Of all my ventures over various borders, the three distinct frontiers at Szelmenc, North/South Korea and the Pan-European Picnic site are those that have made the biggest impression on me . I have crossed over the first two several times, and each time was enough to make me realise that one cannot divide people and nations forever. Coming from England where one is “surrounded by water” is an entirely different matter to travelling to and from landlocked Hungary. Much also depends on the passport you carry and the privileges it may bring in the face of obstacles.


North and South Korea in brief

It was by an unexpected and remarkable chance this September that I visited South Korea, or Korea as the local people prefer to call it, rather than the fuller name used by myself, the media and almost all outsiders. Yes, as the world knows, the country is split into North and South with an imposing border right across the peninsula, and both sides are distinguished by their two varying ideologies and flags. It’s been the same ever since the 1950-53 civil war, after which these countries divided and simply went their opposing ways.

The North closed itself off entirely from the South as well as from the rest of the world. It remains a reclusive and secretive state, and “lives on” theoretically in a past sphere. By contrast, the South made great strides to overcome those times of poverty and hardship, evolving into a prosperous, democratic and welcoming society, as now personally observed by me.

Seoul is a modern-day capital where present-day commerce intertwines with the ancient and the Orient. It is fairly common to find high-tech offices and business centres alongside traditional Buddhist temples right in the city centre. It is clear that Seoul and its surroundings, in similar vein to the Manhattan skyline, have moved on from the dark Stalinist past into an open, free state, and the country has clearly become a world player on the foremost stage, thus leaving behind its northerly neighbour.

Regrettably, South Korea (as I must distinguish the region) still has a foe. As far as the North is concerned, the war never ended and the threat of all-out military action with its southerly counterpart remains very real. Around-the-clock attention is required because the South as well as the continent continues to be on high alert at all times – as strongly emphasised when actually seeing the highly armoured and restricted borderline.

Little did I realise how much there is of interest in visiting the “safe” De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) landmark, some 50 kilometres north of Seoul. This is the main sight for tourists, and avid day-trippers arrive by the bus-load at the watchtower to gaze over the immediate four-kilometre buffer zone into the politically unreachable North.

The general atmosphere at the DMZ is similar to the Berlin Wall pre-1989. Alongside various commemorations and tributes, there is a sense of anticipation for this long-awaited matter to finally resolve, and for the border to finally clear.

# Panorama of North Korea as seen from a watchtower.

Over the years, attempts have been made to bring North and South together but all have ended unfavourably. Only recently United States President Donald Trump and South Korea President Moon Jae-in presented themselves at the edge of “the line” and shook hands with the unpredictable dictator Kim Jong-un. These intentions of goodwill increased the spotlight on the region, as well as bringing some relief to the Far East in general. Although the meetings were seen as “progress of a kind”, there is still a long way to go, as the stakes and uncertainties for this region remain very high.

Probably the best way to reach the DMZ is not by independent travel, as one will not see so much. Rather, take one of the various arranged tours operating from Seoul, which will take you directly and safely through the security procedures and checkpoints to the significant spots. But all tours need to be booked and in some cases registered in advance as they are high on demand. Had I known earlier of my sudden trip to South Korea, I would have opted for the bigger itinerary and been able to offer more details.

I visited a spooky North/South tunnel, now acting as a museum, and Dorasan train station with its exhibition hall. As “last stop before the North”, Dorasan connects with the 260-kilometre Seoul to Pyongyang railway lines, (similar in distance to Budapest-Debrecen or Cambridge-York), which were recently installed but still yet to operate with the desired train, despite much effort and planning .

“All dressed up with nowhere to go” very much comes to mind when there. Until this train does finally arrive one day, all that onlookers can do is be ushered inside the station to obtain a symbolic souvenir ticket to the northern capital. And there is the illusive “To Pyongyang” sign awaiting its cue, meanwhile merely tantalising for a selfie. Stand aside, with ticket in hand, and imagine the train is coming. Though when one finally realises Paris is nearer , it's time to return immediately to the tour bus.

The day ends and my tour group finally leaves behind the nearby hills and valleys of the North and the buffer zone, where peace-free nature flourishes more effectively than politics and conflict. We return to more comfortable, familiar settings.


