Dateline Panmunjom, South (and a Little North) Korea
I took my first steps into North Korea last week.
It was a surprise, given the rising tensions on the peninsula as Kim Jong-un seeks to advance its nuclear program and President Trump has warned of possible military action against the country.
As Tokyo bureau chief — a job I started last August, along with coverage of Japan — I work with my colleague Choe Sang-Hun to cover the Korean Peninsula. I had come to the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula to report onTaesung, a tiny farming village inhabited by 197 civilians on the South Korean side of the DMZ from which we could look across a field and see North Korea.
But it was on a media tour of Panmunjom, the uninhabited village inside the DMZ where the 1953 armistice suspending the Korean War was signed, that I got to step across the military demarcation line between the two countries and officially walk in North Korea for a few minutes.
North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated countries, is typically difficult to visit, as the government is particular about approving travel visas. Although some journalists were invited to Pyongyang last week, I have been told that my American passport makes it difficult to get a visa. So the access was unexpected.
In fact, two days earlier, Vice President Mike Pence had also visited Panmunjom. He had surprised his security detail when he decided at the last minute to step up close to — but not over — the demarcation line, telling The Washington Post that he wanted the North Koreans to “see our resolve in my face,” presumably alluding to the Trump administration’s vow to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
A busload of journalists, however, went farther than the vice president: We walked into a building designed for diplomatic meetings between North and South, and crossed right over.
As we filed into the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission building, our South Korean military minder told us not to gesture at the North Korean soldiers gazing down on us from a building on the other side of the demarcation line. Meanwhile, two South Korean soldiers stood stiffly on the north end of the room, their arms bent at the elbows and their fists clenched.
The building’s interior looked like a prosaic conference room except for the startlingly bright turquoise walls. Our minder told us to stand in a circle around the room’s large table. “Those of you on that side are in the North,” he said, pointing, well, north. The other half of the circle was still standing in the South.
As we moved around the room, we could look through the windows and see the low concrete slabs that mark the line between the North and the South. Outside, we were prohibited from crossing that line. But inside this one building, the border was penetrable. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of my sneakered feet on the North side of the room.
It all seemed a bit detached from the geopolitical crisis, although I admit after we went back outside I felt a ripple of apprehension when North Korean guards came down a flight of stairs and walked to the back of the building we had just been inside. Apparently there was no need to worry: Su-Hyun Lee, a researcher and interpreter in The Times’s Seoul bureau, noticed a clump of five North Korean soldiers standing on a nearby balcony taking selfies with us as the backdrop. Of course thenweneeded to take selfies, too.
In keeping with that spirit, one of the public affairs specialists from the Combined Forces Command that represents the United Nations and the United States military in South Korea whipped out Flat Stanley, a cutout figure of a character from a children’s book series. Her colleague had asked her to bring Stanley to the DMZ and take a photo of him there on behalf of a school project of the colleague’s son.
With his purple hair, pink shirt and gentle smile, I thought he looked as if he had the kind of resolve this situation could use.