The Koryo Courier:
Rex Tillerson
at Panmunjom

The US Secretary of State's visit to the DMZ as seen from the northern side

In the centre of the Panmunjom Joint Security Area (JSA), or ‘Truce Village’, are a number of blue and silver buildings straddling the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) which divides the DPRK in the north and ROK in the south. The DPRK’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) administers the silver buildings, while the southern United Nations Command (UNC) administers the blue ones. Only one of these buildings, a blue one, is open to visitors and tourists from both sides. Inside of this hut is the only place where it is possible to cross freely between north and south and home to the famous negotiating table standing in both Koreas. Since the UNC administers this hut, visitors on the southern side have priority to enter.

One some days the scheduled arrival of a tour group from the south makes for a relatively mundane scene with little activity across the MDL save an open window from which to take a photo of the northern group. On other days a concurrent visit by a southern group makes for the iconic scene of military guides deployed on both sides.

This past Friday our tour groups from the northern side were unable to make the quick sojourn across the MDL due to a special visitor on the southern side: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson is currently on his first visit to Asia with stop offs in Japan, South Korea, and China, ostensibly to discuss the situation on the Korean peninsula. It is purely by chance that Koryo Tours caught up with Rex T. at the DMZ.

Last Friday our groups’ departure from Pyongyang was delayed by approximately 30 minutes due to oversleeping and forgotten items at the hotel. The 2.5 hour drive to Panmunjom went smoothly and the usual check in procedures at the entrance to the northern side of the DMZ. When we arrived at the JSA, the ROK military guards were already deployed on the southern side. Shortly thereafter a group of journalists and photographers covering Tillerson’s visit appeared from glassy façade of the southern Freedom House. After taking a few photos, our group moved to the observation deck on the northern building overlooking the JSA.

From above we watched as an accompanying US military guide provided an introduction to the area in a voice just loud enough to be made out by our group watching from above.

“Does anyone have any questions?”

A number of people on the northern side raised their hands in response. A few journalists on the southern side naturally waved in return, only to be swiftly rebuked by the US military guide. For some reason or another, one is allowed to wave from the northern side, but perhaps it is believed on the southern side that such a gesture might begin World War III. Indeed, all the world’s a stage, and all of us are merely players.

In time, the journalists on the southern side was joined by a larger group of American and South Korean officers surrounding a man with white hair and dressed in black suit and gray pants.

“Could that be the US Secretary of State? The news at the hotel said he was in South Korea.”

Camera zooms soon confirmed that this was, in fact, Rex Tillerson’s delegation. Despite the almost surreal presence of the US Secretary of State just over the MDL, the tour on the northern side of the border went ahead as normal. After taking a group photograph, we proceeded to leave the JSA, waving goodbye to Rex Tillerson and company.

The next morning our groups shared images of themselves caught on CCTV and Al-Jazeera television broadcasts at our hotel. I also received a message from a friend in the US that the LA Times had reported “A group of North Koreans, apparently tourists, waved across the border during Tillerson’s visit”. I congratulated our group at their ability to blend in with the locals after just a few days.

The Koryo Courier is a regular posting with the latest news from Koryo Tours. Photos by Koryo Tours and Gary Li.

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