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Freedom Bridge: the original

Saturday, April 07, 2012
By Vishnu Makhijani

Panmonjom, South Korea: Remember the Freedom Bridge in the James Bond flick ‘Die Another Day’? That’s where, in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea, on a misty day, with menacing looking soldiers at each end, 007 was exchanged for the terrorist Zao. Well, the original is nothing like the film made it out to be!

In reality, it’s a rather plain-looking wooden structure than can accommodate no more than four people abreast. So, what’s the big deal? For one, very, very few people get to visit the DMZ, let alone view the Freedom Bridge, a point drilled home by Private (First Class) Andrew Wilson of the US Army that is part of the UN detachment at Camp Barfis, an hour’s drive from South Korean capital Seoul.

Among the lucky ones was this IANS correspondent, part of the media delegation accompanying Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Seoul on an official visit to South Korea and then for the March 26-27 Nuclear Security Summit, and for which special arrangements were made to visit the DMZ. The tension in the area is palpable, even though there has been no incident in the DMZ since Oct 29, 2010 when two shots were fired from North Korea towards a South Korean post near Hwacheon and South Korean troops fired three shots in return.

Even so, Andrew’s instructions to the media team were precise: “Don’t point at the North Koreans, don’t wave at them and don’t get separated for any reason.”

The DMZ is a two km stretch on the southern and northern sides from the 38th Parallel, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) agreed on July 27, 1953 to end the Korean War. There are several buildings on both sides of the MDL, and five conference rooms – three of the south and two of the north – are built right on the MDL at Panmonjom. This Joint Security Area is where all negotiations since 1953 have been held, including statements made of Korean solidarity, which have generally amounted to little except a slight decline of tensions. The MDL, in fact, goes through the conference rooms and down the middle of the conference tables where the North Koreans and the United Nations Command (primarily South Koreans and Americans) meet face-to-face.

“Well ladies and gentlemen, if you walk out of that door, you are in North Korea and we can do nothing to save you. As long as you come out of this door you are fully under our protection,” Andrews said.

Just how palpable the tension is can be gauged from the fact that the South Korean soldiers positioned like statues on their side of the MDL are in a ‘semi-taekwondo position’ which means “they can quicker reach their (holstered) pistols if they have to go into action”, as Andrews put it.

With tension comes one-upmanship, which can be gauged by the flagpoles in two villages on either side of the MDL at Panmonjom. The height of the flagpole on the southern side was raised to 100 metres, prompting the north to raise its mast to 160 metres.

“There’s a flipside,” Andrews explained. “You need a real stiff breeze for the North Korean flag to fly to its full potential because of its huge size.”

Then, there’s a contradiction.

The village on the southern side is a vibrant community, with its farmers, who earn between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, against an average South Korean farmers earnings of $18,000 a year thanks to the special efforts of the South Korean government to buy their rice and other produce.

On the other side is a “ghost village” with dummy houses and other structures that are lit up at night “when there is power”, Andrews explained.

And thus does life go on!

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