Dale Hess, Victoria Regional Meeting

 In October 2018 I was privileged to be part of a group of twelve Quakers and non-Quakers who travelled to North Korea. We had heard that the American Friends Service Committee had a farm project there and we wanted to learn more about it. We also wanted to see the country and the people and learn what opportunities there were to build friendship. Prior to going many people expressed to me their anxieties about North Korea; they were concerned for our safety.

One of the first things we did in North Korea was to travel to the Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ). This is one of the most dangerous, and in spite of its name, the most heavily guarded borders in the world. It consists of a strip of land between North and South Korea, 4 km wide and 250 km long reaching from sea to sea, which has been in place since 1953, the date of signing of the Armistice (cease-fire) Agreement. There are about one million soldiers patrolling the border and approximately two million landmines to prevent invasion. Technically the Korea War never ended. The United States has consistently refused to sign a peace treaty, and this has prevented North and South Korea from reunifying.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel.

Miss Kim, our guide, gave us a wake-up call our first morning at 6.30 am and we were to be on the bus ready to leave by 7.30 am. Not all of us managed to be on time and we left 20 minutes late. Miss Kim was not impressed.

The trip south from Pyongyang through the countryside took nearly three hours. We passed through the Reunification Gateway at the southern limit of the city. This is a very impressive statue over the highway as seen in the photo.

Reunification Gateway, Pyongyang over the highway depicting two women holding a globe showing a unified Korea.

We travelled on the Reunification Highway to the DMZ, a multi-lane divided highway running directly from Pyongyang to the DMZ, bypassing towns and settlements. It was almost completely devoid of traffic in both directions, except for the occasional tourist bus. Farmers were seen working in the rice fields and crops were planted to cover the arable land. It was harvest time. Most of the work was done by hand. We could see some evidence of erosion of the mountain areas and the efforts to plant terraces to prevent it. Occasionally we would see people walking or riding bicycles along the road.

At the halfway point we had a rest stop and there were tables set up offering tea and snacks and gifts for sale. Although most of the land along the highway was quite flat, we encountered some hills and passed through them in a series of tunnels.

As we approached Kaesong, we briefly stopped at four military checkpoints. These seemed to be more a formality than a barrier. There were only a couple of soldiers staffing each of these.

At the outskirts of the DMZ there is a large tourist area with a museum and giftshop. We were among about 50 busloads of tourists, mainly from China, but also from Taiwan, and a few from Europe. There was a small military presence there for crowd control. We heard talks about the history of the war and the Armistice Talks which were given by military personnel.

We boarded the bus again and passed by signs promoting reunification. We were told we were not allowed to take pictures in this area as we travelled the road to Panmunjom, leading to the Joint Security Area. The road was narrow and on each side were large concrete blocks at the top of chutes leading to the highway. These blocks were held in place by wooden wedges and were there to form tank traps. Beyond the blocks were electrified barbed-wire fences. Much of the land on the other side of the barbed-wire has unintentionally become a wildlife reserve because it is unsafe for construction because of the landmines.

Tank trap, DMZ, North Korea

At Panmunjom we saw the Negotiation Hall, where over 200 armistice meetings were held during the war, and the building next to it which houses the North Korean Peace Museum.

The Negotiation Hall

The Joint Security Area is a little further on. Here is a symbolic demarcation of the line dividing the countries, on the far side of the bluish buildings. The bluish buildings are North Korean, those building on the outside belong to the United States and the large building in the background is South Korean. There is very little physical military presence at the JSA. One North Korean officer was very friendly and pleased to pose with us.

North Korean soldier at the Joint Security Area. The JSA is perhaps the only place in North Korea where one is permitted to photograph the army.

I believe the Korean people and the current leadership of North and South Korea, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in, genuinely desire reunification. There have been recent moves to reduce tensions. A handful of guard stations on both sides of the border have been removed and the process of gradually removing landmines has begun.

A major step forward would be signing a peace treaty to end the Korean War. Although both Koreas would like to do this, the United States, and possibly China, is reluctant for this to occur.

Mr Kim and Mr Moon have agreed on the concept of “One Country, Two Systems”, which would preserve the integrity and identity of each side. Implementing this concept will be tricky. Also, there are the complicating factors of the process of de-nuclearisation, sanctions, and economic development of the region.

This is a time of transition and change. Sejin Pak, who visited North Korea last year as well, noticed the differences and some relaxation in regulation. As a result of our study tour, we are excited about the possibilities and are exploring ways in which we might contribute to the peacebuilding.


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