“The scariest place on Earth” – Former US President, Bill Clinton, during his visit in 1993.
I remember the first time I heard and saw what the DMZ was about. I was around 15 years old and watched Michael Palin go there on one of his travel series called ‘Full Circle’. He stood in a bland looking room, spoke of the history of the Korean War, told us how he had to basically sign his life away on a piece of paper, and then crossed an area of the room saying “Here I’m in North Korea,” and then moving his feet just a few inches said, “now I’m in South Korea.”
“He’s standing in two countries. At the same time! Incredible!” was my immediate response, and then I thought about it some more. I was shocked that a divided country had such a scary, military armed border. I was scared that a visit there put your life at risk in case of any outbreaks of gunfire, fighting and attacks. I was fascinated to find it all out for myself one day, wanting to be just as big an explorer as him.
The desire to visit the world’s most heavily fortified border and learn first-hand what it stands for, never left me. What I saw on that one televised episode intrigued me – it wasn’t something that was fun, but it was something that was very important – and my continuing interest in society, politics and travel increased my need to see it for myself even more.
The DMZ is a four-kilometer wide belt stretching 250 km, cutting the Korean peninsula almost in half at the 38th parallel, and was put in place in 1953 as a ceasefire to the Korean War. The Chinese and North Koreans pulled back 2km north and the UN forces 2km to the south, creating a ‘no-man’s land’. Tanks, heavy artillery and mines exist on the Northern and Southern Limit Lines that are lined with barbed wire fences, but not within the DMZ itself, as was part of the armistice agreement. Running through the middle of the 4km belt is the Military Demarcation Line (the ‘actual’ border) and here sits Panmunjeom, the “truce village” housing the Joint Security Area (JSA) – where negotiations between both sides took place and where today, democracy and communism now stand face-to-face in animosity. The JSA is the area you visit, where you enter the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room – the only place where anyone can freely ‘cross’ the Demarcation Line.
As of September 2013, I had seen the DMZ from both sides. For me, it’s how I wanted to see it and understand it – from the TWO viewing points in Panmunjom. I stood on the North Korean side in November 2012, and in South Korea more recently. However, despite the viewing lines being only meters away from each other and the room you enter being the same one, they were both very different experiences.
The DMZ in North Korea (DPRK)
Visiting the DMZ from North Korea was filled with adrenalin, and a little fear. Not only were we in the world’s most closed country, but we were also on the world’s most dangerous border between two countries still technically at war. To say we were on our guard here, despite being in the safety of a group, is an understatement. It took us around three hours to reach Panmunjeom from the Capital of Pyongyang, where we all waited at a busy check in area (complete with souvenir shops) as we watched our North Korean guides have their passports swiped firmly out of their hands.
It was time to get on the coach and drive the short way to the JSA, driving through a long road lined with large square boulders that would fall and block the road should any sign of attack be imminent (the same tactic exists on the South Korean side). It felt tense, yet we were calmed upon arrival by the opportunity to look through historical artifacts, documents, and historical boards in a building designated as a North Korea museum – propaganda and all. It was, in fact, where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed.
Our North Korean military guide was an approachable man, and not half as scary as I imagined him to be. He spoke the North Korean version of events, yet it wasn’t as propaganda heavy as other situations we had found ourselves in. It felt far more serious here, being so close to the ‘opposition’.
Taking us through to the viewing platform, through an imposing, beige building, we all stood on the steps of the building looking out over to the building on the South Korean side. It was surprisingly calm, yet it felt incredibly eerie. No South Korean soldiers were present, just North Korean soldiers keeping guard. There wasn’t the grand face-off we all hear about – I guess this is toned down during visits, with designated times given to both sides for tourist arrivals. Only when we are gone, do they stand literally face-to-face with one another.
