By Aaron Murray
“We cannot guarantee the safety of visitors” reads the disclaimer which visitors must sign before starting a tour of Korea’s demilitarised zone (DMZ). As holiday attractions go, the DMZ, the small strip of land surrounding the border between North and South Korea is unconventional. The DMZ is, in fact, an oxymoron: the lack of military hardware in the direct vicinity of the border is neighboured by millions of troops and missiles of all sizes and shapes. It is not, in any way, an average holiday but it is as close as you can get to the most fascinating and tragic dictatorship on earth.
Trips to the DMZ run daily from Seoul – only 60km away from the border – and are run by a leisure subsidiary of the United States’ military. Seoul’s proximity to the border is all too evident when travelling north to the DMZ with the city boundary immediately giving way to barbed wire fences, manned outposts and anti-tank bollards. The eerie calm of the empty roads hides an underlying menace: No peace treaty has ever been signed between the two states so the Korean War is still an active conflict. Seoul, a global financial centre, is perilously close to the world’s most hostile border and well within range of North Korean attack.
The highlight of a trip to the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only location along the entire border where troops from both countries stand face to face, metres apart. The JSA sits as a diplomatic haven and a hut – used for rare diplomatic discussion – in the middle of the JSA affords the visitor a chance to take a few steps into North Korean territory. Visitors are under constant surveillance from northern guards equipped with listening devices and binoculars and the disclaimer which starts the day off certainly plays on the mind during this section of the journey.
The tension of the JSA gives way to the ridiculous antics of North Korea reported regularly by Western media. The snappily titled Third Tunnel of Aggression was intended to ferry 30,000 North Korean troops per hour into the heart of Seoul during a land attack, but it was discovered in 1978. The northern troops, intrepid geologists that they are, planned for a potential discovery by painting the walls black. Upon discovery the north asserted, seemingly without laughing, that the black walls were coal and that this was the real reason for exploration. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t convince many south of the border.
The penultimate stop on the trip is to a viewing tower overlooking a North Korean village a mile north of the border. The bizarre quickly turns surreal as the village is, quite literally, a front. The North asserts that the village runs as a collective and purport to have a communist utopia just a mile north of South Korea. On first look, though, it’s clear that the building fronts are just that, a building front with no interior, no windows or doors and no people. The village is also home to what was, until pesky Tajikistan got involved, the biggest flag in the world. This formed part of a strange flag war between north and south which involved the countries attempting to outdo each other. The south, presumably out of total boredom, gave up and the north’s winning flag is so heavy that it has only flown a few times during dangerously high winds.
The final stop on a trip to the DMZ is one which stands as a poignant sign of hope for the future. The South Korean government has invested money in building a train station next to the border as a sign of their commitment to the eventual reunification of the peninsula. The station has a manned information desk, signs pointing toward the platform for the train to Pyeongyang and messages of hope emblazoned on the walls. This is, of course, a sad result of a divided nation but the government’s commitment to the welfare of the people of the North post-unification is to be admired and serves as a perfect balance to the often childish relationship between the two Koreas.
The relationship between the two Koreas so often borders on the farcical that it’s easy to forget that the conflict is complex, embittered and, unfortunately, one without an immediate solution. Experiencing the DMZ first hand is as good an insight as any into the consequences of war and the difficulty of rebuilding bridges; a trip there should be high up on every bucket list.