of the DMZ we were escorted into one of them.
Inside were two South Korean military personnel, one of whom was standing in front of a door at the far side of the room.
Sitting in the very middle of the room is a table that effectively divides the room in half.
Our guide, another South Korean soldier, told us that on the other side of the table was North Korea, and that we were welcome to cross the frontier to the North’s side of the room.
Naturally we took the opportunity to step across into the North, before hopping back to the safety of the South – a free passage across what must be one of the most heavily fortified boundaries remaining in the post-Cold War world.
How is this possible?
Our guide explained that when the South had a tour group visiting the building, the North Korean soldiers would depart, the northern door would be locked and then the Southern soldiers and visitors would occupy the building, and vice-versa when the North had visiting groups.
It is a truly Monty Python-esque arrangement for two nations that are still technically at war (the end of the Korean conflict in 1953 was merely an armistice, not a permanent cessation of hostilities).
Playing North Korean ‘peak-a-boo’
The farce only deepened on leaving the building, where the gathered media were invited to take their stock photographs and video footage across the frontier using our zoom lenses, but where any gestures were frowned upon lest the North interpret pointing as an indication of support for their system and use it in propaganda.
I was mildly rebuked by our host for inadvertently gesturing at a sign on the South Korean side of the border while asking him whether I could film it.
While zooming in on the solitary North Korean guard standing on the steps of their major building at the site, I noticed he was looking at us through binoculars.
Then, rather oddly, he abruptly turned and marched behind one of the building’s columns, only for his head, and binoculars, to reappear from behind the column a few seconds later.
It was basically a North Korean version of peak-a-boo with the gathered press (although we did not join in).
After five minutes of filming outside we were herded into our bus and driven back to the visitors’ centre (yes they have one, and it even has a sign that says, “WELCOME TO THE JSA!” – the Joint Security Area).
As with any good visitors’ centre, it has a gift shop selling everything from military caps, bags and toys, down to souvenir fridge magnets.
However, it was not keen for us to photograph inside the store – with its management perhaps realising the utter ridiculousness of the enterprise.
The DMZ is joked to have more tourist traps than tank traps, with the South Korean side having around 800 visitors a day and around 50-60 a day visiting from the North (at least according to our guide’s estimates).
Farce at risk of becoming a serious danger
Like much to do with the North Korean situation, Pan Mun Jom on the surface appears as total farce.
However, as with everything to do with the North Korean situation, the reality is at best black humour and threatens at any moment to deteriorate into something far worse.
The constant threat and tension was highlighted today by the low rumble of artillery fire and higher pitched echoes of rifle shots in the distance as we waited to enter the DMZ.
The noises no doubt came from some South Korean exercises or practice firings however, with thousands of North Korean howitzers permanently trained on Seoul, there is a niggling worry that these rumbles and echoes could without warning turn into the din of a full scale assault.
In the short-term that is highly unlikely, but South Koreans worry that America’s attention has been diverted to pressing domestic political and economic issues, as well as the Middle East, while North Korea steadily continues pursuing its nuclear ambitions.
South Koreans look with dismay at the rapidly approaching threat of a nuclear armed North Korea, an increasingly nationalist Japan, a resurgent Russia, rising nationalism and power for China and a distracted USA, and many fear history might repeat – a history where the Korean peninsula once again becomes the centre of a four power tug of war for North Asia dominance, with an unpredictable nuclear-armed dictator on the border thrown in to spice up the mix.
Perhaps this is why South Korea is increasingly looking to other middle powers such as Australia and Indonesia, who can remind the US that Asia is now the heart of the global economy, and that the region’s long-term security and stability cannot be taken for granted.
Michel Janda is visiting South Korea as part of a joint Walkley Foundation – Korea Press Foundation journalist exchange.