After 10 minutes or so, we were then taken into the blue hut – the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room that straddles the Demarcation Line. We were allowed to sit at the table (the ‘line’ cutting through the middle of the table) and, watched over by our guide ,we all sat on either side of the table shaking hands across it, marking the peace we all wish for. One North Korean guard stood staunchly guarding the door that lead to the South Korean side of the JSA, his fierce and set expression creating an atmosphere in the room that signalled this as very serious business. It was a day none of us could forget…
The DMZ in South Korea
In South Korea, visiting the DMZ is huge for tourism. Here, you can choose from all multitude of tours, from full day visits or JSA only tours to hikes and tours with North Korean defectors.I decided on a full day tour in order to see one of the observatories (where you can look out over North Korea), the ‘Friendship Bridge’, a train station that links both countries via a single line and The 3rd Tunnel – a 1,632m tunnel dug by the North Koreans, from which they could pass through into Seoul within an hour and invade. The day would end with a visit to the JSA.
All in all, the first half of the day (except for the tunnel) was like a day trip to Disneyland. This is at no fault of the tour company (who merely facilitate your transport there between each site and who provide knowledgeable who tell you the history on the coach along the way) but the fault of who is behind the Korean tourism surrounding this particular area, or the government, or whoever thought it was acceptable to build a fairground next to the area where the bridge is, or who ever thought it was acceptable to turn the Observation Deck into a zoo-like atmosphere, surrounded by the screams of people looking through telescopes exclaiming, “Oh.My.God. I just saw an actual North Korean.” Yes, this really happened.
Never once did I feel it was a ‘serious’ place or a serious issue. For most, it’s a bit of fun peering into the hermit kingdom, and while people on guard cannot change the ignorance and stupidity of some of the tourists who visit, there could be more educational markers put in place and the enforcement of more rules to encourage a little respect. It was then I felt that ‘reunification’ was nothing more than a throw away term, later confounded by many South Koreans I met who said “Many of us are not bothered by it”.
However, the trip to the JSA left me with mixed feelings. The US soldier, our guide, was young, knowledgeable and delivered a fantastic presentation that was factual and historically sound. We were informed of some rules to follow – we were not to take pictures of any North Korean guards that may appear in the building in the background, and not to make any faces or hand gestures which they can film and use as propaganda, or as a means of retaliation.
Which meant nothing when our guide stood before us as we lined up on the steps and pointed to a building and said “That’s the building where the North Korean guards sometimes hang out of and make <does throat slitting gesture> to us.” A contradiction of rules, no? North Korean guards were present; they lurked in the shadows and behind the pillars on the beige building I had once stood at months before. Whilst I felt safe, the viewing point time felt unnerving, especially being around US soldiers who had a ‘jack the lad’ attitude. I guess it was only a good thing that we were not allowed to stand there for too long.
Back in the blue building (the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room), we were once again told about the DMZ and the guard line, except we were not allowed to sit at the table, only stand around it. South Korean guards stood in their fierce Taekwondo stance – something of which they are famous for – yet tourists giggled and replicated the pose for photos – something we would never have dreamt of doing on the North Korean side. I don’t think many really understood exactly where they were…
A visit to the DMZ is without a doubt an eye-opener and a must see for those interested in history and current affairs. While a visit to North Korea is undoubtably going to be fuelled by a more serious attitude, where you have to be guarded and ‘on your best behaviour’ at all times, I sadly think people miss the point when visiting on the South Korean side, with a few people around me expressing disappointment with the way things were handled. It’s a given that the majority of visitors will visit from South Korea, and so I would personally cut out the full day tour and just stick with the specific JSA tour, yet be prepared for mixed signals on regarding the seriousness of the current situation. However, for those with a deep interest in what is going on here, you will certainly take a lot more from it.
I visited the DMZ on the North Korean side during my trip to the country with Koryo Tours. In South Korea, I was invited on the DMZ day tour with VIP Travel, who knew of my desire to see it from the other side. Both are companies I highly recommend, yet neither had any influence on my opinions in this article which, as always, remain my own.