Korean Border Tours: Where the Cold War Lives On
Qantas The Australian Way, October 2011
Two South Korean soldiers stand facing north, fists bunched, in a taekwando stance, staring straight ahead. A few metres away a North Korean soldier looks straight back at them. More South Korean soldiers join their colleagues and glare with them, their intended sense of menace enhanced by sunglasses that leave only the rictus clench of their jaws from which to guess their expression. Time seems to stand still. But the moment passes; an everyday standoff.
And the 20 watching tourists file away.
Welcome to Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA) – the border of North and South Korea. Bill Clinton once called this “the scariest place on earth,” and he was on to something: the tension is everywhere in this extraordinary location, the only place where you can see what’s left of the Cold War up close and personal. It’s a stark illustration of one of the most dangerous potential flashpoints on earth, a mental and sometimes physical conflict that has held fast for more than half a century. But it is also, improbably, the heart of a burgeoning tourist itinerary.
To see the article as it ran in the magazine, with photography, click here: qa1011_Korea indd
Three Seoul tourist operators – only three have been licensed – specialize in tours to both Panmunjom and the broader demilitarized zone (DMZ), a 4 kilometre wide, 241-kilometre long coast-to-coast no-man’s-land along the border that was the basis of the 1953 armistice at the end of the Korean war. And if it seems an absurd thing to do with a free day in Seoul, think again; it’s hard to think of a tour that could teach you more about the threat and tension that Koreans face every day.
A typical tour takes one of two approaches, or combines them into a single long day. DMZ tours focus on one of the four North Korean tunnels that have been discovered in the South’s territory since the 1970s, each one bigger and more sophisticated than the last. The third of them – the biggest and the closest to Seoul, having reached just 44 kilometres from the city – has been opened to tourists as an attraction, and a popular one too.
Donning a hard hat and heading down a slope 73 metres into the ground, visitors reach a dark tunnel that runs 1.6 kilometres, of which they can walk a few hundred yards. It is an extraordinary sight. Officially it’s two metres by two, although it never really feels that high; apparently that’s big enough to get a full infantry battalion through in an hour. At the end of the section that’s open is one of three concrete blockades, each protected by coiled razor wire. It is chilling to think what’s beyond them and what these tunnels were intended to do.
It also demonstrates the way that these tours combine the terrifying with the somewhat surreal. When South Korea discovered this tunnel by boring in 1978, the retreating northerners set about coating the walls in coal dust, so that they could claim they had been looking for coal; to this day, all you have to do is rub your finger against the wall and find your finger coated black but a solid block of coal-less granite behind. In fact, the whole idea is somehow preposterous: this instrument of invasion has been turned into a lucrative money-spinner for the South Korean state, which is nothing if not making the best of things. Guides say that the north has since, in all seriousness, asked for a share of the proceeds, since it put the effort into digging the tunnel in the first place.
The DMZ tours usually take in the Dora Observatory too, where there is a viewing platform with binoculars allowing a clear view into the North. From a distance, it looks surprisingly beautiful: a range of pleasing peaks, often covered in snow. From here one can clearly see two of the tallest flagpoles in the world, one on each side of the border, a game of one-upmanship eventually won by the North Koreans whose flag files some 160 metres high.
It’s no surprise that visits into places like these come with some eccentricities. Most nationalities (but not South Koreans, who must undergo a separate approval process) can do the tour, though you will have to sign a disclaimer warning of the “possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action”. Photography is complicated too. At Dora, there is a painted yellow line some distance back from the viewing platform; you can’t take pictures any further forward, thus rendering any useful picture of the north impossible. (It may be, though, that this is to stop cameras being mistaken for weapons by alert snipers. “We had to close this observatory recently because you are a target for North Korean soldiers,” says our guide. “But I think it should be OK this week.”) Elsewhere, you can’t take a camera into the tunnel, but can buy a jigsaw of a photo of the tunnel in the gift shop, right next to the DMZ baseball caps and the officially endorsed DMZ barbed wire gift sets; and you can’t take a lens any bigger than 100mm into Panmunjom.
Still, the Panmunjom visit – the alternative to the DMZ tour – does illustrate clearly why tour guides take precautions. When one is facing North Korean soldiers with binoculars barely 50 metres away, it is best not to give them any reason to think you are armed. Photo-opportunities here are strictly moderated, and the trip is preceded by a detailed briefing at nearby Camp Bonifas – named, if a reminder of the gravity of the place was needed, after one of two US soldiers hacked to death with axes after attempting to cut down a poplar tree that was interfering with the view between two checkpoints.
There is, though, plenty to see here – far more than one might expect. The border is straddled by a series of blue UN buildings in which official meetings are still often held, and you can enter one. Since the border bisects the main table (upon which three microphones record every word that is spoken), this is the one place where one can wander unrestricted into North Korea, or at least a few metres of it. Next to the building, you can see a small concrete line that marks the border.
Also in the JSA, you can see the so-called Bridge of No Return, one of two locations (the other being the Freedom Bridge at the south of the DMZ, covered on both tours) where prisoner exchanges have taken place over the years.
The whole area is full of surprises. There is a town practically on the border on the South Korean side, called Daesong-dong, and apart from the constant threat of imminent invasion it’s not such a bad place to live: there are no taxes, no national service, and the land is free, while farmers raise ginseng, rice and beans. Also, since nobody in their right mind (Daesong-dong apart) has built within the DMZ for more than 50 years, it has evolved into a wildlife reserve, with flocks of birdlife, and wild deer skipping within sight of the tour buses.
There is a hope that, when reunification comes, this will remain an environmental haven. But the truth is reunification is much further away now than it was eight or nine years ago. And for all the perplexing novelty of a border tour, it’s also a sober reminder of the brutality of the Korean War. They call it a fratricidal war: that is to say, brother against brother. A glimpse of the border in action provides both a reason for hope that it will never be repeated, and an illustration of the fear that it might.
BOX: You went where? Five destinations to brag about
North Korea. It’s actually not that hard to visit North Korea for real. The established experts are Koryo Tours, a westerner-staffed outfit in Beijing; in particular they specialize in getting people in to the stunning Mass Games, among the most remarkable things you will ever see. It’s safe, too – apart from the flight in.
Darvaza. In the 1950s, Soviet gas explorers accidently collapsed the roof of a cavern in the desert. Within, they smelled methane, so decided to burn it off before continuing exploration. They thought it would take a day or two; it’s still going after half a century. Now in Turkmenistan, camping next to this vast, flaming crater is like the gates of hell – which occurred to the locals too, since Darvaza means Gateway.
Chernobyl. Remarkably, Chernobyl is now a tourist attraction run by the Ukrainian government. The 30-mile exclusion zone is now open, although some areas are still considered too dangerous to visit.
Anthrax Island. Gruinard Island, off the magical Scottish highlands, has a sinister past as a hope for biological warfare testing in 1942. But after decontamination – including the entire island being drenched with formaldehyde – it was declared clean in 1990 and is now openly promoted to tourists, as well as harbouring plenty of healthy sheep.
Everywhere else. When you think about it, the world is full of macabre attractions predicated on suffering of some form or another, from Alcatraz to the Tower of London, Changi prisoner of war camp to Mandela’s cell on Ryker Island. And if you think Australia’s different, just pop over to Sydney’s Pinchgut Island.