Korea – Travelogue

Journal Extract – DMZ Tour

The US military-led tour of the Korean border zone Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) commenced at 7:30am sharp. In charge of proceedings was poker-faced Sergeant Rivera, an American solider with a well rehearsed, distant, steely squint. With clinical delivery and detachment, he informed us of the DMZ’s many rules and regulations, along with tips on how not-to-get-shot by edgy North Korean guards. Each instruction was conveyed with precision, repeated twice and usually book ended with “let’s just have a good day folks”. I sensed some weary exasperation in his tone and felt glad I’d left my (Chinese New Year of the) rabbit costume at the hotel. Indeed, clothing deemed “faddish, extreme, torn, tattered, frayed, overly provocative or otherwise inappropriate” was disallowed, including – quote – “baggy gangster-type” garb.

Throughout the day, as Rivera ordered us about, I felt that he was able to penetrate my soul with his trademark, no-nonsense glare. It was mildly unnerving yet oddly invigorating to be bossed around – I particularly enjoyed being told twice. “No photography here. Repeat: No photography.” What a thrilling paradox to be addressed as ‘sir’ as he humoured my stupid questions, yet also be ordered around – certainly, for a few moments, I had to question my heterosexuality.

A Tourist Circus

Our group was led to a Camp Bonifas UN cabin for a briefing on the bizarre stalemate that emerged after the Korean War. For 160 miles, the DMZ stretches from coast-to-coast and mostly serves as a deserted, 2-mile wide landmine-riddled buffer between the cyber-metropolises of the south and Kim Jong Il’s tin-pot communist wonderland to the north. It has also become a de facto nature reserve, as wildlife has thrived in the untouched belt, currently the world’s most heavily fortified border. Each side of the ‘38th parallel’ is lined with up to 2 millions troops and, at the Joint Security Area (JSA) ‘flashpoint’, soldiers keep an especially beady eye on each other. Every few years, there is some kind of ‘incident’ or incursion but it has more or less remained an unresolved ‘war-in-stasis’ for nearly 60 years.

Oddly, there was no frisking at the end of the introduction but everyone had to sign a lengthy disclaimer promising they’d behave and waiver any responsibility should one suffer “injury or death as a direct result of enemy action“. After a quick look at the world’s most dangerous golf course from our UN bus, we proceeded to Freedom House – built specifically for the ‘Sunshine Policy’ north/south family reunions (but never used, as the North feared citizens might defect).

Then, as we were led outside, we saw the strange, knife-edge stand-off being played out either side of a thin concrete hub separating the once united peninsula. I was tempted to shout over some wise words from Sasha Baron Cohen’s character ‘Borat’. However, hollering “stop fighting North and South Korea; You’re both basically Chinese!” would probably be somewhat brash. And racist.

A caption saying 'icy tensions' or something... Tom in the North and the South

Amidst CCTV cameras, observation towers and pillboxes, about a dozen South Korean soldiers were dotted around, each sporting sunglasses in order mask any emotion. It’s apparently a much sought-after honour to serve in the JSA, a role only open to those of a high rank. Each solider stood in an eerie, permanently still state of readiness – fists clenched in a modified Tae Kwon Do posture. Troops were rotated hourly and the stare-downs continued all day until 6pm, when ‘technology takes over’. The fact that cameras can do the job just as well bought new meaning to the phrase ‘military theatre’.

Unlike with London’s infinitely tolerant bearskins, I was informed that any attempt to poke or blow a raspberry at these men would result in a solid punch. Photos were welcome but we were advised to give them all a 1-foot diameter wide-berth at all times, or expect a thump. As for any North Korean guards hanging around, we were ordered to avoid all eye contact and asked not to communicate in any way. Whether friendly, humorous or hostile, any attempt to correspond with the other side could be used for propaganda purposes. An image of a tourist’s innocent gesturing could find itself fronting the Pyongyang Times with a caption insisting that said foreigner ‘begged to be admitted to our glorious utopia’.

Permanently ready South Korean guard with clenched fists

Rivera guided us into a non-descript cabin used by both sides for meetings (the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room) – he stood at the end of a UN desk which featured active embedded microphones, monitored 24/7 by both sides. I was stood exactly opposite as he announced that the Korean border passed precisely through the centre of the desk. Unknowingly, I was straddling the border with one foot, one leg and one testicle in each Korea.

To the left was a framed picture of the South’s allies’ flags – previously they were represented by silk flags but these were removed after North Korean guards broke into the hut and blew their noses on the Star-Spangled Banner. After another stern reminder not to screw around ourselves, we were then all allowed to make a brief, official visit to the world’s last Leninist hold-out.

Back on the UN bus, we passed through Taesong-dong, a showcase South Korean village of 200 farmers who are paid around US$80,000 annually to live in the ‘danger zone’. They work under 24-hour military supervision, a strict curfew and a 100-metre flagpole. Only those with ancestral roots in the area can live there and only women can marry into the border-zone families. The ‘DMZ rice’ they produce, which the government is guaranteed to buy, commands a patriotic premium.

The North’s highly visible Potemkin village is called Kijong-dong (or ‘Propaganda Village’ to Southerners). It features a 160-metre flagpole – one of the world’s tallest – and almost no-one lives there. Troops have observed that lights in all of the buildings appear to come on at exactly the same time each night – the rooms themselves merely empty shells. Until 2004, it was from here that state propaganda, nationalist music, speeches, communist opera were blared across the border from loudspeakers for 20-hours a day.

The Bridge of No Return Reunification statue

After brief stops at the Bridge of No Return and Checkpoint 3, the next stop was to one of up to 17 underground tunnels discovered by the South angled towards Seoul. The North Koreans tended to assert that these were merely for coal mining, and had even smeared the walls with coal to back up their claims. The Third Tunnel of Aggression’ was now a tourist attraction, and we were allowed don hardhats and see the progress they made before detection. It seemed an appropriate capitalist ‘up yours’ to transform the enemy’s great infiltration effort into a monetised tourist playground, though Seoul is also said to be confident that other such ‘surprise attack’ tunnels lie undiscovered.

500 won for a glimpse of the north. No cameras allowed. The pristine, unused Dorasan Train Station

The final stop after lunch was the gleaming, recently restored Dorasan Train Station. A route through the DMZ was de-mined partly as a stepping stone towards reunification and partly in the hope of linking South Korea with the Eurasian rail network. From 2007, freight trains ran between the two sides for just under a year. Today, the station has become yet another tourist curiosity. Staff sell tickets for platform access, visitors are invited to mark their passports with a dummy stamp, all whilst immigration points and x-ray machines lie forlornly idle. A single woman tends the ‘Inter-Korean Travel Desk’ – possibly the least-busy worker in the world, although tickets are supposedly available to buy as souvenirs. The splendid upkeep of the place was testament to the long-term hope that reunification will eventually occur, as it did in Germany.

The pristine, unused Dorasan Train Station The world's least busy woman

Few South Koreans on the ground seem to care much about the apparent risk of nuclear Armageddon. The military threat is greater than outsiders may imagine, but nowadays, most Seoulites I spoke with seemed relatively indifferent and dismissed most rows and threats as silly propaganda games played by their wacky neighbour.

Back in the hotel, I reflected on the insanity of conflict and attempted to replicate Sergeant Rivera’s jaded, distant gaze in the hotel bathroom mirror. Unfortunately, it just looked as if I was suffering a rabid case of constipation rather than portraying any war-weary cynicism.

Certainly, if some brazen tourist manages to inadvertently spark WWIII at the DMZ, this was further proof that I’d be best cutting my losses and making a hasty conversion to Quakerism.

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