The Funniest Most Dangerous Place in the World: A Tourist Bus Ride to the Korean Demilitarized Zone
Our tour guide is doing a thumbs down and making a stinky face behind the back of the South Korean soldier that has just got on our bus. “They’re called the ‘rocks’” she had told us a few minutes earlier. “In Korea we still have national service. The tallest, best looking soldiers are assigned to work at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and they stand strong and are stony faced to show the North Koreans how mighty and good looking we are in the South. But some of them are better looking than others.” The pimply teenager with dark aviator sunglasses and an unflinching expression that is on our bus to check passports and dress code compliance obviously doesn't live up to her standards.
Thus begins my day trip to the heart of the Korean conflict: a situation that, much like Kim Jong Un himself, the baby-faced tyrant of the North, is comical to the point of farce whilst at the same time deadly serious and potentially explosive. The two Koreas are technically still at war, and often act like it. Established in 1953 as part of an armistice agreement that still stands, the DMZ, a 250 km long, 4km wide strip of land that splits the Korean Peninsula in two, is, despite its name, the most heavily militarised border in the world. The vast majority of the area is forbidden to humans, being filled with landmines, trenches and secret tunnels, and has unwittingly become one of the best-protected nature reserves in Asia. Hundreds of thousands of troops from two of the worlds biggest, most heavily equipped armies (along with tens of thousands of United States troops) stand permanently ready for action, taunting each other at every opportunity. It could all go wrong at any moment. And I’m sitting on a bus full of tourists on their way to take some vertically shot ipad videos of the place that could one day become the epicentre of a nuclear apocalypse. Surreal doesn’t even begin to cut it.
As much as I’d love to stick with the cliché of being a seasoned traveller that avoids tourist buses like the plague and prefers to hitchhike on a scooter with a family of five before being welcomed into their home to feast on steamed silkworm larvae, that wasn’t an option this time. There is only one way in and out of the DMZ if you aren’t a soldier, or suicidal, and that is on this bus. I had signed up for the trip two days before, giving my passport details and being warned that the trip could be cancelled at any moment due to unforeseen circumstances, and told that I had to dress appropriately: “no sleeveless shirts, t-shirts without the collar, short pants or skirts, sandals, military looking clothes and T-Shirts with flag or name of the nationality on it.” This is what the pimply soldier was checking when he got on the bus. When one of my fellow tourists asks the reason for the dress-code fuss, we are told that the North Koreans will be watching us and photographing us while we are on the trip, and if they spot someone that looks like a hippy they will use it as propaganda against the South. Fair enough.
Indeed, appearances count for a lot in the DMZ. In 1980, the South Koreans erected a 98.4m tall flagpole with a South Korean flag on their side of the DMZ. In what has become known as the “Flagpole War”, the North Koreans erected a taller 160m flagpole with a bigger flag, which became, at the time, the tallest flagpole in the world. Both flagpoles still stand, towering over the trees and hills that surround them in the DMZ. Both the North and the South have a village on their respective sides of the DMZ, from which the flagpoles emanate. The Northern village, Kijong-dong, or “Propaganda Village” as it has become known in the West, is officially a 200 family collective farm, whose inhabitants since the 1950’s have spent their days cycling around, farming, singing, enjoying electricity (an unheard of luxury for rural North Koreans) and generally having a great life in the brightly coloured apartment buildings, hospital, kindergartens and schools. However, scrutiny with telescopic lenses from the Southern half of the DMZ has revealed the buildings to be nothing more than uninhabited windowless concrete shells, with lights set on electrical timers to give the impression of life and tempt defectors from the South to the North. Until 2004, huge loudspeakers broadcast propaganda messages from the buildings towards the South – these began as messages encouraging Southerners to march across the border and be accepted as brothers, and when this proved ineffective, began to concentrate on anti-western speeches and patriotic marching music that would be blurted across to the South for up to 20 hours a day.
One mile south of the Propaganda Village is Deaseong-dong, its South Korean counterpart – otherwise known as “Freedom Village” (the South Koreans aren’t afraid of a little propaganda of their own). By all accounts, Freedom Village is the real deal – by which I mean people actually live there. As an incentive to get people to live in the village, which is about 350m from the border with North Korea, the South Korean government has made it a tax-free haven, meaning that the farmers that live here are among the richest in South Korea. DMZ farmed products are considered to be of very high quality, and fetch a good price around the country. Males are also exempt from military service, although it could be argued that they are already doing it by living where they do. All residents must be at home by the 11pm curfew, and the only new residents that are allowed are women that marry into a family of current residents. Several years ago, a village chief failed in his attempt to change the law so that women could stay in the village if they married an outsider, meaning that there is currently a lack of young people in the village to keep it going.
