Don’t Take Pictures, Until We Say Yes

This article first appeared in the Singapore Sunday Times on 3 August 1997.

It is beyond dispute that the affluence achieved by the Republic of Korea (South Korea) within a short span of one generation is one of the great economic miracles of this century. From a paltry per capita income of below US $100 in 1953, this ballooned to more than $10,000 in 1995, a hundredfold increase in 42 years.

In 1994, it became the second Asian country, after Japan, to join the Organisation of Economic and Cultural Development (OECD), a prestigious grouping of wealthy industrial nations. One of the dynamic Asian Tiger economies, its resounding success epitomises the ultimate triumph of human spirit and enterprise over seemingly insurmountable odds and the devastation of civil war. Throughout its turbulent history going back more than two millenia, Korea was compelled to seek accommodation with its two bigger and more powerful neighbours, China and Japan, or face the wrath of invasion by them.

Japan colonised the country from 1910 until the end of World War II in 1945. The north came under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union and the south the United States. Three years of bitter and shattering civil war (1950-1953) followed. The South Koreans, supported by American and United Nations (UN) forces, were pitted against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) with Chinese soldiers fighting alongside them. An armistice was finally concluded at the obscure village of Panmunjom, about 60 km from Seoul. Under the armistice agreement, Korea was carved into two halves. A demilitarised Zone (DMZ) reflecting the battle lines, a 4000 m wide no-man’s land ringed with guard posts and barbed wires, winds some 230 km across the Korean peninsula, from the west to the east  coasts, serves as the boundary separating the two Koreas.

A Joint Security Area (JSA), a tiny strip of land in the middle of the DMZ at Panmunjom, with conference facilities managed jointly by the UN and the North Koreans, was set up to enable the protagonists to meet and resolve disputes on the armistice terms. A visit to Panmunjom is a unique travel experience, de rigueur for the discerning visitor. It is the last flash point of the Cold War and a legacy of history. The journey by coach takes approximately ninety minutes from Seoul. When our multinational group of forty arrived at the UN military camp with anticipation and mounting excitement, we were subjected to a stringent security check.

Our American military tour guide gave us a thorough briefing on the Korean War and the salient features of the camp and that of the JSA. All tour members had to sign a declaration form exonerating the UN from any legal liabilities, should deaths or injuries occur while we were there. Panmunjom is potentially a danger zone and hostile actions might take place at any time without warning. We were cautioned on the need to observe the code of conduct strictly at all times. The taking of photographs was absolutely prohibited, except at designated stops, for our own safety.

The moment we were all waiting with bated breath was the tour of the JSA. On arrival, we were hurriedly escorted into the conference room where the opposing parties meet periodically to thrash out complaints of armistice violations and to trade insults. We were allowed only five minutes for briefing and photography with a UN guard in attendance. Outside the conference room, one of the North Korean duty guards was taking snapshots of our group, possibly for record purposes. Both the Seoul and Pyongyang authorities allow group visits to Panmumjom and the conference room is available for guests.

From a vantage point near a UN guard post, we looked across to North Korea, and the village houses and farms were faintly visible. Their propaganda broadcast, aimed at their southern cousins, could be heard loud and clear. In front of us was the Bridge of No Return, where tens of thousands of prisoners-of-war were swapped after the Korean War. All around us, soldiers of the opposing forces kept up round-the-clock watch duty in their respective guard posts or watch towers. The soldiers had powerful binoculars trained on each other’s territory. No fewer than 404 meetings have so far been held by the parties at the JSA. These have now become less frequent after the end of the Cold War, as other means of communication have become possible.

Over the years, Panmunjom had witnessed several shootouts between the duty guards on both sides. Two incidents will illustrate the uneasy truce prevailing there. In 1976, two American officers were killed by the North Koreans over pruning a tree at the JSA by the Americans for security reasons despite objections. The Communists contended that they had planted and nurtured the tree. In another incident in 1984, a Russian diplomat, visiting the JSA as a guest of North Korea, suddenly ran across to the UN side to seek political asylum. The Communist guards immediately pursued him across the boundary line and,in an exchange of fire, a UN guard and three North Koreans were killed.The Russian defector secured his freedom. As recently as 16 July of this year, soldiers of both sides fired at each other when the North Koreans were said to have intruded into the South Korean side of the DMZ , near Panmunjom, the first serious flare up since 1984. These episodes mirror the fragility of peace in Korea. Hostilities could break out there at any moment, with global ramifications.

Modern Seoul and Ancient Kyongju

Apart from Panmunjom, there are a number of interesting places to visit on a trip to South Korea. Seoul, the capital, is not an ideal city for sightseeing, compared with what Beijing, London or Paris have to offer. Its ancient monuments have been largely obliterated by successive wars, and the refurbished palaces and mega-theme parks are not as captivating as those in China, Japan and United States. But it is an impressive and highly developed business city, with its ultra-modern skyscrapers, quality department stores, chic shops, luxury hotels and efficient public infrastructures like the Olympic Park complex. This makes it the best place to experience what makes South Korea tick.

If you had to choose only one destination outside the capital, you would be amply rewarded if you went for Kyongju, ancient capital of the unified Silla dynasty (AD 668-935). It is only about four hours by express train or coach from Seoul. The Silla era was the golden age of Korea , in which art and culture flourished. Many of its splendours have been preserved in Kyongju. It is truly an open-air museum of Silla antiquities, scattered all over the plains and mountains of this tiny city and its outskirts.

We made the superb National Museum our first stop. This gave us an overview of Korean art and served as an excellent introduction to the numerous relics found there. Among the world-renowned national treasures are the Pulgaksa temple with its twin eighth-century pagodas; and the perfectly sculpted marble sitting Buddha at Sokkuram Grotto is a wonderful sight to behold and one of the oldest extant anywhere. Other famous landmarks include a cluster of twenty royal tombs at beautifully landscaped Tumuli Park and  Buddhist sculptures and frescos on Mount Namsan. At Yangdong Folk Village are eighty 15th and 16th century traditional aristocratic houses, some still inhabited by the original owners’ descendants.

Hotels and restaurants in South Korea are mostly expensive. In compensation, public transport, including taxis, trains and buses, is surprisingly affordable and of a very high standard.

Beneath an unsmiling and seemingly stern exterior, most Koreans are helpful and hospitable. We received their courtesy and kindnesses time and again during our 12-day stay in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Travel tips

  • Singapore Airlines and Korean Air have regular scheduled flights to Seoul.
  • The best times to go are in April and May, October and November. The rainy months of late June and July should be avoided.
  • No visa is required for Singaporean tourists.
  • Very few Koreans speak English and knowledge of a few essential Korean phrases will be most useful and will enhance your enjoyment of your holidays.

Lam Pin Foo

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Take Pictures, Until We Say Yes

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