In a Nutshell: As the tale goes, spanning the entirety of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) sits the ‘Concrete Wall’, a barrier built by South Korea to split the Korean peninsular in half, segregating North Korea into isolation and preventing reunification. During my visit to North Korea, I was taken to view this seemingly undocumented wall. So, does it really exist? Or is it simply North Korean propaganda? Fact or fiction — read ahead to hear my take!
“The wall is a result of the hostile policy pursued by the USA and South Korea against unification,” exclaims Kim Chang Yun, a trusted colonel of the Korean People’s Army with over forty years service. His words were delivered with authority. Within earshot, I was otherwise preoccupied gazing intently down the twin barrels of 1990’s finest binoculars, panning for refracted light resembling that of the Concrete Wall, North Korea’s own fabled Loch Ness Monster.
I was on the front line of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone inside a cold stone bunker preceded by a crumbling overgrown trench laced with moss. To my left, a sandbagged outpost situated on the high ground manned by three Korean People’s Army soldiers, one was resting, leant up against a mounted machine gun.
Together, we all stared across into South Korea. The enemy. At least for the duration of my visit. Do as the Romans do — it’s never felt quite so important. By being inside North Korea, it was my legal obligation.
“Do you see it?” I asked a fellow tourist, seeking solace in a majority decision.
“Not yet” he responded, optimistically.
What’s the big deal anyway? It’s just a wall — I hear you thinking. Well, the Concrete Wall spans 240 kilometres across the entire Korean peninsula, cutting it in half. Built by South Korea, it physically segregates the North from the South, as we are told. The wall is 5-8 metres high, 10-19 metres thick and dotted with military establishments and lookouts. Think the Great Wall of China, except in Korea and as relevant today as the one in China was many moons ago.
Interestingly, the wall can be seen only from the North Korean side if North Korea’s exclusive news source KCNA is to be believed.
Whatever that means.
Yet, it’s a claim backed equally by each of my five North Korean minders.
The wall’s discovery was in 1989 by North Korea’s posthumous Eternal President Kim Il-Sung just mere weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall (coincidence?). It’s become a mainstay in North Korean victimisation propaganda and the catalyst to political instability between the peninsula to this day. Each New Year the South is shamelessly reminded of its existence. Proposed policies are misdirected back to that darn Concrete Wall, the “barrier of national division” as Dear Leader put it, which was forcefully suppressing his people’s right to freedom and North Korean attempts at reunification. Yes, you read that right.
In North Korea, this injustice of the Concrete Wall is widely known, systematically indoctrinated from a young age. It’s their Pearl Harbour.
In South Korea, this injustice is a well-guarded secret.
You’ve never heard of it. Neither had I. But today, I’ve been driven from North Korea’s southern economic hub of Kaesong for almost an hour parallel to the Demilitarized Zone for a chance to witness it for myself.
The only problem to all of this is:
The Concrete Wall didn’t appear to exist.
Before our viewing, we were formally addressed by Colonel Kim Chang Yun. He spoke with an air of superiority and passion, an influential charisma hand-picked by Marshal Kim Jong-Un himself for this trusted role. Not just any role, his job description involves delicate foreigner interaction, an impossibility for regular citizens. Those given such an opportunity are strictly vetted to ensure quality control at a state level.
His voice echoed around the room like a lecture theatre as he aggressively tapped the wall, mapping it out with his stick.
“The wall’s main objective is to stage a military strike against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to strike us with ease,” he began — an aspect he ensured we understood.
Today wasn’t his first rodeo. Scripted or otherwise, there was passion. You can see this passion in the eyes of North Korean guides the country over. It’s clear this topic was his life’s work.
To his left, the exact dimensions of the wall were inscribed on the map as if personally measured. As were the construction dates.
Vivid descriptions and artistic impression bring the wall to life for the North Korean people. The wall is easily imagined, maliciously constructed by ‘puppet’ South Korean forces under American imperialist order, coincidently aligning into the pre-existing blanket hatred of the United States.
“The Americans are responsible for all the pain and suffering of our nation.” Colonel Kim Chang Yun remarks.
This is an opinion held by every North Korean citizen, it’s the cornerstone to their nationalistic pride. They learn it early, and this deep victim complex has personified North Korea for decades and it remains stronger than ever into the 21st century; a concept difficult to comprehend in the age of information.
Really, I can’t appropriately explain to you how odd it is to visit North Korea. To one minute be scrolling censored social media in China, to landing in Pyongyang, the capital hub to freedom deprivation so intrinsic that it makes China look like Switzerland. I’m not just talking in the physical sense either, nor freedom of expression, but with freedom of knowledge. I knew what to expect, but this really hit me. There is no internet, no public libraries, no international texts and all news broadcasts are censored. Even the music is state approved and endorsed. This has led to critical thinking existing merely as an urban myth otherwise punishable by ‘re-education camp’. While inside North Korea, you know what to believe and when to believe it. There is nothing contradicting their learning environment.
