'This is Freedom Village,' said Sgt Manfull

Communist North Korea is facing economic meltdown and the capitalist South scents reunification. But the Cold War lives on in the border badlands. By Paul Mansfield

When you buy your ticket they give you a list of rules. "Passports must be carried at all times ... certain items of casual clothing (jeans, sandals) are not permitted ... shaggy or unkempt hair is not allowed..."

The coach leaves downtown Seoul at 9am with a cargo of well turned-out but slightly bemused passengers. Are we correctly dressed? Will we manage to uphold the honour of the capitalist Republic of South Korea? Or - the major concern of two little old ladies from Virginia - will we be kidnapped by the Red Peril across the border and never heard of again?

A day trip to Korea's demilitarised zone, 45 miles north of Seoul, is one of the more bizarre experiences on the world's tourist circuit. At the tiny village of Panmunjom, just above the 38th parallel, the longest truce in modern times was bitterly negotiated in 1953 between communist North and capitalist South Korea. Today, Panmunjom is enclosed within a "joint security area", a few square miles of political no-man's-land, where, for the past 40 years, North and South have come together to negotiate, quarrel and occasionally fight over the fate of their divided nation.

After partition, the North disappeared into the fog of ideology surrounding its long-time ruler, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Now the country is supposedly bankrupt, and its future uncertain. In the South, however (recent industrial unrest notwithstanding), the economy is booming. Having followed events in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union closely, the South Korean people are turning their attention to reunification.

There were 40 of us on the coach, neatly divided between Japanese speakers and Anglophones. South Korea sends 190,000 tourists a year to Panmunjom, though Koreans themselves are usually denied permission to go. Mr Kim, our guide, was a smiling map in spectacles who favoured the "roll-up, roll-up" delivery of a circus ringmaster. The phrases "communist aggressors" and "struggle for freedom" echoed around the coach. Mr Kim also had a few more rules for us. No alcohol was to be consumed before entering Panmunjom: no contact was to be made with members of the "other side", who might use this for propaganda purposes.

"It's a joke," said Eddie, a Dutch journalist who had just returned from North Korea where he'd made the trip to Panmunjom from the other side. "They give you the exact same instructions on the way down, just with the names reversed."

We cleared Seoul's log-jammed traffic and headed in to the countryside through a patchwork of emerald green fields and rice paddies. At the roadside were several monuments to the "freedom fighters" of the Southern army, the Americans, the United Nations and others. "They have those in the North too," Eddie said, "except there the South and the US are the bad guys."

A cluster of watchtowers, barbed wire and tank traps signified the entrance to the demilitarised zone. The DMZ is two-and-a-half miles wide, and stretches from one side of Korea's coastline to the other. The joint security area (JSA) lies right in the middle, bisected in turn by the military demarcation line (MDL). It was already becoming a day of tiresome military acronyms.

This tone was reinforced at Camp Bonifas, the United Nations advance camp just outside the JSA that proudly proclaims itself to be "In Front of Them All". Automatic weapons bristled; sentries snapped to attention and saluted. Here we were briefed by an American captain who, with his pressed fatigues and polished boots, resembled a well-kept weapon himself.

The captain delivered a brief history of the Korean conflict, with much arcane jargon about "enforced containment", "numerical dependencies" and the rest of it, and asked us to sign a release form acknowledging that our visit entailed "entry into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action". The ladies from Virginia flinched visibly. Then it was time for the last stage of the journey, into the JSA itself.

Our military escort was a jut-jawed GI by the name (I kid you not) of Sergeant Manfull. Sergeant Manfull steered us through several military checkpoints, where young soldiers jumped on board and saluted briskly. But he also seemed to be escorting us into another dimension - a Cold War time capsule.

We passed a scruffy village on the South side of the dividing line. Here a score of families live on land donated by the government, with generous tax and other concessions (not to mention military protection) to keep them there. "This is called the Freedom Village," said Sergeant Manfull, without irony. "That other one you can see on the North Korean side is the Propaganda Village."

