MY FLAGPOLE is bigger than yours, says North Korea. Squinting through binoculars out into the hazy distance, it is possible to make out two flagpoles. One carries the Taegukgi, flag of South Korea. The taller sports the red and blue of North Korea, eventual winner of the ‘flagpole war’. Both flagpoles sit in self-proclaimed freedom and peace villages on the border of the cloven peninsula. In the South, a few hundred people live in the shadow of their highly militarized neighbours. In the North, no-one knows. But if you did live there you’d be unable to peer out of your windows – they’re only painted on.
This is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a name that immediately presents the visitor with a contradiction, since there’s an overwhelming military presence on the 38th parallel dividing North and South Korea, a four kilometre wide, 250 kilometre long strip of concrete and barbed wire, replete with drab guard posts and their stony-faced inhabitants. The Joint Security Area at Panmunjom is the only place along this strip where North and South come within spitting distance. Two soldiers, one from each side, stand directly opposed and stare each other down across a silent grey courtyard, a concrete slab marking the official separating line (North Korean guards pictured below, top)
The only interruptions are the occasional joint talks, held in a conference shed that straddles the two sides, and the lines of tourists on the South concourse, waving and using this snapshot of the world’s most isolated country as a backdrop for their selfies.
Panmunjom is not the only opportunity to glimpse North Korea. Further along the DMZ it is possible to peer at the winners of the flagpole war. Also visible is Kaesong Industrial Complex, which employed 15,000 workers from North and South until it was closed in 2016, a victim of worsening relations between the two sides. Close by is Dorasan train station, (pictured left, below) the last South Korean stop on the historic Gyeongui line connecting Seoul and Pyeongyang, and the latest, greatest hope for reunification efforts.SMXLL
Closed after the Korean War, re-opened in 2007, then closed again in 2016, its barren platforms and railway lines to nowhere serve as a brutal reminder of how those hopes continue to be thwarted by changing South Korean leaders – some hostile, some less so – and the unpredictability of Kim’s northern regime.
It has been 72 years since the Korean peninsula was one nation, and there is much speculation about how the two Koreas would cope with assimilation. One is a highly-developed consumer economy with hard-won free and fair elections, the other a rural backwater with next to no infrastructure and ruled by an iron-clad dynastic dictatorship. At Dorasan a section of the Berlin Wall donated by Germany is flanked by two panels comparing the length of time that both Germany and Korea were, and are, forced to suffer the indignity and hopelessness of rigid internal division. The Korea panel is still counting. As ever the picture is dominated by the politics, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the two sides hate each other, for there is little mention on the international stage of the families torn asunder and the overall sense that those in the North are still brother Koreans, temporarily corrupted by the Kim regime.
The two panels would also have you believe that the only difference between divided Korea and divided Germany is the duration of division. That is optimistic at best, disingenuous at worst. The panels deceive in the same way as the two soldiers separated by a small stretch of courtyard. Both fail to impress upon you the cultural, economic and now, even linguistic chasm that separates them.
New, liberal president Moon Jae-in wants closer ties with the North and the re-establishment of works at Kaesong. It remains to be seen how realistic these aims are now the meddling hands of Donald Trump are actively prodding the Kim regime into a new flagpole war, but President Moon has his own problems to deal with. Not least healing South Korean society, rocked in the last few years by a huge corruption scandal that brought down his predecessor, and the aftermath of a traumatic ferry disaster in which hundreds of schoolchildren perished.
The staring soldiers give the outsider the impression of tension, peace on a knife edge. As does the exaggerated, movie trailer-style history of the DMZ shown to visitors. This is not so, even in these times. Look beyond the show of military swagger, the frumpy Korean People’s Army uniforms and the suave, threatening taekwondo stances, and the atmosphere is clear for all to see. Grey, drab, boredom on repeat. Ceaseless waiting for an end to this state of affairs. The panel counts up, the propaganda songs wash over the hills and through the empty train station.