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No place for flip-flops (Pt 1)

By roving hack Ignatius Rake
Panmunjom, North and South Korea

Posted March 08, 2012
conference row looking north
Strict dress code: The bouncers here mean business. © Ignatius Rake

Sick of hippies in tie-dyed T-shirts and flip-flops? Then head to Panmunjom in the Korean DMZ. Just don't be surprised if you come back in a box.

A legacy of the bloody and oft forgotten Korean War (1950-1953)1, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a four-kilometre wide corridor of land that stretches from the Yellow Sea in the west to the Sea of Japan in the east.

Cutting the Korean Peninsula pretty much in half, it straddles the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that marks where the frontline stood at 10am on July 27, 1953 when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed.

Today, somewhat ironically given its name, the DMZ forms what is generally recognised as the most heavily militarised border on the planet.

Which is why to go to Panmunjom, a quaint little village 62 klicks northwest of Seoul that just so happens to be the only place inside the DMZ an emmet can visit, you have to join an officially sanctioned tour group.

Unwashed hippies turning up on spec with their bongos in their backpacks just aren't welcome.

In fact, if you're in the South and you want to visit Panmunjom, or more correctly the Joint Security Area (JSA) as it should be called, you have to follow a strict dress code.

Not only is military-style garb a no-no but also forbidden are inter alia shorts, sleeveless tops or any other items of revealing or figure-hugging clothing; shaggy, unkempt or brightly dyed hair; excessive body piercings; dungarees; and ripped or faded jeans.

These restrictions are in place not because the JSA is some kind of uptight disco but because visitors could well end up with their photo plastered all over North Korea as testament to what a bunch of bedraggled slags Westerners are.

More worryingly, flip-flops are also banned.

Not because they're minging and should be anyway but because, as one US military policeman (MP) put it, "you can't run in them if the shooting starts".

Yep, the DMZ may well be a bizarre relic of the past but, like some unexploded bomb from the Blitz in a Birmingham building site, it's still a potentially deadly one.

Especially as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), aka the North, and the Republic of Korea (ROK, as in 'rock'), aka the South, are still officially at war with each other having never signed a peace treaty.

Fortunately for the emmet wanting a geek at the Asian Iron Curtain, there are a fair few tours to choose from.

While at least one is run by the United Service Organizations Inc (USO), the majority are offered by local South Korean firms, such as the one I chose.

An all-dayer, it kicked off at stupid o'clock with a morning's jaunt round some of the more notable sites within a grenade's throw of the western stretch of the DMZ.

These included Imjingak Park, dedicated to the 10m families torn apart by this artificial divide; the eerily immaculate Dorasan Station, opened in 2003 in the (so far vain) hope of recommencing passenger train travel between the two Koreas; the Third Invasion Tunnel, discovered in 1978 that, as the name kinda suggests, was the third of four rumbled tunnels dug by the North for the purpose of invading the South; the Dora Observatory atop of Hill 155 that today is the closest many South Koreans can get to glimpsing the North; and the unsettlingly quiet village of Tongilchon (Unification Village), which, contrary to some reports, is not actually within the DMZ per se2.

After lunch, a tasty cook-it-yourself beef jobbie that looked like guts in boiling mud, it was time to flatten down the Mohican and strap on a pair of beetle-crushers.

Oh yes, we were off to the JSA.

First, though, we had to cross the Imjin River via the Grand Unification Bridge.

bell of peace
Imjingak: The Bell of Peace. © Ignatius Rake

Constructed in 1998 as part of the South's 'Sunshine Policy'3, there was very little to distinguish this structure from any other non-descript road bridge anywhere in the world.

Except, of course, for the checkpoints, razor wire and South Korean soldiers armed with Daewoo assault rifles4.

"You are all now classed as Special Visitors. No photos from this point on," our guide 'Michelle' said as the coach eased to a halt, allowing a commando in cammie clobber to clamber aboard and peruse our passports.

Once across the bridge, the minefields became more numerous.

As did the tank traps: huge great multi-tonne blocks of concrete held aloft by supports rigged with explosives that when detonated would release their burdens and render the road impassable to enemy armour.

Travelling through Tongilchon again, Michelle explained that the village occupied the site of a former US military base.

