It’s a first drive with a difference
The North Korean border isn’t the normal place to conduct a first drive of a new car, but South Korean car firm SsangYong is not one for the conventional. Besides, although trekking to the Demilitarised Zone sounds reckless, it’s pretty everyday for some South Koreans living with the threat of Kim Jong-un. Indeed, many of them are sanguine about it.
Not us. We’ve never been more excited to climb into a SsangYong and drive north. The new Rexton may have been updated for modern times, but it’s still a bit of a throwback in its rugged, robust nature and tall, boxy body. It’s roomy, has go-anywhere four-wheel drive with rock-climbing low-range, and a diesel engine strong enough to keep going where others may give up.
But unlike the old Rexton, it has plenty of creature comforts within the more appealing, better-quality interior. It’s rather a nice place to spend time as we drive from South to North, feeling almost luxurious in places. It’s certainly a contrast to the barbed wire and observation posts we keep spying in between the fields and villages.
As we near the Demilitarised Zone, or DMZ, things begin to change. Because so few go there, you can see nature flourishing that is unseen in other places inhabited by man. The only people who really come here are tourists, like us: the closest we got to North Korea, incidentally, was 170 metres.
We were on foot rather than in the Rexton, in a deep tunnel, one of four secretly built by North Korea. When South Korea discovered them, they were told they were just for coal mining. The lack of coal in this area didn’t escape Seoul…
There are also fake villages on the border, constructed by North Korea to make it seem tidier and more sophisticated than what many know the reality to be like. Otherwise, we see little: the huge jammer that blocks radio and TV signals means there’s little chance of us finding out much more, either.
All the time, the Rexton was proving peerless. As we found out, you need a good four-wheel drive to cope with conditions like this. So it’s with surprise that we stumble across a manmade test route put on by SsangYong, meant to demonstrate the machine’s off-road skills: some of the conditions we encountered en route were tougher.
Regardless, we ploughed on, discovering just how tough the new model feels. Oh, and how jittery its ride can be at times. In the rough, it’s genuinely jostly, which might make sustained green-laning a bit of a chore. All this is transcribed into our notepad at the other end in near-total silence; the DMZ keeps almost every soul well away from this beautiful area…
The Rexton then sweeps us back uneventfully south to Seoul. It’s been a chilling experience. The DMZ is a taste of what a post-apocalyptic world would be like – complete with a post-apocalyptic survivor to see it from. Let’s just hope the Rexton’s impenetrable qualities are never needed.