Fortified frontier: Exploring the dividing line between the two Korean nations (The Independent)

The tour guide is trying to smooth things over with the UN soldier at the front of the bus. He’s just confiscated a Nikon, brandished innocently by a tourist at an inopportune moment. “Can’t you just take a look through the pictures on the camera and give it back?” asks the guide. The American in the fatigues is having none of it: “Ma’am, it’s my job to shoot people, not look at photographs.” Such is a day out in the DMZ, two parts white-knuckle ride, one part panto: Boo towards Kim Jong-il, tremble at the firepower on display, and then stop off for a quick spin around the gift shop before the hour-long drive back to Seoul in time for a swanky dinner at The Gaon.

The Odusan Unification Observatory near the DMZ

The rather inappropriately named Demilitarised Zone is the most heavily armed border in the world; 155 miles by 2.5 miles of North vs South stand-off, with a tiny Joint Security Area controlled by the UN that is outside of both North and South Korean control. As long as the spectre of itchy trigger fingers and weapons of mass destruction continues to hover over the region, the DMZ will make for an unlikely tourist attraction; it’s as compelling and thrilling as it is dark. During his visit here Bill Clinton famously called it “the scariest place on Earth”.

While Seoul to the south glows and hums with futuristic industry and wealth, the North remains a mystery for most visitors. Visas are hard to come by (particularly for Americans), and even with one you’re unlikely to make it out of the well-policed and monitored capital of Pyeongyang. It’s estimated that 20 per cent of the able bodied male population in the North are in the military, serving between four and 10 compulsory years, while the South effectively bribes the North to behave itself by bringing industry to the workforce and food to the starving. While the one-off cross-border journey of the Unification Train in May of this year inspired optimism in many, the reality of the situation is one of deadlock and distrust: the borders remain firmly closed.

Many South Koreans ignore the existence of the North, as if it were infinitely further than an hour in a taxi away from the twinkling electronic pixel-covered Galleria Department Store back in Apgujeong.

“For me to go to the DMZ would be like you visiting Buckingham Palace back home,” says a young Seoulite in the bar of the shiny W hotel. A drive along the Han River tells a different story: many of the bridges are designed for split-second demolition if Kim Jong-il’s tanks start rolling, while the journey to the DMZ takes you through explosives-packed walls designed to make roads impassable should the unthinkable happen. Buckingham Palace it isn’t.

There are various ways to “do” the DMZ. All of those approaching from the South involve a passport, multiple check-points, armed accompaniment and a dress code: no shorts, denim or unkempt hair. Bizarrely, in contrast, the few visitors from the North can rock up in cut-offs and Birkenstocks. Camouflage chic is, however, frowned upon. Some trips from the South are themed and accompanied by a genuine defector. As part of your tour you can visit some of the four tunnels dug beneath the DMZ, apparently in the direction of Seoul, while your guide will tell you that many more remain undetected.

The first stop on a DMZ day out is at the Odusan Unification Observatory, where Burberry-clad South Koreans gaze through telescopes across the Hangang and Imjingang Rivers, to the bemusement of a few North Korean farmers. A documentary, complete with a voiceover so archly American accented as to make you expect a “have a nice day now” at its close, tells the story of the Korean war and the establishing of the Military Demarcation Line. After the viewing you peruse contemporary North Korean products, from toys to clothing, displayed in cabinets as if they were the kind of relics that would inspire you to shake your head in disapproval. For all the gravitas, the tourist thrill of the DMZ is contained in the very difference between “them” and “us”. The South Korean soldiers who stand at the border look like so many futuristic stormtroopers, with their gold-rimmed aviator shades, and perennially clenched fists. The boys in the North, in contrast, look more than a tad charity shop.

As you don laminated security passes, swap the tour bus for a marked UN one and drive from towards Panmunjom, the Joint Security Area and the Military Demarcation Line, the tour guide cranks up the excitement: “Listen to me! Your lives depend on it! Don’t take pictures of anything unless I tell you that you can! Don’t make any sudden movements! Walk two by two! Touch nothing and say nothing – they record everything and will take fingerprints after we leave! Again, I say, your lives depend on it! And if anyone drinks alcohol, the whole day is over!” As easy as it is for a tour bus full of jaded urbanites to scoff at this kind of hyperbole, the experience of being marched through the multi-million dollar so-called “Freedom House”, towards a small row of huts punctuated with heavily armed, enemy soldiers is something that leaves an impression. You’re not sure whether it’s theatre, or whether hell could break loose at any second.

The group is led into one of the huts, where you spend five minutes (no more, no less) strolling around the conference tables, during which time you can snap away at the South Korean soldiers. With the photography embargo lifted, most visitors forget about the other rules, leaning on the varnished tables (leaving clean sets of fingerprints in the process); suddenly everyone is nine-years-old and on a school trip.

After being shepherded out of the hut, back into marching formation and on to a viewing platform, you’re invited to take more photographs, this time of the opposing North Korean military complex, Panmungak, adorned with cameras. In the past there had been rumours that the building was but a façade, less than a metre thick. That particular piece of propaganda has been disproved as the trickle of visitors approaching from the North increases. Other stop-offs include the chance to view what we are told is a landmine-riddled vista out to a North Korean flag pole (the tallest in the world) in Gijeon-dong, which is surrounded by what appears at first sight to be a modern residential community, but ..r inspection is derelict. Then there’s the Bridge of No Return, crossing the Sacheon River and the Military Demarcation Line, and the site of POW handovers after the Armistice in 1953. Most remarkable are the residents of Daesong-dong, who we’re told live in the area full time, working the land full time despite a UN curfew. Residents have to prove pre-war ancestry to reside here, but even with the zero tax rate, there isn’t a queue of potential settlers.

Although anyone with half a brain can identify the propaganda being churned out from both sides, this is still a volatile peninsula; it is the Cold War at sub-zero. As the UN bus heads away from Panmunjom, there is a tangible sense of relief.

Three Ivy League businessmen head straight for the fridge in the gift shop to buy beer before engaging our accompanying UN soldier in conversation. The no-alcohol rule ends where the duty-free begins. The UN soldier waits for someone higher in command to examine the memory card on the confiscated Nikon.

“As we leave, please try to remember those poor soldiers who have to stand back there with clenched fists all day,” says our guide as we drive under a bridge packed with explosives. We don’t have to tax our memories too hard, of course, because we’ve all got plenty of photographs of them.

Demilitarized Zone - DMZ Korea

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