It was December. It was bitterly cold. I had my coffee and notepad ready. It was time to go.
The journey north of Seoul was enlightening in itself. Within minutes of leaving the thriving, modern capital, there were barbed wire fences lining the Han River. From the truck, I could see guard posts manned by what are known locally as ROKS (Republic of Korea soldiers). There was a palpable tension in the air.
The closer I got to the border, the more surreal the situation became.
The abandoned train station of Dorasan that connects Seoul to North Korea’s Pyongyang shed light on what might’ve been and, more optimistically, what could be. It was built during the so-called “sunshine period” and funded by donations from hopeful South Korean civilians. Unfortunately, it has never been used. South Korea remains an island-like nation; the only legal way in or out is by air or sea.
It was a bizarre feeling arriving at the station and standing at the platform edge, looking down the tracks into North Korea. I couldn’t help but hope to return one day, not as someone interested in the conflict, but as a commonplace passenger traveling to Pyongyang. If the station was made operational, one could plausibly get a train from London to Seoul. Maybe one day.
Just a few hundred yards from Dorasan Station is a raised security platform that offers a staggering view of North Korea. From there, you can see the “propaganda town” of Kijong-Dong. It’s known as a propaganda town because, while North Korea claims it’s a community thriving on collective farming, South Korea maintains that it’s empty. In this sense, propaganda is still alive and well.
Before I knew it, it was time to enter Camp Bonifas — the U.S. and South Korean-run military camp along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that is less than one hour from Seoul. Of course, this was a high-security visit. I was accompanied by an American serviceman who would be my guide while at the camp.
I was escorted through one of the camp’s central buildings. Upon emerging from the rear of the building, I was greeted with one of the most iconic scenes of my lifetime. South Korean soldiers staring, unflinching, across the border at North Korean soldiers, who were equally stern. The men on either side looked like statues; they didn’t move a muscle. This was the joint security area (JSA). At this particular moment, my guide, serious in tone, gave me specific instructions: “Do not look at the North Korean guards, and under no circumstances should you wave or make any hand gestures. They will be watching your every move.”
He then led me down the steps and into one of the central buildings of the JSA that straddles the border. We entered the room where discussions between North and South Korean officials take place. There was a large table situated at the center of the space, along with a variety of recording devices. I stepped across the border and looked back at the South Korean side of the JSA. My U.S. serviceman caught my attention by hailing, jokingly, “You are now in North Korea; do you wish to defect?” It was utterly surreal.
I remained in North Korea for about 10 minutes and decided that was enough time, for that day. But I’ll never forget it.
As we left the JSA, my guide mentioned a recent incident when a North Korean had defected to the south. Caught in the crossfire of a gunfight, the defector survived but paid a heavy price. My guide, thinking out loud, said: “Imagine leaving your wife, your kids, your parents. He [the defector] had to know that they’d be punished, and that he would never see them again. How bad does it have to be for you to pay that price?”
We walked in silence for a few strides.
I tried to imagine what was going through the defector’s mind. What would I do? I had no answer.
Then, the silence was broken. Another U.S. serviceman approached us with haste and said there’d been an issue further along the border and that we needed to leave. Without time to ask what had happened, I was ushered back to the truck.
In the moment, I was reminded that I wasn’t in a tourist hotspot; I was in a de facto war zone.
On the drive from Camp Bonifas, I thought back to the train station at Dorosan — to what might have been. I struggled to comprehend the sheer difference in quality of life, determined merely by which side of a dividing line you happened to be born on.
As we drove, normality gradually crept back in. The guard posts became less frequent, the barbed wire fences grew shorter until finally, there was no sign of any security measures at all. We had only driven 35 miles — 35 miles from one of the most talked-about military standoffs in history. But amongst the prosperity and sophistication of Seoul, you could almost forget it.