Arguably the most important event in Korean history, the Korean War raged for 5 years and claimed over 3million lives before the battle was finally brought to a halt by international intervention in 1953. A Military Demarcation Line (MDL) was established as a result of an Armistice Agreement between the North and the South, and each side was pushed back two kilometers from this line. The Korean Demilitarised Zone was established as a 250km long buffer zone lined with landmines, razor-sharp barbed wire, and heavily-armed guard posts - which is exactly how it still exists today. The nature of this forced stalemate is both the source and cause of the hostility between the two nations which we're all too familiar with, over half a century later.
The Korean DMZ now claims the title as the most heavily guarded border in the world, but it also has other more obscure accolades. The DMZ is recognised as one of the best preserved areas of temperate climate in the world, and has become an inadvertent nature reserve. While the 4km wide strip of land - which is so green that it can be identified from outer space - has been notably hostile to human life, it has created a thriving population of birds, black bears, and even leopards - all of which are thought to be extinct in all other corners of the earth but this one. The DMZ was also host to the two tallest flagpoles in the world, a true display of phallic competition between the North and South, until a few months ago when they were finally trumped by the Dushanbe Flagpole in Tajikistan.
While often perceived as quiet or inactive; the incursions across the DMZ are regular, and recent. Not even a year has passed since the last shots were fired by both sides across the DMZ.
Reading up on the history of the area on our way to meet our guide... I'm decidedly intrigued, if not slightly nervous, about the whole thing.
No Time for Nerves
Our journey to the DMZ begins on a large, empty bus with a very enthusiastic tour guide. None of us are really sure what to expect. It’s a short journey out of Seoul to reach the border, a stark reminder of just how close the capital is to the North - the significance of which only becomes clear a little later. The closer we get, the more barbed wire fences appear and the more guard huts we see.
Upon arrival to the tourist centre, we’re made to wait for 10 minutes and examine the wall where South Korean families who were divided from their Northern relatives during the war have left messages of support and prayers that they will one day be reunited. While we’re looking at the wall, our tour guide is submitting our names and passport details to the Korean military to allow us entrance into the demilitarised zone itself.
When we reach the military checkpoint which serves as the entrance to the DMZ, it's guarded by armed and uniformed officers. Our tour guide explains that all South Korean men are required to serve in the Korean army. When drafted, they go through a physical to determine which regiment they’ll end up in - then they must serve at least 14 months. The soldier who comes onto our bus to inspect all of our passports and issue the bus driver with an access pass doesn’t look more than 18 years old. The single stripe on his helmet means that he’s a new recruit.
Inside the DMZ, having driven carefully around various blockades, our first stop is place called The Third Tunnel.
After the Armistice Treaty was signed in 1953, North Korea tried - repeatedly - to launch a stealth attack on the South. The first tunnel was discovered in 1974 when some South Korean soldiers noticed steam rising up from the ground. The second, was discovered in 1975, and the third was discovered in 1978 when one of the tunnel’s engineers defected from the North and told the South of its location. There are an estimated 20 tunnels running under the DMZ; all designed to launch a surprise attack on Seoul, all designed to move around 1,000 troops across the border some 100 meters underground every hour. When questioned, North Korea has always denied any knowledge of a surprise attack - claiming that the tunnels were for coal mining.
No coal has ever been discovered in any of the tunnels - but there are traces of black paint where someone has tried to make it look like there might be coal. Not the most foolproof of ruses, really.
The entrance to the third tunnel is housed in an unremarkable concrete visitors centre. As we enter, we’re told to use provided lockers to secure all cameras, phones, camera-phones, things which look like cameras or phones, and things which may once have been related to a camera and/or phone. No cameras in the tunnel, we’re told. No exceptions. Then down the steep incline we go into the tunnel itself, picking up a hard-hat on the way. The route down to the tunnel is a pretty well engineered one. Once the South Koreans discovered the tunnel they sealed it off underground with three thick concrete barricades, then created their own tunnel leading down to meet it.
Once we reach the bottom of the ramp, the harsh rock walls become more damp and a plumbing and ventilation system becomes evident. These exist both for the supply of air to the visitors and for diverting the constant stream of ground water which seeps down through the rock. The actual tunnel, created by the North Koreans, is tiny. The reason for the hard hats immediately becomes evident as we take it in turns to crack our heads (hard) on outcrops of rock in the ceiling of the tunnel. It’s a dark, dank place - no more than 5 feet high and 4 feet wide in most places. We make our way along, backs hunched uncomfortably, for about 10 minutes in a single-file queue of people heading deep into the shaft and another returning on the other side. There isn’t much in the way of personal space.
At the end of the tunnel we reach the third blockade. It’s really not that impressive. It’s a concrete wall with a small window in it allowing you to see the (artificially lit) second blockade. Each blockade is about 15 meters apart, and about 15 meters beyond the final blockade is North Korea. To think, I came within 45 meters of a North Korea Gowalla pin. Dammit.
Sidenote: If you want to keep up with where I am in the world and what I’m doing, you should totally follow me on Gowalla. Go on. It’ll be awesome.