Our trip begins in the early morning haze of downtown Seoul, and from here our bus crawls the 56km towards our first stop a few hundred meters from the DMZ, Imjingak Park. Imjingak was built to console those from both sides of the Korean conflict that are unable to return to their families and friends, and is now home to an out of action funfair, some trophy tanks and planes left over from the war and a huge car park. From here we continue through several checkpoints (including the one with the pimply teenager) into the DMZ itself, to the site of the “Third Tunnel of Aggression”. Discovered in 1978 due to intelligence from a North Korean defector, it is the third of four such tunnels that have been found so far that were built by the North in order to facilitate an invasion. Just 44km from Seoul when it was discovered, the construction of the tunnel that was capable of accommodating 30,000 men per hour along with light weaponry was originally denied by the North, and later officially declared part of a coal mine. The tunnel sits in a geological area that has no coal anywhere nearby, and it is believed that the retreating Northern soldiers painted the walls black in order to make it look like a coal mine, which obviously didn't fool anyone for long. “Now they know that we have turned the tunnel into a tourist attraction,” says our guide, “so they have started to ask for a share in the ticket price because they built it.”
The real action of the trip is a journey into the heart of the DMZ, Panmunjom. This is the place you have seen in the pictures: the blue huts and the soldiers of both sides staring each other out just meters away from each other, either side of the Military Demarcation Line, the line that runs through the middle of the DMZ and is the point where South Korea becomes North Korea. Also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA), Panmunjom is the only place that the North and South meet face to face, and to get in here we had to go through a whole load of new checkpoints, and then sign a document that confirmed we understood that we were entering a hostile area that might entail “possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action." Just like the time I went bungy jumping.
As with the rest of the Korean conflict, this epicentre has had its fair share of both comedy and horror. Over 750 acts of violence have been documented here, from North Korean defectors running over the demarcation line and starting shootouts, to brutal axe murders over the height that a tree should be chopped to. And then there are schoolyard tactics like those of one of the earliest meetings here, when the South would sneak into the meeting room the night before a meeting and saw down the chair legs of the North, causing them to sit lower and loose face. Then the Southerners turned up to the meeting with a flag, and set it up on the table, so the Northerners left, only to come to the next meeting with a bigger flag. And can you guess what happened next? The Southerners came to the next meeting with an even bigger flag. And so on. This kept up until the flags got too big to fit in the room, and a meeting had to be taken just to discuss the size of the flags.
“You must do exactly what we say, and what the soldiers say. Do not make eye contact with the Northern side. Do not gesture to the Northern side, even if they provoke you. Be on your best behaviour.” Watched by stony faced 20 year olds in aviator sunglasses, we shuffle off the bus in silence and into the “Home of Freedom”, the imposing building that marks the South Korean side of Panmunjom. Emerging on the other side of the building, we are faced with the blue negotiation huts, the line going through the middle of them, and three “rocks” standing rigidly on duty and staring bad vibes into foundations of “Panmon Hall”, the equally imposing North Korean building. After a couple of minutes observing the scene, my 40-odd companions and myself are shown into one of the blue huts where negotiations take place, and where there is a line through the middle of the room marking dividing the two Koreas. This is the bit where you say, “Look, I’m in North Korea! Look, now I’m in South Korea!” and then have the barely credible right to brag to everyone back home how you went to North Korea on your holiday.
From here we are shuffled back onto the bus, and after a brief stop to look out the window at the “Bridge of No Return”, the sight of the infamous 1976 “Axe Murder Incident”, we are cruising down the motorway on our way back to Seoul, unsure if what we just saw was actually real or just some kind of very well done tour of Koreas biggest movie studio.
The one question I can’t help asking myself all this time is “Whose bloody idea was it to let 100,000 tourists into this place every year, and how did they pull it off?”. But I’m glad they had that idea, because it has given a strange glimpse into one of the modern era’s most bizarre conflicts. The people of the Korean peninsula are among the worlds most ethnically homogenous, and yet it is hard to imagine from the stories we here about the North that they can be anything like the welcoming, enthusiastic, future-ready people of the South. But they must be. “People often ask us if we want to be re-united with the North” our guide says, finishing up the tour. “They all expect us, and want us, to say “yes”, but in truth I think the answer for most people is “No”. Of course we want this aggression and division to stop. But we have lived too differently for too long, and becoming one country again now would be almost impossible, and too difficult for most of us here to be bothered with.”
Across the DMZ as a whole, since the end of the war, a half century of skirmishes has claimed the lives of 90 Americans, 394 South Koreans, and at least 889 North Koreans.