The barbed-wire fence in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ as it’s known, snakes its menacing way across green plains like a rail track winding through scenic countryside.
A 155-mile-long buffer zone between North and South Korea, and riddled with landmines, the DMZ is one of the world’s most heavily fortified areas. Former US President Bill Clinton once called it “the scariest place on earth” – and with good reason.
So, as I arrive, the welcome signs for travellers that I see before me couldn’t seem more incongruous.
A scar of Cold War hostilities, the DMZ was created when the 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice 70 years ago last week. No peace treaty was signed, meaning both sides technically still remain at war. Hundreds of people have died in the decades since.
And worryingly, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un continues to launch tests of his nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
So why on Earth have I willingly agreed to come here?
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Despite the ever-present danger, in recent years the DMZ has become a thriving tourist destination. Prior to the pandemic, around 1.2 million people visited every year.
The South Korean government now promotes it as a place of peace and remembrance, offering approved tours. These include hikes along a nature peace trail or a visit to a North Korean invasion tunnel. I’ve been invited to take part.
The first stop is Dora Observatory, situated on the DMZ’s west side. I’m here as a guest of the British Scout Association, in South Korea for the 25th World Scout Jamboree. Run every four years, the two-week event gives young people the opportunity to try
different activities and learn vital life skills.
As part of their visit, 4,500 British teenagers are visiting the DMZ for a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience.
Rather unnervingly, we have all arrived amid a time of renewed tensions in the country. On July 18, it was reported US soldier Travis King “willingly” crossed the border into North Korea at the Joint Security Area. His fate remains unknown.
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Located near the so-called truce village of Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed, the Joint Security Area is the only section of the DMZ where it’s possible for both sides to stand face to face. It’s famous for its aqua-blue military buildings.
In 2019, former US President Donald Trump became the first US leader to set foot in North Korea when he crossed the military demarcation line, as the border is officially called.
Since Travis King’s border dash, all public tours to this security area have halted. So it’s from the top of the Dora Observatory that I get my first proper glimpse at North Korea.Around me I can hear the excited chatter of dozens of scouts. It’s 11am but the temperature has hit 31C, with 93 percent humidity casting a hazy mist across our view. Through binoculars, I cast my eyes towards a congregation of low-slung buildings and miniature skyscrapers, which North Koreans call Kijong-dong, or Peace Village.
In the past, music blared from loudspeakers and workers could be seen cultivating the rice paddies.
But no longer. South Korean officials exposed Kijong-dong as a “propaganda village” some years ago. They said the colourful buildings were empty shells and supposed residents were actually actors or soldiers.
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Today, no movement is discernible among the run-down buildings. But it’s impossible to miss the nearby 520-foot high Panmunjom flagpole that towers above the village. North Korea erected it in retaliation for South Korea’s decision to build a 330-foot flagpole. Its massive red and blue flag billows in the wind on clear days but not through the clouds. Elsewhere there is a cluster of manufacturing premises banned by South Korea after its operators left the industrial zone.
It makes for fascinating viewing. But spying on a nation which is already under constant surveillance and devoid of any free will feels uncomfortably close to The Truman Show, the 1990s Hollywood film in which Jim Carrey’s character unknowingly lives inside a reality television show.
It’s made worse by the endless array of souvenir shops cashing in on a nation’s misery at every DMZ attraction. “There is an irony that an area of tragedy is now a tourist magnet,” quips our plain-speaking DMZ tour guide Sujin Kim, who has been in her job for eight years. She’s a former theatre actress with an entertaining sense of humour. But she turns serious when asked about North Korea’s increasing aggression.
The communist state launched a record number of missiles last year and, as recently as two weeks ago, into the East Sea. “We can feel how often Kim Jong-Un pushes the button,” Sujin says.
Last November, she arrived at her first DMZ attraction with a bus full of tourists when her assistant tour guide sprinted over in a panic.
“He said, ‘The tour is cancelled, Kim Jong-Un has launched a missile,’” she explains. They fled the area immediately.
Military exercises and a heavy troop presence have eased since the pandemic, although recent events may well change that. I spot South Korean soldiers on only two occasions. The first is at Unification Bridge where our passports are checked by troops before our DMZ tour begins. Unlike surly guards at some overseas checkpoints, these men are smiling and polite, although the guns slung over their camouflage uniforms still look menacing.
Several troops hover near the Third Tunnel of Aggression, located close to Panmunjom. North Korea built it before a defector to South Korea alerted its government in 1978.
It’s one of four known tunnels under the DMZ, although 20 more are believed to exist. South Korea treated this tunnel’s discovery as an act of aggression. They say it could allow 30,000 troops with artillery to pass through in just an hour.
At first, North Korea denied it was responsible and then claimed it was part of a coal mine. Its clearly painted granite walls suggest otherwise.
Since 2004, tourists can descend into the mile-long dank tunnel, dug at an extremely sharp 11-degree gradient. At the very bottom, a letter box-shaped hole in the wall offers a tiny window into North Korea. There is a small door, too, but you have to navigate razor wire and a CCTV camera to reach it. Only a fool would attempt it.Several scouts declare their tunnel visit to be the favourite part of their DMZ visit, and I understand why. It’s thrilling and tangible and (almost) within touching distance of North Korea.
Those of a claustrophobic nature might prefer to join one of 11 peace hiking trails close to border cities along the demarcation line. These walks opened in April to demonstrate how decades of untouched isolation in the DMZ have created a rich ecological landscape. In March, Google Street View, in collaboration with South Korean institutions, released 360-degree views of the flora, fauna and animals residing in this nature haven.
Marking the 70th anniversary of the armistice, they revealed that more than 6,000 wildlife species have set up homes in the DMZ. Of Korea’s 267 endangered species, 38 per cent can be found here, including Asiatic black bears, golden eagles, musk deers and mountain goats. The new life certainly inspires hope.
Our three-hour tour finishes with an emotional visit to Freedom Bridge, at Paju-si. It was named in 1953 after 2,773 prisoners of war were freed and allowed to return home to South Korea. Tourists tie ribbons to the bridge, with hand-written messages of peace.
Just around the corner lies a rusting train bombed and ravaged by hundreds of bullets during the Korean War. It’s become a symbol of the conflict and was moved to its current spot in 2004. As we watch scouts tie ribbons, we are mindful of the signs warning us, on pain of imprisonment, not to point our cameras in the direction of the fenced-off military buildings.
Scout Ailsa Russell, 16, from Greenock, near Glasgow, found her DMZ visit a profoundly moving experience. “You get a sense of people’s sadness because families are separated,” she said.
Her friend Logan McKinnon, also 16, from Ayr, was pleased to see progress towards peace but noted huge obstacles remaining. “People obviously want it to get back together but it raises the question of how feasible that could be and when it should happen,” he said.
Many older citizens in South Korea, especially those separated from loved ones, still hope for unification with those in the North.
But our guide Sujin explains how younger citizens have less interest in the matter.
“Younger generations have no memories of the war and have expressed worries about joining with people who have lived under a totalitarian regime for generations,” she says.
“Many of them see North and South Korea as different countries. But even without unification, we would welcome visiting and accepting each other.”
Describing herself as middle-aged, she herself hopes for unification. “For 70 years we have been like different countries but we eat the same food and speak the same language.
“Many people have their families in the North. Once we achieve unification we can travel freely. I am dreaming of that.”
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