Peering over the Fence: Korea’s DMZ

Dorasan Station - photos by Ludy Corne
Dorasan Station – photos by Ludy Corne

Peering over the Fence: Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ

By Lucy Corne

If there were any truth to the adage ‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ then North and South Korea would regularly be borrowing each other’s lawnmowers and lending cups of sugar.

Fences don’t get any better than this – a heavily fortified strip of land 150 miles (241km) long and 2 and a half miles (4km) wide, ironically titled the DMZ (demilitarized zone).

But despite the recent hoo-hah over a one-off passenger train crossing the border, there is little sign that relations are thawing between the two nations. The border remains closed and the only contact, if you could call it that, are the opposing soldiers who eyeball each other across the boundary line.

Peace and Unity on the DMZ

Our trip to the DMZ starts in a small auditorium just inside the restricted area. The lights dim and the angelic face of a young girl fills the screen, tears streaming down her cheeks as she absent-mindedly runs her fingers along the barbed wire fence that separates her beloved land.

After brief footage of the three-year war that led to the fence being erected in the first place, a jolly voiceover claims that the DMZ today is a place of peace and unity. The child from the opening of the film is back, but now she’s grinning and skipping along as the fence magically disappears, replaced by rolling green hills lined with trees.

I think we are supposed to believe that the computer-generated Eden on the screen is a realistic take on the DMZ of today, though in fact, it’s more reminiscent of Teletubbyland, without the psychedelic characters.

Emerging from the third tunnel
Emerging from the third tunnel.

The region might be rich in lush vegetation, but the reality is that this is one of the most inappropriately-named places on the planet. Watchtowers punctuate the border on both sides, anti-tank barriers disguised as bridges or billboards are a common sight and around 70 per cent of all landmines from the Korean War remain lying in the dense undergrowth.

A Slightly Sinister Day Trip

In fact, this is the most thoroughly armed border in the world and the last remaining vestige of the Cold War, which all makes for a fascinating, if slightly sinister, day trip and a must for any visitor to South Korea.

Still, a little baffled by this odd introduction, we emerge from the exhibition hall and snatch the opportunity to take a few pictures, something which will prove to be a rare treat throughout the day.

True, this particular shot is a less-than-inspiring view of the Third Tunnel Car Park, but since we don’t know when we’ll get another chance, the shutters click madly.

The tour follows a tight schedule and we are soon herded to the next briefing zone clad in hard hats and ready to descend into the mile-long (1.6km) tunnel, discovered in 1978 after a tip-off from a North Korean defector.

Although two similar channels had been unearthed by then, the Third Tunnel was a cause of major alarm considering its proximity to the capital – it’s just 32 miles (52km) from Seoul and since 30,000 soldiers could stream through within an hour, a North Korean invasion could have been catastrophic.

A Little Disney

Suddenly a monorail pulls up and we exchange puzzled and slightly awkward glances, all sharing the same thought – perhaps South Korea has gone a little Disney in its DMZ approach. But the train is hardly a pleasure ride, more a way of facilitating tourists’ descent into the tunnel, 236 feet (72m) underground.

Once at the bottom we are frogmarched to the end to admire a barricade and some barbed wire and are soon back in the bright sunshine with just enough time to stock up on souvenirs before jumping back on the bus.

The Dora Observatory
The Dora Observatory.

The next port of call might not be as informative, but it’s a little closer to the reason most people take the tour – North Korea. The Dora Observatory is a glass-walled auditorium painted in camouflage shades and seemingly built entirely for tourist use.

A Gripping Encounter

Most of the group drifts away from the guide out onto the deck, where we happily pump binoculars full of 500-won coins (about 50 cents) in order to get rather average views of enigmatic North Korea. Although I don’t see a soul (though I’m sure they’re watching us), it’s an oddly gripping encounter.

Close by is the now famous Dorasan Station, once labeled ‘the last station in the South’ but now thought of as ‘the first station before the North’. Opened in 2002, it’s a bright, modern building that receives a mere handful of passengers, largely military personnel, each year.

In May 2007 the station saw its first-ever international train pass by as 100 South Koreans made a cursory visit to the North and back to much political fanfare.

South Koreans remain divided on the train issue. While some are hopeful that the day-long opening of the line might signal the start of a unification process, many are critical and skeptical.

Critical because South Korea paid something in the region of $80 million to the North for the privilege of sending a train 20km over the border.

The Joint Security Area
The Joint Security Area.

Skeptical because, despite the pomp and circumstance, there is no sign that the event was anything other than a chance to test the rails and a large-scale publicity stunt.

Truce Village

At lunch, we are warned that not so much as a shandy (beer and lemonade) should pass our lips – not even a single tot of soju, a local variant on vodka that’s drunk in greater quantities than water.

After lunch we will be joining the strictest excursion a tourist can take. If the name Panmunjeom is familiar, it’s most likely that you’re up on world affairs (either that or you were a fan of M*A*S*H in the 1970s). The rural hamlet shot to fame in 1953 when North Korean and American officials met here to sign the armistice that halted the Korean War.

In fact, the village itself has long since disappeared and the correct moniker today is the JSA (Joint Security Area), more romantically known as the Truce Village.

Straddling the north-south border, the JSA is a collection of official buildings where US and South Korean soldiers patrol under the watchful eye of the UN.