Szelmenc village

For those unlikely to go to either side of Korea soon but want something of an idea of the situation, I recommend a visit to the much nearer Szelmenc, perhaps better known as “the divided village”.

This former Hungarian village still with a Hungarian majority is now known as Slemence after “getting lost” in the machinations of the 1920 Trianon treaty. A tiny, remote place with a larger westerly side at the eastern edge of the Schengen zone, it went through a variety of changes before finally settling as part of Slovakia (Big Szelmenc) and part of Ukraine, (Little Szelmenc), with a hard border operating in between still today.

For those not likely to go there, I recommend reading my The Budapest Times article about my visits. Although a bit dated due to recently improved regulations on both sides, this still gives a good idea of what to expect beforehand.

# Folklore bus stop and church in Little Szelmenc, Ukraine.

In this unique, offbeat place, a theoretical jump of 30 or so years between easterly and westerly atmospheres is most apparent. Although a miniature in comparison to the far bigger North/South Korea sphere, the sense of division due to conflict still applies at Szelmenc. The parallels between the two meet: Szelmenc was also brutally set upon by politics and ambivalence in the same way as Korea, thus dividing not only the village but also family and friends by implementing a permanently closed border in a similar time frame more than 60 years ago.

The only real difference was that after the death of Stalin it became marginally “possible” to visit the other side of the village by applying for a stringent Soviet visa and travel there via the Uzhgorod border, thus having to complete a 40-kilometre circle. For the easterners this was unthinkable until now. But it was at least possible to communicate with neighbours over the fence, as the Szelmenc buffer zone was nothing as wide as the Korean one.

Despite immense hardship and damage done to this remote village, with its high-tech border infrastructure installed like a mini virtual Berlin Wall, Szelmenc today is clearly more “welcoming”. Finally, outsiders such as myself and the residents themselves can come and go freely from one side of the village to the other, with passports, without hassle. By the way, there is a one-hour time difference between the two parts of the village set between CET and the Kyiv time zone.

Although life in Szelmenc is far from ideal, after visiting the no-go zone between the two Koreas I can say something I never thought I would, which is that Szelmenc and all the other Slovak- and Ukraine-Hungarian borders I have crossed are paradise in comparison with the DMZ. The former are simply finally freer than “the line” in Korea, which is permanently closed until further notice and far more heavily patrolled.

What is sadder still, the highly insightful Katie, my tour guide from Seoul, told me it is relatively easier for outsiders to enter the North than it is for her. As of now she has no chance to go there. At a push, most people can visit North Korea if they are deemed acceptable and enter the long way round via China. But this “privilege” does not apply for any South Koreans, which speaks volumes for the situation. For Katie, a visit to Budapest is more likely than a visit to Pyongyang. Unless matters improve, uniting and entering the North remains a distant dream for the Southerners, although Katie is hopeful a visit will be accomplished during her lifetime. What would be ideal on the divided peninsula is a “Pan-European Picnic”.


Pan-European Picnic

Opening up to Austria from the Pan-European Picnic site and border.

This event, still within living memory near Sopron on the border with Austria, celebrated its 30th anniversary this autumn. The illustrious green pasture now has memorials where the Iron Curtain once prevailed, and is a very pleasant open space and present-day picnic site. It was at this particular spot during late summer 1989 when the Curtain began to “open up” to hordes of East Germans who descended on the area, abandoned their Trabants and made their way westwards on foot. By the end of 1989 the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall and the whole former communist regime had come tumbling down. Today, this significant landmark and the odd, stray Cold War ornaments on display have come a long way from when the area was fraught with fear and danger. Equally comparable to the North-South Korean borderline today, this Iron Curtain trail has now entirely vanished and become a free space with a recently established bicycle lane!

I hope the Koreans will one day enjoy eventual freedom. It's preposterous not being able to travel unhindered in one's homeland. Many basically trapped people from the North must feel the same way; perhaps a Pan-Korean Picnic may take place sooner than expected.

Next time I travel from Budapest over the eastern borders either by train, bike, car or even walk, this will all be more meaningful than ever before.


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