On my travels, I’ve sung “God Save the Queen” as payment for wasabi vodka in the Nevada desert, stroked crocodiles in The Gambia, seen the world’s oldest vine in Slovenia, and toured the Wuyuan Museum of Stones That Look Like Food. However, Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is without doubt the strangest tourist attraction I have ever visited. Because, for all the cafes and souvenir stalls along its well-trodden routes, it is an actual war zone.
The Korean War ended in a ceasefire in 1953, but no peace treaty was ever concluded. So North and South are still technically at war, and if you believe it is only than a technicality then a visit to the DMZ will soon put you straight. The border, essentially the front line at the moment the war ended, is frozen in time, a Cold War flashpoint of barbed wire and minefields.
Yet bizarrely, a whole industry has grown up around it, with regular coachloads of tourists being bussed out to look out across No Man’s Land to the Potemkin villages of North Korea. If it sounds like I am approaching this subject with undue levity, then disbelieving laughter is an unavoidable reaction to the oddity of the situation. After a couple of days in prosperous, peaceful, creative Seoul, to realize that the goose-stepping army of a dangerous dictator is waiting only 35 miles away with loaded guns is hard to process. Setting off on a coach trip to see it ramps up the weirdness still further.
If you want to see it for yourself, you’ll need to go on an escorted trip, as access to the area is (understandably) tightly controlled. There are two levels of access: trips to the Joint Security Area, the compound at the heart of the DMZ where the two sides meet, and where you can step over into North Korea, are only run by the US military. These trips are not suitable for children under 11, and need to be booked several days in advance. This option was not available at the time we visited in any case, with “military maneuvers” given as the reason, but the current diplomatic tensions no doubt also a factor.
However there is a less nerve-racking, but scarcely less fascinating, route. This begins at the Freedom Bridge, where prisoners were exchanged after the ceasefire. You can also see a railway engine, riddled with bullet holes and derailed by bombs at the outbreak of the war, which then remained in place for many years as the war raged around it, before being preserved as a memorial.
The next stop is the Third Tunnel, one of five dug by North Korean troops under the DMZ so that they could bypass the South’s defenses and launch a surprise attack. That is to say, five which have been found; South Koreans believe there are other tunnels which they haven’t yet discovered. It’s a long walk down to the tunnel itself, and even with the crowds of tourists it’s eerie to be walking along the low, dark, passageway, to the triple sealed concrete barrier at the border itself.
Mount Dora Observatory offers a platform with coin-operated binoculars where you can peer across to North Korea. (Make sure you have plenty of KRW 500 coins so you have time to look properly!) On the northern side are model villages where nobody actually lives, and rather poignantly a factory run jointly by the two Koreas during the “Sunshine Policy” period, now closed indefinitely. There’s also a tragicomic note: the two countries competed to have the tallest flagpole and the biggest flag flying over the DMZ. North Korea eventually won with a 160 meter pole, at the time the world’s tallest, carrying a flag which weighs over a quarter of a tonne, and has to be held up with rods as it’s too heavy to fly in the wind.
The final stop is the most poignant of all. From 1998 to 2008, South Korea adopted a policy of offering financial support to its northern neighbor, the so-called “Sunshine Policy”. During this period of detente they built a huge railway terminal near the DMZ, in anticipation of the reopening of the border. The building still waits, maintained now more in hope than in expectation, with its pristine customs and immigration facilities standing empty. You can buy a ticket to walk onto the deserted platform, and see the maps showing the dream of direct train travel from Seoul to London.
Viewing all this as a tourist may seem ghoulish, but the South Korean authorities are keen to encourage visitors, and not only to boost the local economy. Every exhibition is designed to drive home the point that the threat to South Korea is real and present, and in fact is greater now than it has been for many years. In the tunnel they are at pains to point out the evidence that it really was dug by the North Koreans, who claim the South built it themselves as a propaganda tool. It might be helpful, I mused, for certain western politicians to see it for themselves, so they understand what’s at stake on the Korean peninsula.
Tours are widely available from a number of websites and offices, although they all feed a couple of providers who run the actual tours themselves, so prices are more or less uniform. Expect to pay KRW 50,000-60,000 per person.
Photos: Andrew Killeen