"They left," she said, "because North Korean agents used to come in at night and kill people while they slept."

Surely as good a reason to up sticks as any.

On entering Camp Bonifas we had to change buses, leaving behind any bags or umbrellas that could conceal or be mistaken for weaponry.

Located just outside the DMZ, Camp Bonifas is the most forward military base in the South, "in front to them all" as it says on the gate.

Providing security to the half of the JSA controlled by the United Nations Command (UNC)5, it is also home to "the world's most dangerous golf course", a par three one-holer surrounded on three sides by minefields.

A grim-faced MP leafed through our passports.

What had earlier felt like a cheeky peek into a hidden world, something to tell your mates about down the pub, suddenly felt very real, very serious.

The 13,000 North Korean artillery pieces reputedly trained on Seoul were now just over there.

As was the world's third largest army6.

To allay any jitters, Michelle told us about the 1976 Axe Murder.

Not exactly the Berlin Wall: The white posts mark the MDL. © Ignatius Rake

This arose when a group of Americans and South Koreans went to cut back a poplar tree that was obscuring the view between two UNC checkpoints.

While going about their pruning, they were set upon by North Korean soldiers on the dubious grounds that the then commie dictator Kim Il-sung7 had personally planted the tree in question.

Apparently, he really liked it just the way it was.

In the ensuing fracas, the North Koreans picked up the axes dropped by the South Korean work party and hacked to death the two US officers present, viz First Lieutenant Mark Barrett and Captain Arthur Bonifas, who was posthumously promoted to major and after whom Camp Bonifas, formerly Camp Kittyhawk, is named.

Prior to the Axe Murder, the soldiers deployed within the JSA, 70 pistol-carrying MPs (35 from each side), were essentially free to wander about wherever they liked.

Afterwards, they were forbidden to cross the MDL, which in the JSA is indicated by either low profile concrete slabs or one-metre high white posts placed 10 m apart.

Sadly for any Steve McQueen wannabes, there is no wall or fence to jump on a motorbike.

Michelle then told us about the Matusak Incident, which occurred in 1984 when a Soviet bloke called Vasily Matusak ran across the MDL from the North's bit of the JSA in a bid to defect.

He was hotly pursued by a load of North Korean MPs that were so miffed they accidentally on purpose crossed into the UNC sector.

What followed was a 20-minute firefight.

When it was over, three North Koreans and one South Korean, Corporal Jang Myoung-ki, lay dead and five North Koreans and one South Korean were left wounded.

Matusak, Michelle said, got a new life in California.

Jang got a stone memorial.

She didn't get to tell us about the other 700 or so violent incidents that have occurred in the JSA since 1953, or the almost completely forgotten Second Korean War that raged along the DMZ between 1966 and 1969.

No doubt she could have but it was now time for our 30-minute briefing inside Ballinger Hall, itself named after a chap who was killed by a North Korean booby trap in 19748.

Here we all had to sign a waiver that kicked off by stating that a visit to the JSA "will entail entry into a hostile area and [the] possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action".


They then issued us with laminated blue guest badges, gave us a slide show and laid down a load of rules.

Photography would be severely restricted and under no circumstances could we communicate with, or indeed smile, wave or point at, any North Koreans or Chinese People's Volunteers, although they never actually said anything about pulling mooners at them.

Being a hack, I asked if I could take notes.

"No," they said emphatically.

In addition to another new bus, we also got a new guide.

Michelle stayed with us but now we were joined by an American MP, who at the end of the tour politely detained me while his superior officer went through my notebook.

A further passport inspection later and we were finally inside the JSA, 2.5 km up the road.

Cue more restrictions: no camera bags or cameras with lenses longer than 90 mm.

They also forbade booze, fags and chewing gum.

Man, those cats knew how to party.

Now read Part Two of this fantastic article HERE (once you've read all the footnotes, of course).


1) To cut a very long story short, Imperial Japan had brutally ruled Korea for 35 years before finding itself on the losing side at the end of World War II (1939-45). With the seeds of the Cold War already germinating, the Allies stripped Japan of its overseas possessions, carving up Korea along the imaginary line of latitude known as the 38th parallel.

