US president Donald Trump has come and gone from Seoul in South Korea, a whirlwind visit that lasted barely 24 hours. Interestingly, one part of Trump’s itinerary was changed at the last minute; his intended visit to the the Demilitarised Zone, or the DMZ as it is commonly known, a 250 km-long and four km-wide strip that’s cuts the Korean peninsula in half, was replaced by a trip to Camp Humphreys, a military base 65 km south of Seoul.
Officials in the Trump administration have said that the visit to the DMZ was a “bit of cliché” and that in any case Vice President Mike Pence had visited the demilitarized strip earlier this year. Days before President Trump’s visit to South Korea, I had the opportunity to visit the famous DMZ.
Contrary to its name, this is one of the most heavily militarized regions in the world, with North Korean soldiers guarding the north side, and South Korean and US soldiers guarding the South. It was established as a Korean Armistice Agreement after the 1950 Korean war but while it was carved out as a buffer zone between the two warring countries, there have been numerous reports of incursion over the past few decades, with over 500 south Korean soldiers, 50 US soldiers and 250 North Korean soldiers believed to be dead till 1999.
The DMZ isn’t kept exclusive for state visits by Presidents and world leaders. In South Korea, where I discovered the propaganda against North Korea to be as strong as that of North Korea’s against the South the DMZ is a tourist attraction – literally. For about 60,000 South Korean won (that is around $60 or Rs 4200) any tourist can book a tour to the Demilitarised Zone.
The tour company that I visited the DMZ with, Panmunjom Travel Center – offers the “DMZ and Panmunjom’’ tour every day of the week, except on Mondays and national holidays. Some of these tours, comes with “a North Korean defector’’ at hand, who accompanies the tour bus and will tell you of all the nastiness of North Korea.
I took the “Panmunjom Regular Tour with North Korean defector’’. It does have a couple of conditions: You have to book three days in advance, carry your passport with you and make sure you don’t wear sleeveless shirts and tank tops, or jeans with holes in them, or leather pants and short skirts or “excessively exposing clothes”. The tour pamphlet says that it is Korea’s “Best Travel Product”, a special program that “aims to offer a better understanding of the two Koreas’’.
As we pull out of Seoul city, our tour guide (who does not want to be named) tells us about the DMZ. About the four tunnels deep under the earth that were built by the North Koreans to “invade South Korea’’, at different times since the 1970s.
“But we discovered the tunnels while they were being built. The North Koreans have said that the tunnels were being bored for coal excavation. But there is no coal here. We know that they were planning to attack Seoul,’’ the guide says on her mike. We are later taken through on of these tunnels, cold and dripping with water as we walk through them. There is nothing much to see, yet groups of school children walk alongside us.
“The DMZ tours are not as frequent these days. But yes there are many field trips done by schools who bring their students to see the DMZ,’’ confirms our tour guide who herself does three DMZ tour a week. As we whiz past what our tour guide calls, the “Unificatio village’’, surrounded by ginseng and soybean fields, she tells us that these villages were set up in the hope that the two Koreas will unite one day. There are two villages inside the DMZ – Daeseong Dong an Kijong-Dong with a population of nearly 500 residents. “According to our law the residents of these villages have to spend a minimum of 24 nights through the year in their villages. The rest of the days they can spend elsewhere. Because they live inside the DMZ, they are exempted from paying any taxes. The cost of education of their children including higher studies, is borne by the government. They are also helped in other ways by the government financially. So they are very rich people,’’says our tour guide.
The North Korean side has similar villages. “But these are fake villages,’’ our guide says, adding, “they were just empty buildings built by North Korea to give us the impression that there was activity so close to the border. Only over the past few years, some people have started living in these villages,’’ she says. We are taken to several “unification observation centres’’, spots which overlook North Korea. On this side, the South Korean flag flies on a tall flagpole. On the other side, an even taller flagpole flies the North Korean flag. Over the drifting mist, I can hear faint echoes of speeches on a mike, which our tour guide says is “North Korean propaganda’’.
At each of these Unification Centres we are shown short films — stark images of starving children, North Koreans crying and fanatically beating their chests at the demise of their Great Leaders, extreme poverty — a generally unhappy people. The last five minutes of each of these films cuts to life in South Korea. Images of bountiful nature, flowers and birds and animals and shiny white tourists entering South Korean shops, while South Korean residents smile constantly and generally seem happy and contented with their fate.
After the film all of us visiting journalists are taken outside and made to hold up a sign which read, “We hope for one Korea’’, and photographed. This, apparently, is a part of the tour.
Did I tell you that we also met a North Korean “defector”? I wonder if that is also part of the tour. Our defector doesn’t want to identify herself on an account of the fact that two of her sisters still live in North Korea, says she left her son behind when she fled. It’s a story that many female North Korean defector tell. She got in touch with a well organized network of agents who smuggle out North Koreans and give them a safe passage through China. Our defector was taken to the Chinese border and sold to a Chinese businessman. She lived with him for a year before she managed to escape once more and flee to Thailand to finally reach South Korea.
“I left because I got sick and tired of the public executions. I just couldn’t see them anymore. We were forced to watch these executions,’’ says the defector who herself has served in the North Korean military for ten years.
“When Kim Jong-Un came to power, we all thought that he would be different from his father. But people in North Korea know better now. He had promise many things, but he is actually worse than his father. People in North Korea pretend to revere him because if you’re anything other than a supporter you will be executed. He has spies everywhere. You can’t trust anyone in North Korea, friends family – you don’t know who is a spy,’’ she says.
The defector says she is in touch with her family in North Korea but is unwilling to reveal anything else. She says the going rate to escape from North Korea to South is $10,000 and most people can’t afford this. Many women who escape don’t mind becoming a part of trafficking racket, just like our defector did.
“I have a Chinese phone to call my sisters. I never use a Korean one. The escape itself is quite dangerous. There are landmines planted all along the border,’’ she says. Our defector, like all other North Korean defector to South Korea, has a “protector” assigned to her by the South Korean government to ensure that she is not found out. The government also takes care of their accommodation and money for the first six months of their stay in the country.
A Korean journalist friend tells me that only North Korea defectors are allowed to get in touch with their relatives in North Korea. “There is a law in South Korea called the National Security Act. This Act is very rare if ever used now. But according to this law, if any South Korean calls or tries to get in touch with anyone in North Korea then they will be arrested and sent to prison,’’ she says. The jail term for such a violation can be up to seven years. Our last stop on the tour is Seokpo – a glistening train station waiting to become operational. The train schedule says it will go to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, and then onward to Paris Predictably it is called the “Unification station’’.
Donald Trump didn’t visit here, either. With North Korea’s recent bursts of missile activity and the consequent geopolitical scrambling with China which has the most influence with Pyongyang, unification seems like a distant dream. Everyone here in the region knows that the declining power that is the US must, inevitably, give way to Beijing’s rising influence in the region. The chess game in East Asia just moved into another round.