There comes a time when every foreigner in Korea makes the pilgrimage to the DMZ: the most unlikely of tourist attractions.
At the end of the Korean War, both North and South Korea signed an armistice agreement, basically saying they would cease fighting. Each side moved back 2 kilometers from the front line of the war, creating a 4 kilometer buffer zone between the countries. This area was quickly fortified by each side and became the Demilitarized Zone. A long strip of land which nobody can enter.
Years later, despite there still being tension between the two countries, the DMZ has become a major tourist destination. There are gift shops, restaurants. Places to take pictures.
To a sane person, the DMZ tour probably seems like a rather dull (or scary) way to spend a day. There is very little on offer to do and the major appeal of doing it seems to be that you can say you’ve done it. There are obviously landmarks to visit, but they’re not outwardly appealing, just interesting for what they represent.
As an example, the tour allows you to look into North Korea at a few of the notable sights nearby. Most prominent of these is perhaps the North Korean “Propaganda Village” which is the nearest settlement on the North Korean side of the DMZ.
Apparently the propaganda village isn’t even an actual functioning village, more like a large film set made to give South Koreans the impression that an amazing North Korean village is so close. Now the funny thing about this is, the village looks much like any other village. There’s nothing spectacular about it, beside the story behind it. Yet, when you go on the tour there’s a feeling of dread in your stomach when you look across to North Korean, like you’re looking into another, darker world.
Incredibly melodramatic, right? I guess that’s part of the appeal of the tour. There’s a certain narrative built up around North Korea – that the society is crazy, that the country itself is the embodiment of evil and going on the tour only reinforces those thoughts rather than shattering them.
The whole tour is setup in such a way as to build a distinct atmosphere of fear. You start with a briefing from a member of the military who gives a basic run down of North Korea, the Korean War and the DMZ. The briefing goes into detailed about various conflicts that have happened in the Joint Security Area – the only area of the DMZ where the two Koreas meet, where both sides have guards stationed.
Hearing about these conflicts makes it sound like at any moment the shit could hit the fan. Naturally in all of these conflicts, it turns out the North Koreans were the aggressors, so you’re never in any doubt about how evil they truly are. It’s clear who the bad guys are and who are the good.
From the briefing you’re led onto a bus with a member of the US army and you head to the JSA (the aforementioned area with the North Korean guards). As you ride along, the guide, a US soldier, points out various military landmarks. Pill boxes on hills that act as look outs in-case North Korea attacks.
If North Korea did decide to attack, the road we drive along would be their primary route we’re told because the the DMZ is covered in hundreds of thousands of landmines making any other point impassable. Knowing all this allows you to consider how dangerous the South must feel the North is, so you start to feel a little scared yourself. You’re going into their territory after all.
As we make our way into the JSA we were reminded that we shouldn’t make any gestures or try to communicate with the North Koreans at all. They will be watching us at all times and could take photos of us to use as propaganda. Leaving the bus we’re told to walk in two single file rows. Everybody is quiet and nobody wants to speak. We make our way through a large building and come out of the other side.
Immediately, I’m hit by the silence. Outside is a small cluster of blue roofed buildings. Around the buildings stand a number of South Korean guards. They stand completely still, like statues. Completely silent. The atmosphere is uncomfortable and claustrophobic. Made worse because everybody in the tour has gone completely silent too. Nobody wants to speak for fear of breaking the silence, or possibly through the fear that they may somehow draw the attention of the evil North Koreans.
In actuality, there was only one North Korean guard. At the other side of the blue buildings was a large set of steps, at the top of which sat a large, imposing building. On the steps stood a North Korean soldier. He looked much like the South Korean soldiers but in a different uniform. Yet my mind conjured up the image of an evil, emotionless spy intent on hurting me.
The silence is broken when our guide starts to explain the buildings around us – mostly used to hold diplomatic meetings. He then informs us that if we look closely there isn’t just one soldier on the North Korean side, but just inside the doorway there is another with binoculars. I squint my eyes, but can’t see anything and am not really sure if there is anybody there. But the feeling of being watched grips me and I start to feel anxious.
We head into a blue building where two South Korean soldiers stand expressionless and still. More statues. It’s explained that two soldiers are needed because the North Koreans once tried to kidnap a solitary soldier. We gasp.
Due to the buildings acting as diplomatic venues they’re built through the line where the North and South meet. Walking through the building you are in South Korea at one end and technically North Korea at the other. After a small talk about the room we’re given a few moments to take pictures with the emotionless, statuesque soldiers who look more like killer cyborgs than actual human beings.
Quickly we head back to the buses and I feel a little relieved that we are getting away. A few moments later it dawns on me that there was actually very little to worry about and the majority of my tension hadn’t come from the situation I was in but rather all of the rhetoric used beforehand in the tour to refer to the North.
North Korea is represented as a sly, cunning, yet at the same time absurd country that is constantly looking for South Korean blood. On the tour you’re overwhelmed with an amazing amount of negative fear-mongering about North Korea, so while you’re on the tour, looking at these rather dull landmarks you get a sense that you’re looking into another scary world.
As the tour continued, I started to listen closer to the information we were told and I realised the majority of it was either calculated propaganda or just the opinions of prejudice soldiers. Upon visiting the 3rd tunnel – a tunnel dug under the DMZ by North Korea in order to sneakily attack Seoul – we were told that if they had finished digging the tunnel they could have passed 30,000 soldiers through it per hour. A guide explained: “You might think that would be hard when you’re down in the tunnel, but it would have been easy for the North Koreans because they are incredibly well trained…plus they’re smaller than us.” I could only laugh to myself as I pictured thousands of hobbit sized Koreans running out from a tunnel to attack Seoul.
Taking the bus back, I decided to ignore everything I’d heard that day. I couldn’t trust anything I was told due to a lot of it clearly being so biased. Even worse, I had allowed those biases and predjudices to penetrate into me. I’d started to believe them.
Discounting everything I was told, the only true conclusion I could come upon, is that when I looked out into North Korea it looked much like South Korea. Trees, mountains, lots of green. When it was raining in South Korea, it was raining in the North too. When I looked at the North Korean soldier, he had two eyes, a mouth, a nose. My toes hurt from the cold. And his toes probably hurt too.
This is the type of blog post I would never usually bother with as there are a hundred blog posts about the DMZ already. I’m hoping I gave some unique perspective though.