As North Korea announced its sixth – and biggest – nuclear test in September, an uneasy stand-off is taking place along the DMZ, or demilitarised zone, a thin strip of land separating the North and South.
DMZ, South Korea — The eerie silence on the road along the DMZ is broken by birdsong. The melodious harmonies of rare species such as red-crowned cranes, white-naped cranes and others can easily be taken as a sign of appreciation for the sanctuary they find themselves in.
Below, the seemingly impregnable vegetation is awash with autumn hues: leaves of all shapes and sizes in kaleidoscopic shades of reds, browns and oranges wrap themselves round barb-wired fences and observation posts in what has over the past sixty years become one of the richest and most unspoiled ecosystems on the planet.
The irony is obvious. This is one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world, the no-mans-land that is as foreboding as it is lush. Few people venture into the four-km strip that separates the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, otherwise known as North Korea. Not least because it is littered with landmines. Yet this is precisely why such a plethora of flora and fauna, much of it in danger of extinction elsewhere, has thrived.
But if nature has found peace here, man has not. At the Joint Security Area, or JSA, the spot where the-now infamous blue conference rooms stand, young soldiers from both sides face each other off.
The South Koreans exude an aura of aloofness, possibly in the knowledge that their taekwondo black belts and designer sunglasses give them the upper hand, at least in the coolness stakes.
Their northern counterparts stand just meters away. Dressed in khaki uniforms that nod towards a bygone Soviet era, these men are the embodiment of the role played first by the Russians and then the Chinese in determining their country's fate. By the end of World War Two, Korea was divided, with the North backed by the Soviet Union and the South supported by the US. Then, in 1950, when the North invaded the South, China’s Red Army marched in as reinforcement.
The grandfathers of the soldiers who stand on both sides of the demarcation line most likely fought each other decades ago, in a war whose consequences has eventually led to where these men stand today. They are brethren. They share the same ethnicity, the same language and the same culture. All that separates them is history.
But if there is any acknowledgement of a kindred spirit, we don't see it. Instead the men stand poised. In theory, fighting could break out in an instant, and if that happens, they are ready to act.
We are standing some twenty meters away from them, on the strict orders of the young American soldier who is showing us around. "If you step over that line," warns Sergeant Gomez, pointing towards the thin concrete strip that separates the North from the South, "there is absolutely nothing we can do to help you." It's enough to ensure we don't move even an inch.
Journalists aren't being allowed into the DMZ at the moment, so we've travelled here disguised as tourists. It’s the second week of November and we’re in South Korea to cover US President Donald Trump’s tour of Asia. We’re hoping to film at the DMZ, but without formal permission, our options are limited. Thus we've joined a coach tour of around 40 foreigners, equipped with just our smart phones and a tiny Osmo camera that we've hidden deep inside our rucksack.
At first we seem to get away with it, even when we stop at countless checkpoints where various American soldiers flick through every page of our passports. But the game is up the moment we reach the JSA and start to record our piece-to-camera. I've been murmuring my words continuously during the journey so that we can do it in one take, but despite this, all eyes are on us the moment I start to speak. Sergeant Gomez stops mid-sentence, tilts his head in our direction and glares. Our tour guide starts marching towards us, talking urgently and incessantly into her cellphone.
Our nerves are in shreds, but Ensar, our cameraman continues to film as I give it another go and Mark, our producer, eggs us on encouragingly. The tour guide is now upon us.
The piece-to-camera has been recorded just in the nick of time, but the scrutiny is far from over.
"You cannot do this!" she yells, her tone more pleading than angry, “this is a tour group!" We apologise profusely.
This is a tightly-controlled tour and we’ve been given strict instructions on exactly what we can and can’t do. The other tourists look on, confused and slightly bemused by our antics. But they offer little by way of commentary, presumably for fear of any unwelcome consequences. Thankfully, our tour guide seems to accept our explanation, albeit reluctantly, and even allows us, along with the other tourists, into one of the blue huts.
This is the exact spot where the armistice agreement between the North and the South was signed in 1953. The large wooden table where the documents were signed straddles the actual demarcation line. We take a few steps along it, and in an instant we're in North Korea. Inside the huts is the only instance the North Koreans will allow anyone from the South Korean side of the DMZ inside their territory. We're told exactly when we can take photos. Sergeant Gomez has got his eye on us, and we dare not step out of line. Not after the stunt we've just pulled.
Things are a little more relaxed at the observation point. We're allowed to walk around and use the fixed binoculars to peer into North Korea. Our tour guide has calmed down and even gives us a few words on camera. To our relief, it turns out South Korea doesn't have many problems with journalists and is rather fond of Turkey, not least because Ankara provided thousands of troops during the Korean War.
Former US President Bill Clinton described the DMZ as the scariest place on earth. It didn't feel quite so bad to us, but we are somewhat relieved when our coach starts heading back towards Seoul. It seems the only living creatures completely at ease here are the birds. Like tiny airborne ballerinas, they glide above us in an elegant V formation, blissfully unaware of the potential dangers below. Perhaps they even look down and smile at man's folly before continuing on their journey until they eventually fade into the horizon.