What I’m getting at is, that in North Korea, the Concrete Wall isn’t exactly a tough sell.
Internationally, the United States and South Korea officially deny the walls existence, acknowledging only anti-tank barriers at certain DMZ sections where populations of people are closely subset on each side, or those sections of strategic importance. Diplomats, even journalists have in the past been given unprecedented military access to zones in question as an attempt to discount North Korean claims as hogwash. This offer was even cheekily extended to North Koreans themselves, government or citizen.
“If the walls existence were acknowledged internationally, there would be negative repercussions — that’s why they keep denying it” the Colonel argued, a brief and straightforward explanation.
This, of course, is why we were here. Not to marvel at the walls beauty, history, nor it’s impeccable structural integrity — today’s privileged visit to the Concrete Wall is a cleverly disguised international vehicle for the ‘truth.’ Run home and spread the word Americans, your government has lied to you.
During my visit I found one thing was clear, that there was always an ulterior motive to sanctioned tourist visitations in North Korea. No exceptions. Visiting statues of Kim Il-Sung unveils the extent of national endearment and compliance to Dear Leader and the local parks are (coincidently) filled with successful, elite Pyongyangladites representing a higher quality of life. The Grand People’s Study House shows us North Korea has computers, even network access, and the Three Revolutions Exhibition is a display of nuclear capability, while evidence of American war crimes lies inside the Museum of American War Atrocities (that’s seriously the name). Even the carefully selected supermarkets I visited were fully stocked with Chinese goods, a not-so-subtle nod to foreign trade and a far cry from the food shortage ‘rubbish’ you’ve heard on CNN.
And the Concrete Wall? Akin to the captured American ship USS Pueblo docked with pride, one of the most influential political centrepieces, in Pyongyang’s Taedong River, it’s proof of American aggression. The Concrete Wall even demonstrates proof of outward exile by South Korea, while of course, the Great Leader sits on his yacht falling over himself in attempts to reunify both Koreas. The Concrete Wall is perfect.
The Colonel proceeded to commend us for our bravery in visiting the wall today and like an excited child eager to show off his toys, invited us outside to bear witness to this disgustingly transparent piece of injustice for ourselves.
It was a peaceful, clear day and the naked eye saw far into enemy lines within which nothing of particular interest stood out. Small birds, sparrows zipped passed my vision unaware of their residential danger. These were the only birds I saw in North Korea.
I was handed the binoculars.
I must admit, I raised the binoculars as a critic. Call me even cynical. I challenge you not to be after even a short time within the hermit kingdom. The goal of North Korean tourism is to consciously bathe you in political bias and educational nurturing, to substitute your reality with their own. So, to be confronted by a poorly cut wall stencil taped across the lens wasn’t too far-fetched an expectation for a country reminiscent of a living, breathing version of 1998’s The Truman Show.
As I pan the landscape, soft orchestral music emitted from rusted old speakers once used to deliver unsavoury messages to those cowards ‘living in poverty and disease epidemic’ in the South. South Korean military installations in my sights splash painted signage; “Come and see for yourself!” A temptation for curious North Korean eyes.
A minefield spanning east to west, you’d never have an inkling — dense green bushland concealed the evidence. The land was dissected only by mud paths lined with razor wire. South Korean soldiers gazed back from tall outposts, partially hidden not unlike mushrooms emerging from the shrubs below.
Like ants marching the hilltops, even moving cars were visible in the distance, as were industrial buildings — alien technology to North Korea representing an economy 60 years its senior. Only four kilometres away, their position was only accessible to me as a 5,000-kilometre detour through Beijing, China. A sobering thought.
Cameras, observation towers and bunkers all draped in camouflage dot the landscape, each with three perimeters of razor wire and electric fencing. Not the most inviting of neighbourhoods, but arguably still better than Detroit.
Both the South Korean and distinctly blue United Nations flags sailed defiantly high above the installation’s walls.
And then…I took this photo. The money shot, as they say.
Deep inside enemy lines, utilising the full zoom of my pre-approved lens and invisible to a glance, I captured what appears to be a wall. One that very well could be made from concrete. It was only a small section, and it disappeared with the contour of the land into thick forestry on either side of the frame.
Could this be what the North Koreans were talking about? Was the Concrete Wall more than simply a propaganda folk tale? Lean in and see what you make of it. Myth busted? Case closed? Possibly — to my surprise.
Alternatively, maybe it’s not that simple. This is North Korea, a country so well versed in the art of misdirection even David Copperfield would be left without a career. I felt there was more to the wall than meets the eye.
