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Taking a trip down the Pyongyang-Kaesong Motorway

Raquel R. Bacay / Khmer Times Share:
Concrete and granite pillars – ‘tank traps’ – after the mid-way point to the DMZ. KT/Raquel R. Bacay

Khmer Times’ Raquel R. Bacay just returned from North Korea and these are her first impressions of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the DPRK from the Republic of Korea.

A six-day visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not complete without a 3 hour drive along the 170-km long Pyongyang-Kaesong Motorway, which leads from Pyongyang to one of the world’s most intriguing and fortified region – the Demilitarized Zone separating the DPRK from the Republic of Korea.

The journey, by relatively good double lane roads in either direction, is a scenic route with corn and rice fields on both sides of the highway and nothing else, until one approaches Kaesong city where security check points are stepped up.

Until then, approximately at the 86th km milestone where there is a rest area, there are no security points and there are five after that.

The road passes through more than a dozen tunnels – 40 bridges, 11 ‘monuments’ comprising four tall concrete/ granite structures, which are actually tank traps built to resemble monuments – before finally arriving at the DMZ where armed DPRK soldiers stand at various guard posts and scores of mainly Chinese tourists mingle around for the escorted tour to the DPRK side of the DMZ.

This is a controlled-access highway in North Korea. It connects the capital Pyongyang to the Joint Security Area at the Korean Demilitarized Zone via Sariwon and Kaesong.

Security was strict but cordial and vehicles were ushered through quite rapidly. However, when the vehicle pulls up at the entrance of the DMZ, the spectacle changes with throngs of tourists, mainly Chinese, and scores of westerners mingling around while waiting for their armed escort to accompany the groups, in their vehicles to the guided tour.

Established in 1953, as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between the United Nations, North Korea, and China to end the Korean War, the DMZ in essence is a line in the sand that extends the entire 160 mile width of the Korean peninsula.

The zone serves as a buffer between North and South Korea, inside which neither country can fire weapons, build up military personnel or equipment, or start any act of aggression.

One of the more than a dozen tunnels which bore through the granite hills along the Pyongyang-Kaesong Motorway. KT/Raquel R. Bacay

The feeling in Kaesong is surreal as compared to the frightening stories told by many and also widely available in the internet. The trip was without incident and the time allowed in the DPRK side of the DMZ was hardly an hour compared to the time taken to travel there.

It is evident that the DPRK has its own version of what had happened at the 38th parallel and beyond and this is what they wanted those who visited the DMZ to hear and witness.

The DMZ acts as the border between North and South Korea. Closely following the 38th parallel, the zone is roughly 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. The zone extends out into the Yellow Sea, as the Northern Limit Line.

The DMZ is littered with scores of mines and barbed-wire fences, a scenario which would scare even the most hardy tourist or traveller.The exception, however, is here in the Joint Security Area, a special buffer zone inside what is known as the “truce village” of Panmunjom.

Three low conference buildings administered by the United Nations in the Joint Security Area are painted the international organisation’s signature blue, while North Korea controls three others. On the North side, a building called Panmon Hall looms.

At the end of the less than an hour guided tour, it is apparent that most of the horror stories read and heard are not entirely true. It is the self-inflicted apprehension which has given rise to these fears.

Seeing is believing and a visit to the DMZ, from the DPRK side would give travelers and tourists, a perspective of the Korean War which would differ starkly from readily available literature. However, the reminders of the horror of war and the unease remains.

Approximately 1,200 tourists visit the DPRK side of the DMZ each day and the crowd swells to over 1500 during the weekend and it is a surreal moment when the DPRK military guide narrates their version of the events.

While leaving the DMZ and heading to Tong -II reunification restaurant for lunch at Kaesong city, it is hard not to try and digest what has been said at the DPRK side of the border and what horrors the 3-year war had brought to people on both sides of the border as well as the multinational forces who fought on the South Korean side of the border.

The people of DPRK are proud, patriotic and have extreme reverence for their Dear Leader, Kim Il-sung who is credited for the DPRK’s growth in all spheres. And many monuments, buildings and writings carved into granite slabs are testimony to this reverence.

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