Panmunjom - A view from our expert author

Soldiers from North and South stand toe-to-toe at this edgy border, the world’s most heavily fortied frontier.

Many moons ago there was a road linking Kaesong to Seoul. The road crossed the River Sachon, a tributary of the River Rimjin. People built a bridge with logs and boards and named it Panmun, but rains would wash the bridge away and prevent anyone from crossing, so an inn was built for delayed travellers, an inn called Panmunjom (board-framed shop) that lent its name to the village built here. The village itself was wiped from the map during the Korean War, but the name survived and it’s now known as the venue for the Korean Armistice Talks.

ROK soldiers stand guard at the Joint Security Area, Panmunjom, North Korea by Henrik Ishihara, WikipediaROK soldiers stand guard at the Joint Security Area (JSA) – the JSA radiates 400m around a row of blue and white huts in which armistice talks continue to this day © Henrik Ishihara, Wikipedia

It’s here that the ‘US imperialists bent the knees down before the Korean people’ when the US ‘gave up’ in 1953, and is the epicentre of the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ). The actual division line of Korea is the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that snakes across Korea from the mouth of the River Rimjin in the west to the east-coast Walbisn-ri, and the DMZ is a 4km-thick buffer straddling the MDL. The DMZ is anything but demilitarised, and is one of the most heavily guarded, heavily mined frontiers in the world.

This isn’t surprising as a combined total of 1.5 million Korean and 28,000 American soldiers would clash along this frontier, and the DMZ bristles with artillery and troops ready to let rip at the drop of grenade. As you are driven in and out of the area, try and spot as many disguised sentry points, pillboxes, tank-traps, machine-gun and artillery posts as you can. Having said that, the atmosphere is overall surprisingly relaxed, especially compared with the Friendship Exhibition in Myohyangsan. While here more than anywhere permission for photos is needed, the officer guiding you will yay or nay with a friendly bat of his hand. Which you had better heed.

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