Korea's DMZ stares war in the face

21:28, Apr 16 2013
Korea DMZ
RUN DMZ: The strip of land that wiggles across the Korean Peninsula separates the Stalinist north from the galloping commerce of the south.

No jeans, no high heels, no short skirts, no messy hair, no alcohol. The list of items banned in the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea is eerily reminiscent of the rules at a certain girls’ college I once attended.

Yet as far as I can recall, the nuns never made me sign a form requiring me to accept responsibility for ‘‘injury and death as a direct result of enemy action’’.

But then I am about to enter the most heavily fortified border on the planet. A four-kilometre-wide strip of land that wiggles across the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel, separating the Stalinist north from the galloping commerce of the south, the DMZ (or Dee Em Zee, as it’s pronounced) is the last frontier in the Cold War.

Korea DMZ
VIGILANCE: A South Korean soldier patrols the line of binoculars staring into North Korea.

Former United States president Bill Clinton once called it the ‘‘scariest place on earth’’. It’s certainly one of the world’s weirdest slivers of real estate.

A little over an hour ago, we were crawling though Seoul’s morning rush-hour traffic, passing more Maseratis than I’ve ever seen. Now we’re  looking at barbed-wire fences, concrete watchtowers, an anti-tank wall and signs warning of land mines.

Created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China and United Nations Command forces at the end of the Korean War in 1953, the 250-kilometre border is, as  expected, a little surreal.

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But it’s not just for show. For more than 50 years, troops with machine guns the size of small cars have been glaring at each other across the buffer zone. As our guide, Jenny, tells us, there’s  a long list of people who have been killed here – defectors, soldiers, fishermen and farmers.

The DMZ is, in fact, a source of great shame for southerners. ‘‘We would very much like for the north and south to be unified,’’ says Jenny. ‘‘If the Germans can make it happen, then we should be able to.’’
Yet there is no shame when it comes to the economic value of the DMZ. It’s the No 1 tourist attraction in South Korea, which seems a little macabre, particularly when I read about the two US servicemen who were hacked to death with their own axes by North Koreans here in 1976.

Thankfully, it’s less of a Cold War Theme Park than a war zone where both sides have itchy trigger fingers,  especially right now, when tensions are swirling around Pyongyang and ever more outlandish threats are being issued daily by Kim Jong Un’s government.

The night we were there, CNN was reporting the US was flying nuclear-capable B-2 bombers over the DMZ in a show of force, while the north was busy severing the few links it has with the south.

Having checked all is in order with our life-insurance policies, we hand over our passports and are herded on to a minibus.

Our first stop is the DMZ Exhibition Hall, where we watch a film long on propaganda and short on production quality.

More interesting are the exhibitions, particularly those featuring the rare reunifications between families from either side of the buffer.

There are also slightly ironic displays that depict the area as an eco-paradise, because it has been sealed off from humans for so long. Apparently, it is now home to flocks of Manchurian cranes and white herons, as well as rare plant species.

A few fresh-faced soldiers aside, it’s easy to forget that we’re still very much within missile-striking distance. We’re reminded of that at our next stop, the Third Tunnel of Aggression, an invasion route  the South Koreans discovered in 1974 and say was dug by the north  to enable a surprise attack.

The north, of course, claims it was only a coal mine. The tunnel is said to be big enough to have allowed 30,000 North Korean soldiers to invade the south within  an hour.

We put on hard hats and take the long walk down to the end of the tunnel. It’s dark and dirty and I feel for the poor sods who must have spent years digging it out, but not as sorry as I feel for some of my fellow tourists who obviously didn’t get the memo on what not to wear and struggle down the steep slope in spangly dresses and stilettos.

Above ground is the Dora Observatory, the northernmost point of the south, which looks directly into North Korea.

Here, we get our first real glimpse of this mysterious land through binoculars, including Kijong-dong, the north’s propaganda village which is apparently uninhabited, but was built in the 1950s to encourage defection from the south.

Despite the almost identical sentry boxes and the glint of weapons on both sides, it’s easy to distinguish the warring factions.

‘‘The hills covered with trees are in South Korea,’’ says Jenny.

‘‘After the war, South Korea carried out a tree-replanting scheme, but in the north the hills are bare, because they chop them down for firewood or even to eat the bark.’’ It also ensures would-be defectors have nowhere to hide when making their break for freedom.

Our last stop is Dorasan Station, a ghostly train station which once connected the two Koreas.
However, in 2008 the border crossing was closed by the ‘‘Hermit Kingdom’’ and now serves only a few tourist trains from the south.

‘‘Not the last station from the south, but the first station towards the north’’, says a large plaque at the entrance.

Jenny tells us the hope is strong that when the Korean Peninsula is finally reunified, this station will be the gateway to Eurasia, with passengers being able to travel overland to Europe.

Until that happens, the DMZ remains a fascinating turnstile between two antagonistic nations.

The writer travelled with the assistance of Korean Air and Visit Korea, english.visitkorea.or.kr. Korean Air flies from Auckland to Seoul four times a week. For more information, visit koreanair.co.nz.

The Dominion Post