Having completed the tunnel tour and delivered a few choice-words to the woman at the top selling overpriced drinks to tourists who are, without exception, close to cardiac arrest following the steep climb back up to the concrete eyesore of an entrance... we’re guided into a separate visitor centre just next door where we’re shown an extremely surreal video presentation. The video talks about the DMZ with narration in the style of cinema trailers talking about upcoming blockbusters. You know the sort - “This summer. One man, against the world, has - a gun.” - [Cue explosions].
The video talks about the DMZ, pretty much like it’s Disney World. They’re marketing it as a nature reserve, a tourist attraction, an essential Korean landmark, and an important step in the great unification of North and South Korea.
Now, I may be a little bit out of touch, but I wasn’t quite aware of an impending unification of the North and South. I remember the two nations making a simultaneous hand-holding appearance at the Olympic Opening Ceremony a few years ago… but further to that I’m not sure what progress has or is being made. Just two weeks ago North Korea threatened to launch "direct fire" on the South over reports of the distribution of leaflets in Seoul defaming the North Korean capital. "The scattering of leaflets is not a simple provocation, but an undisguised war action," said the North. They followed up by saying they were "ready to take direct fire to destroy the citadels of the psychological warfare."
These types of reports make it hard to imagine a box of cupcakes being sent from the North to the South with a note saying "Hey guys, letz unify."
A View of North Korea
Back to the tour, we’re taken to an observation point high up on a mountain inside the DMZ from which one can, on a clear day, see right across to North Korea. As we pull up to the place where we can experience the exciting feat of looking at nothing in particular, our tour guide explains the rules:
Listen very carefully. Behind the yellow line taking a photo is ok. But if you take a photo in front of the yellow line, the Korean soldier will shoot you… only kidding, they’ll just delete everything on your memory card.
The DMZ, as you will remember, is a tourist attraction. Totally safe, not a threat, no big deal. Disney World.
Indeed, having extracted ourselves from the bus we watch as several people - too stupid or too brazen to listen - are harshly shouted at and have their memory cards deleted. The view itself doesn’t offer much in the way of top secret information. It’s actually pretty hard to tell where one territory ends and the next begins - it’s just a big, open landscape. Our tour guide explains that the easiest way to tell where North Korea starts is where all the trees stop. They’ve all been cut down for fuel.
Having been suitably unimpressed by the coveted view from the observation point, I get chatting to one of the guards who, as it turns out, speaks perfect English. Sam* - I quickly establish - is from the USA. As a Korean national living abroad, he’s been called back to serve in the military. He has to do it, he tells me, or he’ll lose his Korean citizenship. The past 7 months have been the longest of his life. He spent the first 2 months being worried about being killed by a sniper rifle from across the DMZ, but now he says he's settled in. I ask him what he’s going to do when his 14 months is up, “Go back and finish my undergraduate degree.” he says. It’s a very surreal conversation, because there’s so very little that separates the two of us, and yet here he is - in full uniform - drafted in the Korean military with little-to-no personal freedom, guarding a country he can't wait to leave.
Half way through our conversation Sam’s head snaps around and he barks aggressively in Korean at a man who has just tentatively raised a camera to his face - a reminder that while he’s very friendly, he still takes his job seriously. He quickly apologises to me and says “I don’t really understand the point - you can find photos of this place all over Google images anyway… but what can I do? I have to follow orders.”
For a the tourist attraction that it's being marketed as, the whole situation feels serious and uncomfortable. And to think, this is the "friendly" side of the border.
Our final stop inside the DMZ is Dorasan Station. The train line running between the North and South Korea opened in 2007 and was the first method of transport across the DMZ. It carried freight between the two countries once a week for just a year before the North shut the whole thing down and accused the South of a confrontational policy (I'm not sure what that means) after a change of government following the 2008 elections in South Korea.
A brand new station intended for passenger travel now stands in Dorasan, and it’s covered in advertising about the unification of Korea. It’s a bizarre building. Modern to a fault, with plenty of state-of-the-art facilities which you would expect to find in the richer parts of Seoul, but it’s completely abandoned. It has no purpose. The security scanners and baggage halls sit empty, the ticket office sells tickets to go and look at the platforms, not get on a train. The entire thing - it would seem - is nothing more than a symbolic gesture.
As we leave the DMZ and are checked again, rigorously, by armed and uniformed military (both Korean and American, this time) our tour guide imparts on us a few choice closing words:
I envy all your your countries. Bigger than Korea and not divided into two. Someday I hope that we can be unified once more.
It’s hard to tell how much of this unification message which is being pushed on us is sincere, let alone realistic. I get the feeling it might be a marketing message which conveys what the South Koreans want the rest of the world to see - rather than what’s actually there.
The tour itself was absolutely fascinating, and highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Seoul. The sociopolitical history of Korea is both convoluted and decidedly unfinished. A small glimpse into a world that we in the West haven't known the likes of since November 9th, 1989.
[hr] *Some personal details modified / omitted to protect the identity of the soldier.