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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
While the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) runs about 160 miles long, the fortified nature of it makes it difficult for ordinary Koreans to get much of a clear sight of their neighbors.
But where the Han and Imjin Rivers meet, the distance between the two Koreas shrinks to around just a quarter of a mile.
And it’s here – atop the South Korea’s Odusan Observatory – that you can peer into the tiny and impoverished North Korean hamlet of Maegol while standing just a mile from high-end Armani, Fendi, and Hugo Boss stores at Paju’s Premium Outlet complex.
Visiting for the second time since moving to Seoul, the ‘Odusan Unification Observatory’ has been renovated by the Moon Jae-in government to reflect what seemed last year to be warming ties between the two Koreas.
The distinctly North Korean-feel of the 1992-era border structure I’d visited three years ago has now been replaced with bright and modern exhibits, a fancy cafe, and a model KTX high-speed train marked “Seoul-Pyongyang-Paris”.
But standing on the viewing bay it was soon clear that despite last year’s inter-Korean diplomacy, little has changed on the other side of the border in Kaepung-gun, North Hwanghae Province.
Using the same 50X zoom camera we’d filmed Kim Jong Un with during last September’s military parade in Pyongyang, here the lens instead revealed a surprisingly austere sight.
I say surprisingly because this is an area where North Korean authorities know tourists from South Korea can clearly see.
And yet the buildings here are run-down and mostly lacking windows, the mountains nearly all stripped of trees, and vehicles are few and far between.
However, it seems that the North Koreans do occasionally make efforts to leverage Maegol’s border location.
Until shortly after the Panmunjom summit in 2018, a large propaganda loudspeaker and national flag stood from the grounds of a threshing floor used for separating grains on the Northern side.
But those are gone now, seemingly as part of broader inter-Korean agreements aimed at reducing mutual antagonism.
Looking closely across the border, you can clearly make out the hamlet’s Kim Il Sung immortality tower, a common feature to memorialize the Eternal President in cities, towns and villages throughout North Korea.
What’s a little harder to see, however, is the cultural hall and Lim Han elementary school, which are also located in the vicinity.
Featuring a combination of multi-story and single-floor old-style houses, a video presentation at the Odusan observatory says that some of the buildings in Maegol have either collapsed or were, in fact, never completed.
And the zoom lens appears to corroborate what the video says.
Among a cluster of three-story concrete buildings facing the South Korean side, you can clearly see that some of them lack the pitched roofs which appear intended for the design.
But another thing is also clear when looking closely through the viewfinder: most of the houses here lack glazing.
The unfinished nature of some of the buildings doesn’t, however, mean that people don’t live here.
As is common even in Pyongyang, look closely at even the least finished buildings and you can see clothes hanging to dry, makeshift plastic windows in place of glass, and the occasional potted plant.
And although electricity pylons can be seen connecting the local grid to some of the buildings near the immortality tower, these are absent from many of the more remote single-story houses.
But North Korea is well known for a recent proliferation of solar panels, allowing citizens to increasingly take electricity supplies into their own hands.
No surprise, then, that many residents here decide to fit their southerly-facing windows with solar panels.
Yet what this place looks like by night is hard to know, since the Odusan Observatories opening hours mean it’s closed before sunset.
What’s perhaps most incredible about this border – aside from the fact the nearby premium mall sells handbags costing up to three times the average annual salary of a nearby North Korean – is seeing just how close the two countries actually are.
Though the distance between the Odusan observatory and immediately adjacent part of North Korea is 1.3 miles, a little upstream this shrinks to about a quarter of a mile.
But what’s remarkable is that when the tide of the nearby West Sea goes out, the water becomes so shallow you could easily wade across the border.
Of course, a series of guard posts and barbed wire fences – which on the South Korean side appear much harder to breach – are there to stop any would-be defectors crossing from here.
And it seems they’re doing their jobs: news about illegal border crossings in this part of Korea are extremely rare indeed — though not unheard of.
Wrapping up my visit, I wonder what it’s like to view this border from the other way around.
Besides the tourists taking their snaps atop of the Odusan Observatory, thousands of cars drive along South Korea’s Freedom highway each day,which straddles the natural Imjin river border.
While landmine warning signs give those leaving the observatory a clear reminder of exactly where they are, I wonder how many drivers leaving the nearby premium mall think about their neighbors just a stone’s throw away.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News