Not that this was a rushed decision or anything. The two US colonels responsible, Charles H "Tick" Bonesteel III and "Dodgy" Dean Rusk (a Rhodes Scholar who later became president of the Rockefeller Foundation (1952-61) before becoming US Secretary of State (1961-69) under John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson), apparently stared at a National Geographic atlas for a whole 30 minutes before whipping out a ruler and cutting the country in two, supposedly unaware that in 1896 the Japanese had approached Tsarist Russia with the very same idea.

Under the Bonesteel-Rusk Plan, surely the best name for a faddy diet to date, the US took control of all land to the south of the crayon mark while the USSR got all that to the north. After a three-year period of occupation, two diametrically-opposed Korean dictatorships burst onto the scene like a pair of swedgers on angel dust.

After much mutual vitriol and threats of war, the communist North struck first with a pre-emptive invasion of the South in the wee hours of June 25, 1950 under the assumption that the US wouldn't lift a finger in response following a speech given by US Secretary of State Dean Acheson at the National Press Club a few months earlier.

By September, the North had captured all but a relatively small pocket of land around Pusan (now Busan) in the far south east of the peninsula. Two months later, following the US-led Incheon Landings, though, they had been forced back to within spitting distance of the Chinese border.

At this point, the Chinese, who had recently gone all commie, stuck their oar in and promptly pushed the South and its allies back to well beyond Seoul. By March 1951, the front line had been shoved northwards again to pretty much where the DMZ sits to this day. For the next two years it hardly budged an inch no matter how much blood was thrown at it.

After innumerable civilian massacres perpetrated by both sides, the war was finally put on hold thanks to the election of Dwight D Eisenhower in the US, one or two threats of atomic Armageddon and Stalin’s overdue appointment with the bottomless pits of Hell. When the smoke cleared, it became apparent that the border hadn't really changed much from before the North's invasion, although something like 4.6m people were now dead, wounded or missing, of which civilians accounted for more than half the pie.

Furthermore, the whole peninsula was now in tatters, with everyone except the local reps from what Eisenhower later called "the military-industrial complex" left to scratch around in the dirt for something to eat other than their best mate's corpse. And to think, some people say violence doesn't solve anything.

2) There are only two villages that are actually in the DMZ, viz Daeseong-dong (Freedom Village) in the South and the uninhabited 'propaganda village' of Kijong-dong (Peace Village) in the North. Both are close to the JSA and closed to visitors regardless of their attire. Tongilchon is, though, home to about 500 subsidised locals who grow pollution-free ginseng, rice and soya beans and then sell them under the highly-prized DMZ brand. Tongilchon was also where I bought a bottle of North Korean soju, a pretty decent distilled rice spirit I later caned with DJ NRG Raver back in Europe. Part of me, though, still thinks I should have gone for the North Korean bog bilberry liquor instead.

3) Initiated by ROK President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and continued by his successor Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008), the Sunshine Policy saw the South supplying the North with humanitarian aid, direct economic investment and significant wads of wedge in the hope of thawing relations. Some reckon it didn't work but others point out that the Sunshine years were marked by the 'friendliest' relations the two countries have ever known. Regardless, it was abandoned in 2008 when Lee Myung-bak, a pro-Washington hardliner, came to power and adopted a more hail, sleet and snow approach. Tickets for the Apocalypse are on sale in the foyer.

4) And you thought Daewoo just made cars.

5) The UNC was the US-led multinational force that fought the North. It was comprised primarily of South Koreans and Americans (fighting for the first time in racially unsegregated units) but also consisted of Brits, Aussies, Turks, South Africans (not fighting in racially unsegregated units) and Ethiopians among others. As the war is still technically ongoing, the UNC continues to this day, although I didn't spot any Ethiopians in the JSA. Just South Koreans and Americans.

6) Or fourth, depending on what stats you want to believe. Either way, there about 1m of them at least.

7) The first commie dictator of the North. A former church organist, his real name was Kim Song-ju but he preferred the more modest moniker of Kim Il-sung (Become the Sun). He now holds the post of Eternal Chairman of the Republic, which he dutifully performs when not being dry humped by demons in the fiery pits of Abaddon.

8) Commander Robert Ballinger, along with Major Kim Hah Chul, was killed while exploring the First Invasion Tunnel five days after its discovery in November 1974.

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