The heart of the joint security area resembled a miniature Korean village, with shady trees, a sunken garden and a freedom pagoda on a rise overlooking the demarcation line. Directly opposite was a North Korean pavilion, built a deliberate yard or so higher than the pagoda. We looked down on to a row of tin-roofed huts; blue for the United Nations, silver and tan for the North Koreans, with South Korean soldiers standing in frozen postures of aggression outside the huts, like plastic toys. On the steps of the pavilion, a single North Korean officer stared impassively across the border. But others, according to Sergeant Manfull, were watching. "Don't point or gesture," said the sergeant. "They'll take photographs of you and use them as propaganda."

The air of almost calculated absurdity grew stronger as we walked down to the huts (the ladies from Virginia now clinging to each other), and into the conference room. Here, on a green baize table, the border between North and South was delineated by the microphone cable. Gathered round in a horseshoe, some of us technically on North Korean soil, we listened to Sergeant Manfull describe the nature of the talks between the two sides: talks which have now been going on for more than 40 years. First, it seemed, there had been the issue of the flags on the table. The North had objected to the size of the South's, and brought in a bigger one. The South then did the same. This went on until the flags themselves were too big to fit into the conference room. A new round of talks was then scheduled to determine appropriate flag size...

Perhaps this manifest idiocy would seem funny were it not for the occasional outbreak of violence in the JSA. But the last serious incident came in 1976, and even this had its element of black farce. Two American officers, attempting to clip back a poplar tree by their checkpoint, were hacked to death by a mob of North Koreans. (Grim photographs of this event line the walls of Camp Bonifas.) Two days after the killings, the Americans mounted what Sergeant Manfull described, with pride, as "the most expensive tree-felling operation in history".

Fifty Korean martial arts specialists were brought in to chop the tree down, backed up by a squadron of GIs. There was even an aircraft carrier standing by off the Korean coast. The tree was felled, and a plaque now commemorates the spot.

We gazed at the North Korean propaganda village a few hundred yards away. Speakers on the hillside blasted out music intended to "disrupt" life in the South. You could barely hear it. Communist slogans were daubed on the hillside, and here Sergeant Manfull tried his hand at humour. "That one says, 'Coke is the Real Thing'." This brought a ripple of laughter, but not from the two ladies from Virginia, who had already retreated back to the safety of the coach. Nor from Eddie, who stood simultaneously laughing and scowling. He'd been in the propaganda village a few days before, and had heard all this in reverse. "It's all bullshit," was Eddie's comment.

Finally it was back to Camp Bonifas, to gaze at the pictures of distinguished visitors (mainly US politicians); to read the comments in the visitors' book ("very informative"; "a lesson in reality"); and finally, to down a long-awaited beer in the mess.

Heading back to Seoul Mr Kim abandoned his anti-communist rhetoric and turned his attention to the new road into the capital. "Now we are driving on the Freedom Highway. Why do we call it Freedom Highway? Because one day Korea will be free. Korea will be reunited. Korea must be reunited."

And indeed it will be - maybe even by the end of the century, ordinary people keep telling you in Seoul. But until then we have Panmunjom as a reminder of, among other things, how the military loves to play war games; and of how the tragic and the ridiculous go hand in hand whenever governments and armies get in the way of ordinary people and common sense.

FACT FILE

Getting there

Cheapest return flight London-Seoul currently with Air France via Paris, from pounds 630.

Accommodation

Ranges from international to quaintly local and cheap.

Getting about

Day trips from Seoul to Panmunjom (approximately pounds 45, Monday to Saturday) can be arranged through the Korea National Tourism Corporation (0171- 409 2100).

Others

Silk Steps (0117 940 2800) offer a seven-day "Ancient Temples" tour of Korea, inclusive of bed and breakfast, flights, transportation and guide from pounds 962. Other tour operators are Far East Gateways (0161 945 4321); Jetset Holidays (0161 236 6657); and AsiaWorld (01483 724883).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it