These days they don’t mingle with their communist counterparts across the border as they did in the 60s and 70s. A bloody incident in 1976, where two US officials were killed with an axe, led to soldiers being forced to stick to their side of the border.

A sentry station along the DMZ
A sentry station along the DMZ.

A Strict Dress Code

For the third time that day, our passports are scrutinized and an official steps aboard to check our attire. This is not a trip for the flippant – there is a strict dress code, facial hair must be tidy and tourists must stick together at all times in that crocodile formation usually reserved for primary school trips.

Our new guide, Austin, doesn’t seem to echo our serious air, somehow sounding more like a Club rep on a booze cruise than a guide about to lead us into territory swarming with soldiers, where reaching North Korea would mean nothing more than a crazy 10-yard dash across the concrete. At one stage she even suggests we might give it a go, then warns us with a giggle that bullets would probably ensue.

Still, she’s full of facts and figures and at least gives us the essential briefing. The most important rule of all is that should we spot a North Korean soldier there should be no interaction – no waving, no speaking and above all, no pointing to the North at any time.

I spent the whole afternoon with my fists clenched so tightly I had nail imprints in my palms for a week. In these situations, I fear that my body might betray me and I’ll find myself wildly pointing at nothing, just to see what might happen.

The Most Mysterious Nation

After yet another briefing we are handed a pass that grants us UN protection and are herded on to a United Nations bus, driven by a South Korean soldier and assisted by a US army sergeant. The atmosphere is somber and although the regulations don’t require it, everyone naturally begins to talk in hushed tones.

A South Korean soldier
A South Korean soldier.

We must resemble a funeral procession as we plod through the Freedom Hall and out onto the courtyard. Then suddenly everyone slows and there is a communal sucking in of breath – there it is, just meters from where we are – the clear sight of the most mysterious nation on earth.

Now I feel the need to be honest. The morning’s introduction to the war and the DMZ was fascinating, but the real reason that people sign up for this solemn day out rather than a trip to one of Seoul’s many colorful palaces or theme parks is this: to catch a glimpse of North Korea and maybe gawk at a soldier or two, wondering what their lives might be like. It’s a sad irony that South Korea’s greatest tourist attraction is actually North Korea.

A KPA (Korean People’s Army) soldier stands guard outside the impressive Panmungak building, no doubt eyeing us with at least a fraction of the curiosity we have for him, and we’re all a little disappointed when we’re ushered into the MAC conference room (Military Armistice Commission).

An Air of Silliness

The small, simple structure still hosts talks on the topic of reunification and has the added curiosity of straddling the two Koreas. We all get a little giddy as we get our only chance to cross the border without running the risk of being shot and an air of silliness takes over from the previous grave atmosphere. Couples pose for photos with the South Korean guard who stands in the ‘ROK ready’ position – hands clenched ready to grab a pistol or launch into Taekwondo.

In our new-found excitement, one girl forgets the latest rules we’ve been issued and makes to walk behind the guard to pose on his other arm. His reaction is instant: the clenched fist is stiffly raised to eye level and one footstep in her path, blocking the door out to the North.

The propaganda village
The propaganda village.

Her reaction is as rapid, though not as quiet as she lets out an involuntary yelp. Tension seizes the room and there’s a collective flinch, as we are sharply reminded that this is not Madame Tussaud’s and that one wrong move could end in disaster.

The torrent of cheesy snaps subsides and we again cross the courtyard, this time to head for the pagoda-style observation tower. Everyone jostles to take as many photographs of the North as possible and once my film is finished I snap on the lens cap and ball my hands into fists once more, slightly reminiscent of the ROK-ready soldiers.

Propaganda Village near the DMZ

Our final stop of the day is equally as fascinating – the closest place to view Gijeong-dong, a rather pristine-looking North Korean town generally referred to as the ‘Propaganda Village’ by South Koreans.

Seemingly built solely to show the South how well the communist regime is doing, no one has ever really lived there and some claim that the buildings are little more than empty facades with glassless windows.

Soldiers and farm workers are occasionally spotted and a few lights flicker on after dark, though the rumors say that it’s the same lights at the same time and in the same order every night.

Gijeong-dong is watched over by a huge North Korean flag, sitting atop the world’s highest flagpole at 160m, a response to the 328-foot 100m) pole erected across the border to hold the South Korean banner.

Gazing over at this mysterious settlement makes me all the more curious about North Korea, a country unlike any other on the planet. Then it occurs to me that the Korean peninsula, much like Germany before 1989, is not two separate nations but a country divided.

On paper, the two sides are technically still at war since South Korea never signed the armistice and the DMZ is a glaring reminder of that. Hyped-up train journeys aside, there is little sign that this fence will be coming down in the near future and while it stands, the two Koreas are far from being good neighbors.

Lucy Corne

After graduating with a degree in journalism in 2000, Lucy Corne has been nursing a stubborn case of itchy feet. Using freelance writing and EFL teaching as a means to get around, she has suffered from diarrhea and fallen off horses in countless countries. She has written three guidebooks on Spain and South Africa and lived in rural South Korea, where she taught English to teenage boys and lived a life of semi-celebrity as one of four non-Koreans in town. She is currently on an extended trip to Asia. Visit her website.

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