“A shell could blow us up any second!” The coach microphone crackled with our guide’s enthusiasm as we drove over a bridge heading north out of Seoul. “Thankfully you have all signed the form.”
The form cleared our tour company of any responsibility should we be blown up, shot, or kidnapped during our visit to the Korean demilitarised zone (DMZ), the 160-mile no man’s land at the border of South and North Korea.
I had been in South Korea for a week, and day-to-day there was little sign that technically it remained at war with its reclusive, petulant sibling. The Korean War ended in July 1953 after three years of conflict that saw predominantly US-led South Korean forces battle a North Korean army backed by the Soviet Union and China. They fought to a stalemate, and drew a largely arbitrary border between the Koreas at the 38th parallel. Today, only a fragile armistice prevents open conflict.
While a lasting partnership with the USA saw South Korea enjoy massive economic prosperity, North Korea’s hermetic approach means it is now seen by many as a farcical meme, the pantomime villain of the world stage.
The shadow of North Korea
I had assumed its shadow would loom largest in South Korea, but it seemed hardly to register. Capital city Seoul, taken and reclaimed four times during the war, is a mere 35 miles from the border. Yet even as news reports detailed the North’s most recent missile tests I heard nobody talking about it, felt no public tension. One morning a squadron of military helicopters thundered overhead while I waited for a bus. While I gawped and snapped photos, the people around me never looked up from their phones.
It was unlikely I would be killed at the DMZ, despite our tour guide’s insistence to the contrary. If a shell didn’t get us, she insisted, a misplaced step into a minefield would. Or barbed wire. Or DPRK soldiers springing from a secret tunnel. Surprise! I quickly wrote it off as melodrama playing to the expectations of giddy tourists like myself.
Half an hour’s drive from Seoul brought us to the coast. Security fences laced with barbed wire lined mile after mile, watchtowers set at regular intervals. Drawing closer to the border we passed through numerous armed checkpoints, over ditches bristling with razor wire, stretches of flat ground marked as heavily mined.
I sat up straighter and wondered if I should take the tour guide seriously after all. My excitement for the visit remained, but a sense of dread grew heavier in my stomach. The guide had been trying to scare us, but clearly there was reason to be scared.
The pantomine of the DMZ
The section of the DMZ open to visitors is called the Joint Security Area (JSA), the only portion of the border where the nations stand face-to-face. Nowhere else in the world is there such a stark manifestation of opposing ideologies threatening to collide.
Due to mandatory service, the majority of soldiers at the JSA looked fresh out of school, too young to be carrying automatic rifles and glaring at us from behind aviator sunglasses. They led us through a series of fleetingly staged procedural line-ups, checking our clothing (we had been told ahead of time to dress smartly), instructing us how to behave, and showing a historical video that bordered on propaganda.
Just like the threats from our tour guide, there was something absurd about the protocols at the border. The strict rigmarole took on the feigned importance of a playground game, out of sorts with reality, laughable to anybody untouched by its influence.
Emerging from the main building, I saw the blue huts that straddle the border itself, neutral ground for meetings between sides. Across from us was North Korea, a set of buildings near-identical to those on our side, giving nothing away of the country beyond.
The South Korean side of the border was busy with soldiers, some supervising us visitors, others charged with facing the North in stock taekwondo stances, fists clenched at their waists in a symbolic, empty gesture of hostility – the other side of the border was deserted.
My group was instructed to line up facing the border. Opposite, a North Korean guard appeared on a balcony with a pair of binoculars. We had already been drilled for this moment: “Do not move! Do not wave! Do not call out!” I half-expected to find a sniper’s laser grazing my chest.
While we stood in anxious rigidity, the guard scanning us one-by-one through his binoculars, a group of foreign tourists was brought out on the North Korean side. Spotting us, they shouted and waved, happily snapping photographs. Clearly procedure over there was a little more relaxed.
Having passed the inspection, we were led into one of the huts. The utilitarian rooms – like temporary classrooms – are technically neutral ground, manned by United Nations guards, but it was still a thrill to peer through the window and realise I was across the border. Wrongly or rightly, North Korea is an unknowable bogeyman in the public imagination. To stand even a few feet inside it felt like trespassing, like edging as close as I dared to a slumbering guard dog.
And then they took us to the DMZ gift shop.
Making sense of the DMZ
Heading home, I tried to make sense of the experience: what was authentic and what was performance; how likely it was that the DMZ could be a flashpoint for a global conflict; why standing on the frontline of a glacial war felt like being a bit player in a stage production.
By the next night, drinking in a quiet bar in central Seoul, the questions raised by the experience gave way to tentative understanding. It is North Korea that’s famous for stage-managing visits, yet at the DMZ it was South Korea working hard to shape our impression of the ongoing tension. Perhaps maintaining the illusion of perpetual threat is vital to the South’s identity as the immediate target of a hostile ideology, a pillar in upholding the superiority of their own. Perhaps it’s simply too valuable a tourist money spinner to waste.
While I was in the bar a news report came on TV about a South Korean being shot and killed in the DMZ, just a few miles from where I had visited. Nobody in the bar even looked up from their drinks.