Wikipedia mentions the Concrete Wall. Not exactly a primary source. But, previous travellers to North Korea on Trip Advisor swear they’ve seen it too, and two previously documented accounts of the Concrete Wall have come to the same conclusion, it exists. Yet, facts remain limited and official statements don’t exist. Oh, and just as our prehistoric Scottish friend, photos are as scarce as hens teeth.
Why? How can an architectural feat of this scale be so well hidden since 1987?
Interestingly, on further investigation, both of these documented accounts of the Concrete Wall viewed it from afar just as I did. In fact, it was from the exact bunker in which I currently stood. Both documented accounts were guided by the same North Korean Colonel, and each left with photographic ‘evidence’ remarkably similar to my own. So similar that their photos of the wall were almost identical, even from the same angle.
What I felt was most odd however, was that I had already visited the DMZ (the Joint Security Area) earlier today, but, to get a glimpse of the Concrete Wall I had to be driven one hour parallel into countryside North Korea. For a wall spanning the entire DMZ, you can’t help but wonder: Why only here?
This was perplexing. Venturing beyond the beaten path, beyond the on-rails sanctioned tourism façade down clean streets and sterile political locales was breaking the first rule of the North Korean playbook. Especially here, far from the ‘safety’ of Pyongyang. The detour displayed rural harsh realities of poverty, malnourishment and struggle. It was a questionable cost-benefit outcome, one that was previously controlled meticulously by authorities. Was the wall really that important?
Photos I took on this detour were deleted at the border. Luckily for you, I’d made backups so here’s a couple from the bus window. They give a more accurate representation of what living conditions are like for a majority of those in North Korea:
Aside from this carefully selected viewing bunker, other intricacies of the wall simply didn’t add up.
North Korean authorities have long claimed the wall was unfairly built both to prevent their civilians crossing freely into the South and as a platform for military aggression against them. In reality, carpets of minefield already precede the wall, the South has long embraced North Korean defectors who’ve made it across unscathed, and the North continually litters their own side with new mines. Those attempting to defect from North Korea risk indefinite detainment or capital punishment for themselves and their families. Hardly a feasible platform of war, the wall would also impede the South’s own military advancement. If what the North says is true, the entire premise of the Concrete Wall just seems counter intuitive. I can’t imagine a 5-8 metre wall is easily traversable by a tank.
And well, to hit the nail on the head: That’s exactly right.
This realisation slapped me across the face.
I’m no history buff, but let’s head back to June 25, 1950, this was the date marking the beginning of the Korean War. Kim Il-Sung ordered his North Korean forces across the 38th parallel and orchestrated an invasion of the South, eventuating in the capital being captured in just three days, met with little resistance. This became known as the ‘First Battle of Seoul’.
How does this relate? Well, it was a tank invasion.
Take one guess where the tanks crossed.
Yep. Right here.
As the crow flies, Seoul is just 50 kilometres away, and without barrier, this is a natural weak point suitably exploited to begin the war. As George W. Bush once (attempted) to articulate: ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’. And so, the gap was filled, tank barriers were erected, and they’ve been acknowledged as such by both American and South Korean forces ever since.
There is no wall.
We were viewing tank barriers.
We were being had, in true North Korean style.
Just as the Loch Ness Monster, what began as hearsay and myth has manifested into a perceived, accepted reality with hard penned facts. Political motive and state theatrics ensured no limits. The wall has a tail, flippers and a long visible neck that can be spotted only at the right time, from the right angle, and only if you’re quick enough. To quote the movie Swordfish, ‘what the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.’ This is North Korean tourism in a nutshell.
For the locals? Information is suppressed. Citizens know as they’re told. The Great Leader is forged as superhuman, a demi-god supported by an entire nation till death. The Concrete Wall can be as long as he damn well pleases. This one is 240 kilometres.
And so, the Concrete Wall exists. To North Koreans, we are simply blinded to the truth, and any foreigner, one demonised since birth as outsiders, intruders to their nation, is certainly not going to sway this perception. Besides, what gives me the right to ruin Santa Claus at Christmas?
Some minutes later, I got the tap on the shoulder. It was time to wrap things up. We had a busy schedule to stick to.
Colonel Kim Chang Yun was stood to my right, his posture perfectly straight with not a blemish upon his militarised olive suit and novelty-sized peak cap. A plethora of medals sat upon his heart. He waited, intent on relishing in the reaction of what I had just seen — physical evidence of American aggression and transparent restrictions imposed on free passage into the South.
“Do you see it?” he asked in Korean, translated by my guide.
I lowered my binoculars, turning toward him only to be greeted by a glowing smirk of confidence upon his face, a smirk that could say no other than ‘I told you so.’
I paused for a moment.
“Yes.” I responded.
P.S – So, what’s your opinion? Is the wall simply North Korean misdirection or does it span the peninsula? Wall or merely tank trap? Let me know in the comments below! Cheers, Elliott