Having seen Panmunjom from both sides, the thing that comes most readily to mind is the Shakespeare line, “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”
On April 27, 2004, I traveled to Panmunjom from Seoul on a grey and dismal day (see my notes from then, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). It seemed fitting weather to visit such a location. On October 16, 2005 I visited Panmunjom from Pyongyang on a bright, sunny day, an odd juxtaposition to my location. Somehow things were dreary on the democratic southern side and cheerful on the socialist northern side.
But one thing struck me most after having been on both sides of the little blue buildings. It is a show. The entire location is a stage, and the actors are there simply to flesh out the narration of the guide.
When I visited the southern side in 2004, I was surprised (and dismayed at the time) to see that there were no north Korean soldiers standing toe-to-toe with their Southern counterparts, just a solitary soldier standing in the shelter of a building, out of the damp chilling air. Yet when I visited the northern side in 2005, it was a Sunday, and there wasn’t a Southern soldier in sight, though there were plenty of North Korean soldiers standing guard.
After our brief lecture, we were shuffled away, and as we left I took a last glance at the dividing line – only to see the guards marching off to a building, having stood there simply for our enjoyment. All the world’s a stage...
A few additional, disconnected observations, from my journal...
We stand admiring a large representation of the last signature Kim Il Sung ever signed, allegedly on a document dealing with the national reunification as he prepared his Dacha for the planned visit of then South Korean President Kim Young Sam. A member of the tour lingers too long by the signature, seeking the perfect photograph, and a guard steps up swiftly, his heels clapping against the pavement as his hands clap in loud time with his footfalls, urging us on. Inside the marble building on the Northern side, the stale smell of cigarette smoke permeates the cool, dead space; lingering in the stagnant air. Outside the sun shines on the empty buildings, the air leaving the massive North and South Korean flags at the nearby border cities hanging limpid from their towering poles. Nothing stirs.
There is a peaceful calm that belies our location at the center of one of the last remaining flashpoints of the Cold War. It is hard to imagine the firepower not too distant to our north and south. And yet, being an American tourist on a trip from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, it seems little more “real” a chance of war than it did driving there from Seoul. Is it simply a tourist attraction? Will they set up a concessions stand on the line, selling trinkets of the division, like pieces of concrete from Berlin?