“All normal. Situation remains the same.”
It is frigid on this February day on the exposed heights of Observation Post Kumgang. A wind blasts across the Northern Pacific from Siberia, but it is cold for another reason: Despite the inter-Korean thaws of 2018, for the men on the ground, the Cold War on this front line is chilly as ever.
“Our daily tasks remain exactly the same,” said Lt. Col. Bae Suk-jin, a fit-looking officer. “Nothing big has changed.”
Perched like a mountaintop eyrie, the Observation Post stands on the northeastern tip of mountainous Gangwon Province, setting of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. This area comes under operations of South Korea’s 22nd Infantry Division. The post oversees the southern edge of the Demilitarized Zone, the four-kilometer-wide dead zone that separates the two Koreas, and the long, white sand beaches and rolling breakers of the empty coastline.
Last year, much was made of 10 guard posts in the DMZ being demolished by each side, with another one abandoned on each side. It was a symbolic move of virtually no tactical significance. Retired US Army Colonel Steve Tharp, a DMZ expert, said that there are over 100 guard posts in the southern DMZ, and perhaps twice as many on the northern side.
So soldiering goes on.
“All normal. Situation remains the same.” It is the eternal report of the sentry on a frontier, any frontier, from the days of Imperial Rome to 21st century Northeast Asia. It captures both the endless tedium and the underlying tension, the duty of standing watch.
1.7 million troops
On the ground, all is still and silent – as it is on all frontlines when a battle is not raging. No battle has raged in this spot since 1953. But it could. If the tinder somehow ignites, and the dreaded “escalation spiral” is not immediately contained, things could go catastrophic very quickly. The bulk of the 1.1-million-strong North Korean People’s Army, much of the 620,000 strong South Korean armed forces and a handful of American GIs are spread, face-to-face, along this border, with all the paraphernalia of modern war at their disposal.
But for over half a century, that has not happened. The July 1953 Korean War armistice, which could be a topic discussed at this month’s North Korea-US summit in Vietnam, and replaced with a peace treaty, has held. And that is largely because soldiers like those here, muffled up in digital camouflage against the weather, continue to patrol the frontier, continue to check the illuminated, razor-wire fences, and continue to surveil the mysterious North for any sign of unusual activity.
This is deterrence, up close and personal.
Foreign reporters were offered unusual access last weekend to the frontline Observation Post, which is usually restricted to senior military and VIPs. It is visually impressive.
On a covered observation platform, a soldier manning a digital surveillance scanner – something like a telescopic TV camera – focuses on positions inside the DMZ and North Korea. Close-up images flash up on a mounted LED screen. They are located by an officer, armed with a pointer, on a large-scale, 3D terrain map. This is an operational position, so photography is forbidden.
Ahead lies a wintry valley. The military demarcation line, the actual border between the Koreas, which is set exactly where the fighting halted at midnight on July 27, 1953, runs right through the center of the DMZ. It is marked by a line of posts just 2km ahead. Craggy mountains and ridges, dusted with snow, rise in front of us.
The scanner scans. On the low ground, a two-story North Korean strongpoint, complete with a brace of flagpoles, jumps into focus. A bunker, built into the face of a cliff, provides a perfect firing point over the low ground. On the summit of a hillside is a larger observation post. It was there that the “Young Marshal” – Kim Jong Un himself – watched a mass artillery and rocket firing exercise on the coast in 2014, we are told.
On the right is an empty road and rail line leading to the Hyundai-built-and-owned tourism resort at Mount Kumgang – the famously scenic “Gold and Diamond” mountain in North Korea, 12km north – cuts across the dead zone parallel to the coast. There is no movement. Traffic on the “Eastern Transport Corridor” has been virtually suspended since a South Korean tourist was shot dead there by a North Korean soldier, apparently in a case of mistaken identity, in 2008.
A South Korean source, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information, told Asia Times that the reason Pyongyang could not accept a joint investigation into the incident was that the shooter followed standard operating procedures and finished off his target – a middle-aged South Korean housewife – with a second bullet. That led to the shuttering of the tourism complex, although travelers to the North say it is in limited use today for North Korean tourists.
Since the inter-Korean rapprochement kicked off early last year, there has been widespread hope that the resort at Mount Kumgang, and the North-South Kaesong Industrial Complex in the west of the peninsula, could reopen. But for that to happen, international sanctions on North Korea would need to be eased.
For the same reason, the eastern and western transport corridors, which could feasibly shuttle South Korean cargo through North Korea to the Eurasian landmass and on to the Trans-China, Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian railways, remain motionless.
Just behind the frontline, the low ground is littered with “dragons teeth” – squat concrete blocks, designed to halt armored vehicles. Minefields are fenced off. Larger concrete blocks are set alongside strategic choke-points on the roads. Small blocks of explosive at their bases show where they would be detonated, to block the roads in the case of an incursion or invasion.
For the soldiers who man the countless checkpoints and patrol bases, encumbered with helmets, flak vests and automatic rifles, life is monotonous. Still, there are some compensations. The landscape is ruggedly beautiful, the air crystal clear and champagne fresh. Wildlife is more abundant here than anywhere else in South Korea. On a short, 15-minute bus ride through the narrow military roads in the area, journalists spotted a wild boar and a skittering deer in the snow.
What we were not shown, but visible on other parts of the frontline, is the heavy stuff: The giant artillery bunkers, with their self-propelled guns, the tanks in revetments, the armored battalions parked in formation on bases.
Despite widespread hope for the ongoing inter-Korean engagement process and international summitry, and last year’s symbolic moves to reduce tensions, there is no great call within South Korea, even among the most liberal parties, to pull troops from the frontier.
For two decades there have been dreamy plans to turn the DMZ into a nature reserve, studded with all manner of tourist facilities. Gangwon Provincial Governor Choi Moon-soon said the fact that reporters had been able to access the Kumgang Observation Post, which he characterized as a “scary, restricted area,” was “a great transition”. He spoke cheerily of upgrading DMZ tourism with suspended airborne gondola rides and road access.
Indeed, across South Korea, there are already DMZ amusement parks, museums, art installations, galleries and coffee shops. The reality, of course, is that while they may be near the DMZ, none are actually in it.
The only part of the DMZ which civilians and reporters can routinely access is the famous truce village of Panmunjom, with its line of blue huts. But however iconic it may be, thanks to the cameras of BBC and CNN, it is misleading. It is in no way representative of the rest of the DMZ.
That reality lies in front of the Kumgang Observation Post, a 4km-wide dead zone where only small patrols, carrying basic infantry weapons, are permitted. The heavy weapons are dug both north and south of it.
Inside the zone, it is as silent, as motionless and as empty as it has been for over half a century. Regardless of the bonhomie of summitry and the back-and-forth of negotiations, as long as two Koreas continue to exist on the peninsula, with two governments, two systems, and two armies, it is difficult to see how this eerie border could be fully returned to civilian use.
“All normal. Situation remains the same.”