The South Korean soldier that just stepped onto our bus is a pimply teenager with dark aviator sunglasses and an unflinching expression.
“They’re called the ‘rocks’,” our tour guide 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), where they stand strong and 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.”
As the soldier passes the guide and checks our passports, she makes a thumbs-down sign behind his back and grimaces as though he smelled bad. She is clearly unimpressed.
So starts my day trip into the heart of the Korean conflict – an experience comical to the point of farce, yet with an ever-present sense of cataclysmic danger. After all, the two Koreas are technically still at war, and often act like it.
- Permanent standoff
The DMZ is their border, established by the 1953 armistice agreement. Despite the ceasefire, the strip of land that splits the Korean peninsula in two – 250 kilometres long and four kilometres wide – remains the most-heavily militarised border in the world. Most of the DMZ is forbidden to people, and is riddled with landmines, trenches and secret tunnels. It’s also one of Asia’s most pristine nature reserves.On each side, hundreds of thousands of 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 shoot videos on their iPads of a place that could well be the site of nuclear apocalypse. Surreal doesn’t even begin to cut it.
If you’re neither a soldier nor suicidal, the only way in or out of the DMZ is on this bus. When I bought the ticket two days earlier, I was told to dress ‘appropriately’ – no sleeveless shirts, collarless t-shirts, short pants or skirts, sandals, military-looking clothes, or t-shirts with a flag or nationality printed on it. On the bus, we are told that the North Koreans will be watching and photographing us, and if they spot someone that looks like a hippie, 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 flagpole 98.4 metres tall to fly the South Korean flag on their side of the DMZ. In what has become known as the “Flagpole War”, the North Koreans then erected a 160-metre flagpole in retaliation.
Still towering over the trees and hills, the flagpoles were erected in the only two towns that remain in the DMZ. The Northern village, Kijong-dong, is officially a 200-family collective farm, whose inhabitants enjoy brightly coloured apartment buildings, a hospital, kindergartens and schools. Closer scrutiny has revealed that they are nothing more than uninhabited, windowless concrete shells, lit by lights on timers.
The South Korean village is Deaseong-dong, otherwise known as “Freedom Village”. It has an actual human population that is drawn to the village by tax exemption and military conscription. While the village’s farmers are some of the wealthiest in South Korea – DMZ produce is considered to be very high-quality – the population is steadily declining, as the only new residents allowed are women who marry resident men.
Risk of injury and death
Our bus sets out early in the morning, cutting through the smog as we head north from the South Korean capital, Seoul. Our first stop is Imjingak Park, a few hundred metres from the DMZ border, which serves as a site of mourning for families divided by the Korean War. It’s now decorated like a funfair, with trophy tanks and planes left over from the war alongside a huge car park.
We continue through several checkpoints – including the one with the pimply teenager – into the DMZ and arrive at the site of the “Third Tunnel of Aggression”. Discovered in 1978 thanks to intelligence supplied by a North Korean defector, it is the third of four tunnels dug by the North to facilitate an invasion. It was only 44 kilometres from Seoul when it was discovered, and could have let in 30,000 troops per hour.
“Now that the North knows we have turned the tunnel into a tourist attraction, they have asked for a share in the ticket price because they built it,” our guide says.
But these stops merely whet the appetite for the trip’s main course – a journey into the heart of the DMZ, the Joint Security Area. It is the only section of the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers face each other. Straddling the demarcation line are two blue huts where official negotiations between the two sides take place. Before we are let in, we have to sign a document affirming that we understand we are entering a hostile area that might entail “possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action”. Just like that time I went bungee jumping.
This place, the epicentre of the Korean conflict, has seen its fair share of 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. Then there were the schoolyard tactics employed in the early days. Once, the night before talks were to be held, South Koreans sneaked into the meeting room and sawed down the legs of the chairs assigned to the North Korean delegates, causing them to sit lower and lose face.
The view from South Korea to North Korea at Panmunjom, the only point in the DMZ where the two sides meet. The concrete slabs in the middle of the huts mark the border between the two Koreas, and the blue buildings are where negotiations are held.
A line on the floor
“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,” we are sternly warned by the guide.
In silence, we shuffle off the bus and into the “Home of Freedom”, the imposing building on the South Korean side of the JSA. Emerging on the other side, we face the blue negotiation huts and the line passing through the middle of them. Three “rocks” stand rigidly on duty and stare their bad vibes into Panmon Hall, the equally imposing North Korean building on the other side.
After a couple of minutes observing the scene, my 40-odd companions and myself are shown into one of the blue huts. A line runs down the middle, 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 about 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 site 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 a tour of a highly realistic film set.
One question I can’t help asking myself 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 did, because it provides a strange glimpse into one of the world’s most bizarre conflicts. These two countries might have the world’s most ethnically similar populations, but the stories we hear of life in the North seem to have little in common with the enthusiastic, future-ready culture of the South.
“People often ask us if we want to be reunited with the North,” our guide says as she finishes 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.” M