KHASAN – Two New Zealanders have gained rare permission to cross the heavily guarded DMZ at Panmunjon and motorcycle from North to South Korea.
Motorcycle enthusiasts Gareth and Joanne Morgan entered North Korea from Khasan on Friday to begin a two week trip south to the DMZ as part of a 40,000km ride from Russia to New Zealand.
The couple were met at the north-eastern border crossing of Tumangang on Friday morning by a North Korean delegation and fellow New Zealander Roger Shepherd, known for climbing some of the most remote mountains in North Korea.
Should all go to plan the couple will ride along the entire Baekdudaegan mountain range, which begins at Mt. Paekdu in North Korea and ends at Mt. Halla on Jeju Island, traversing the entire longitude of the Korean peninsula by motorcycle.
GETTING INTO THE NORTH
“With this latest trip … we thought we would start at the top of Russia and come down, more or less along the same longitude as New Zealand, and call this ride ‘the long drop,’” Morgan told NK News. “And what do you know, North Korea is in the way.”
To negotiate passage into North Korea, Morgan began by making contact with the Korea-New Zealand Friendship Society, a non-governmental organization that promotes relations between North Korea and New Zealand.
The friendship society was able to arrange a meeting between Morgan and the North Korean government in Pyongyang, where negotiations over the journey started in early 2012.
“When we came to North Korea last year to sort of negotiate to come to North Korea – the only country I’ve ever had to do that for – the Koreans said to us, ‘Well how many people are we talking about?’” Morgan said.
When he told them it was just his wife accompanying him, the North Korean hosts not only invited him to bring more people on his tour, but also suggested that the group exit North Korea through the DMZ to South Korea.
Having ridden extensively through South Korea, Morgan contacted the South Korean ambassador in Wellington to facilitate negotiations to cross the DMZ.
“[The ambassador] just looked at me and said, ‘This is very unusual, very unusual, tensions are very high,’” Morgan said.
But after 18 months of negotiations the South Korean government finally agreed to the plan, and Morgan secured permission to cross the DMZ crossing from United Nations Command at Panmunjom.
NAVIGATING THE COUNTRY
As with any other trip into North Korea by outsiders, Morgan and his wife will be escorted by their North hosts at all times as they drive along the Baekdudaegan mountain range.
They will be accompanied by two vehicles, one at the front and one behind, which will also carry large fuel reserves for the bikes, an important point given the lack of opportunities to stop and resupply.
The Morgan’s route through the northeastern provinces of North Korea is particularly notable given regulations that typically prohibit tourists from traveling by land north of Hamhung.
The conditions of roads in the northeast of North Korea are not widely known to outsiders, and could potentially present another logistical issue for the journey. But Morgan told NK News he was not fazed.
“They have told us that the roads in the North are crap but we’ve just ridden five and a half thousand bloody kilometers from Magadan to Vladivostok and I can tell you that the roads up around Magadan are pretty bad too,” Morgan said. “We are sort of used to pretty bad roads.”
CROSSING THE DMZ
The group will cross the DMZ and enter the South Korean leg of the journey at the end of August, if all goes to plan.
“Apart from getting in to North Korea our biggest uncertainty is whether the South Korean government through its Ministry of Unification will be able to be flexible enough to facilitate our exit from North Korea,” Morgan said.
“The North Koreans have been fantastic, hosting us and arranging from their side of the border to facilitate our exit at Panmunjom. The South Koreans still seem to be struggling with procedural protocols and we are hopeful they will see the bigger picture here and do their best to enable this historic event to happen,” he added.
But one factor that could complicate the Morgans’ trip relates to joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, scheduled to kick off on Monday.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills will take place from August 19-30 and involve some 30,000 U.S. and 50,000 South Korean troops training for defensive scenarios.
North Korea has historically been opposed to joint U.S.-South Korean drills like Ulchi Freedom and it is possible that next week’s drills could once again raise tensions on the peninsula.
If tensions were to escalate to levels seen in March and June of this year – when inter-Korean communications lines were severed – then the DMZ crossing could become impossible, meaning the couple would have to detour to Dandong, China and sail to Incheon to enter South Korea.
But despite the the risk political conditions look favorable at the moment, with the two Koreas on Wednesday agreeing to re-open the long-shuttered Kaesong Industrial complex and family reunions agreed today.
The Morgans have been embarking on long-distance journeys around the world since 2001.
Having started the current trip on July 23 in Magadan, Russia, the couple have since made their way across the Siberian mountains to Yakutsk, traveling southeast along the Chinese border towards the Russian town of Khasan, where they crossed into North Korea over the Tumen River.