A visit to the historic demilitarized zone marking the division of North and South Korea offered the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters a memorable and touching experience.
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“We’re on our way to the demilitarized zone. Photo taking is strictly forbidden until otherwise announced,” Choe Un Mi, a tour guide, sternly reminded the Tuoi Tre reporters and the other four tourists as they approached the 38th Parallel North, which formed the border between North and South Korea prior to the Korean War.
The first guard station, located on a section of road with many tunnels, is more than 50 kilometers from Panmunjom.
Panmunjom, now located in North Hwanghae Province, is a village just north of the de facto border between North and South Korea, where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement that paused the Korean War was signed.
As soon as Yun Hyok Chol, the driver, provided a paper with a seal, an armed soldier lifted the barrier to allow the bus through.
The driver, however, had to get out of the vehicle to show the paper at the next guard station around 20 kilometers from the first point.
It took him even longer at a station guarded by more soldiers near Kaesong City, located in North Hwanghae Province in the southern part of North Korea, the former capital of Korea during the Taebong kingdom and the subsequent Goryeo dynasty.
The bus did not turn into Kaesong City but headed straight to the borderline around 10 kilometers away for a visit to the ‘armistice’ village, Panmunjom.
As the bus drew to a stop in front of a large concrete gate, the Tuoi Tre journalists and their four companions were signaled to get off.
Not allowed to take pictures, they entered a large souvenir shop nearby.
Stepping out from the shop, everyone then queued up and walked through a narrow entrance, with two guards doing a headcount based on a list they had.
As the group went on with their journey, they were accompanied by a senior army lieutenant.
The officer said hello to the delegation with a smile but without introducing his name.
He did not show any emotion and smiled when the tourists tried to start a conversation, saying he would guide them to places where access was allowed.
The road, which meandered through several steel bridges, was lined with tall concrete walls riddled with barbed wires.
The first stop was introduced as an area dedicated to the armistice negotiations, where several armed men stood with a strict watch.
According to the officer, the area welcomed the presence and teachings of highly revered leader Kim Jong Il in July 1972 and his son, the senior official Kim Jong Un back in March 2012.
He added that the area was of historic significance, where the invading U.S. troops had knelt in humiliating defeat to North Korea and where the armistice seal was applied.
The area thus required proper preservation and management to retain its momentous value to be handed down to the next generation, who are blessed to live in a unified nation, he said.
To the right is a one-story building with roofs of corrugated steel sheets.
A seal in front of the building reads, “The area hosting the 1951-1953 armistice negotiations.”
There is not much to the building, other than a large wooden desk, meant for the negotiations, positioned in the center.
Tourists are only allowed to snap photos of South Korea’s military facilities on the other side of the borderline. Photo: Tuoi Tre
The senior sergeant signaled that the tourists could sit along the table, and take photos and videotape.
The group was then guided to another large building some 50 meters away.
The house had three square desks, including an empty one in the middle.
The left desk featured the North Korean national flag and a document stored in a glass container.
Meanwhile, the United Nations flag and documents in two glass boxes were positioned on the right desk.
Many photos about the negotiations, the Korean War, the leaders, North Korea’s triumph and its enemy’s devastating defeat were hung on the walls.
The senior sergeant pointed to where the North Korean and U.S. leaders had sat for their mediation efforts.
However, the U.S. statesmen had used the United Nations flag instead of their own, which their North Korean counterparts had found an insult.
As the negotiations proved unfruitful, the U.S. leader left, which was indicative of his side’s failure and North Korea’s victory.
Taking photos from one side only
Everyone then resumed their journey, with the bus heading toward the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula.
The DMZ is a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, with two kilometers from the 38th Parallel on each side.
It was created by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations in 1953.
The bus continued to drive along a narrow asphalt road, across several iron bridges and barbed concrete walls.
Large gardens, riddled with holes and bushes, were also spotted.
The tourists also caught sight of some cyclists and cattle herders, who were introduced as the soldiers’ relatives.
The bus came to a stop in front of a magnificent three-floor edifice, said to be a ‘border gate’ perched on a steep hill.
They went downhill and stopped at a huge concrete board, on which North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s signature was engraved on July 7, 1994.
Kim visited the place one day before he passed away on July 8.
“The president kept thinking about the cause of national unification until his very last moments,” the senior sergeant stressed.
The Tuoi Tre reporters and the other tourists were then ushered to the frontier with two border houses on the South Korean side.
The team members were not allowed to venture anywhere. Instead, they walked some 20 meters in parallel to several houses on the borderline.
The houses were said to be venues for North-South Korean relative reunions, which remain suspended.
Most tried to snap photos of the ‘opponent’s’ buildings on the other side of the frontier.
The Tuoi Tre reporters and the other tour members were then permitted to snap photos only in that direction, not the other way around.
Whenever someone pointed their camera or smartphone to the buildings on the North Korean side, even on the stairs, they would get a stern reminder or officers would cover the lens with their hands.
The journalists were also expected to visit a museum which preserves written wishes for North-South relative reunions as the tour program had advertised.
“Let’s save that attraction for your next trip,” Choe, the tour guide, said.
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