Three days ago, when we arrived in Seoul, bullets were exchanged at the DMZ separating North and South Korea. The word was NK soldiers had entered the four kilometre exclusion zone, so SK soldiers fired warning shots, then NK soldiers retaliated, but it did not escalate from there. Parties retreated, and ersatz peace was restored.
That was Sunday. By Wednesday all seemed rather peaceful at one of the world’s hotspots. A beautiful autumn day, the Walkley folk and Claire the exceptional translator from KPF were driven in a minibus by the charming Mr Lee out of Seoul and towards the north, for a picnic on the approach to the DMZ.
The autumnal foliage, birdsong, picnicking kiddies and general bonhomie belied the location. But once back on the bus, things were made a little clearer… As most know the Korean War never really ended: the DMZ was formed 60 years ago on the 38th parallel to keep North from South, and the reverse.
It was a busy day at the DMZ, with 800 tourists expected, but the guide of the day, Sgt Park, organised us with equal parts diplomacy and predictable military precision. The orientation included a nifty video and a diorama of past incidents, to really bring the place to life, sort of…
But nothing could prepare us for the eerie atmosphere at the Joint Security Area, where Korean soldiers on both sides stare each other down, as they have for decades. We were able to take photos, but there was to be no waving or other attempts to communicate with those in the North – not even a friendly cooee. We were ushered into the conference rooms and, once past the central table, we entered North Korea.
It was here I saw the world’s most well-guarded air-conditioning unit.
Once back on the bus, and a quick visit to the gift shop (DMZ chocolate!), we ventured to other vantage points, for another look at the DPRK – past the white poles marking the border, over dripping autumn foliage, and to the NK flagpole with its 270 kilogram flag.
We trusted our debonair driver, Mr Lee, to get us home. Although this road sign had me worried for a minute…