Posturing in Korea

North and South Korean troops at Panmunjeom JSA

North and South Korean troops face off at Panmunjom Joint Security Area

My last post began with a reference to old vets returning to Korea to remember the past. More than 50 years later, it appears niether side in this conflict has laid down their sword.

Coming from Canada, the one thing that amazed me was the militarization of South Korea. The highway north from Seoul was lined with guard towers, barbed-wire fencing, anti-tank blockades, and signs noting landmines – with increasing frequency the closer you got to the border. I wasn’t surprised by this given the tension between the two sides, but it was uncomfortable.

This was another period of escalation between the North and the South. Apparently there’s a resort along the border where Korean families separated by the war could meet. Only a day or two before we went to visit the demilitarized zone, a South Korean woman at this resort wandered off and was shot by North Korean guards. Because of this incident, an American military officer told me we were heading to the border at a time of increased tension.

The Panmunjeon Joint Security Area is one of the only places along the border where both sides can meet for negotiations. When politicians travel to South Korea, they often come here for pictures (such as our own prime minister). And why not? It’s such a strange and surreal place.

In this middle of this highly-militarized area is an open square with four blue houses. This opening is clearly divided along the centre with a line that marks the actual border between North and South. On both sides of the border are soldiers. The South Koreans, standing at strict attention with fists clenched in tae-kwon-do style poses. The North Koreans, likewise rigid, standing straight in their drab brown uniforms. Both sides are unarmed, but the American officer told me they had a fully-armed quick reaction force that could be at the area within 90 seconds. He suspected the North had a similar capability should the need arise.

And it has. There have been incidents in the past where North Korean nationals tried running across the border at Panmunjeom sparking a shoot-out on both sides. Another such incident occurred not too far from this location when North Korean soldiers killed a U.S. serviceman who was involved in trimming a tree that blocked a UN watchtower.

Panmunjeom is more spectacle than anything however. As soon as we came, the North Korean soldiers began marching along their side, giving threatening glances and staring at our group. The South Korean soldiers responded with their equally tough poses (complete with sunglasses for added effect). The American officers with us, who jointly provide security (there was a Canadian colonel as well, you can read my story here), warned us to be on our best behaviour at the border zone as the North Koreans have been know to re-broadcast images in their propaganda of tourists from the South who were acting in a provocative fashion.

Adding to the scene, tourists gaze from both sides of the border. Canadians on our side and Chinese on the other (I do not know if North or South Korean citizens are actually allowed to visit this border zone given past events – especially in the North).

Should you ever go to South Korea do not miss the opportunity to go to the demilitarized zone. I believe the U.S. Army runs tours, but who knows what’s happening now given recent hostilities.

As fascinating as this place may be, one does hope that its need will eventually be extinguished. But given recent flare-ups, I do not see this happening any time soon.