Scared of North Korea? Take a day trip to the Korean DMZ
The DMZ is a 234-mile long, 3-mile wide piece of no-mans land, that runs along the 38th parallel of latitude, surrounded by a massive concentration of military force. At present it is controlled by the UN and separates communist North Korea from capitalist South Korea – two countries still technically at war. It is the last and final frontier of the Cold War. More strangely still, it is one of South Korea’s most popular tourist destinations.
As I board the bus a voice cuts in over the tanoy – “Hello ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the DMZ tour.” Our guide is a young Korean woman called Jaein. “On the tour today we have guests from the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK,” says Jaein, smiling cheerily, “and our journey time is one hour.” I look around the bus and my fellow guests seem a little tense. It could be the fact that North Korea now has nukes or it could be the endless coils of barbed wire, the numerous machine gun nests and the abundant tank traps that have appeared in our windows since we left Seoul.
I also notice wooden cladding around the underside of all the bridges we pass under and over. I wish I hadn’t. “The bridges are packed with explosives, so everything can be quickly destroyed if the North invades,” breezes Jaein. “On our right you can see the minefields that prevent Northern incursion,” she adds. “They should call it the completely militarized zone,” I quip. Jaein gives me a hard stare and scowl that I don’t return.
Our first stop is the quaintly monikered, Third Tunnel of Aggression. Found in 1978, it is apparently part of elaborate communist plot to invade South Korea via a series of tunnels. We’re allowed to enter on a James Bond style monorail that grinds its way down the steep slope into the murk.
There’s not a lot to say about this tunnel, except that it’s cold, dank and dark. And, very small. “30,000 communist troops could pour through in a single hour,” says Jaein. Another ‘guest’ asks if there would be enough oxygen down here for them all, but Jaein ignores this and pushes on. “The North would also be able move military vehicles through these tunnels,” she adds.
Not a chance unless they invaded on pedal-cars.
We return to the surface where I take a quick scan around the adjacent picnic area complete with children’s swings. There’s a flimsy fence and just beyond it red signs decorated with skull and crossbones that designate a minefield. Not a place to bring the kids.
Back on the bus we begin a steep ascent to a large, hilltop military installation. As we arrive we are shepherded into a small auditorium with a ring of seats surrounding a single army officer. Behind him is a large glass window and a dramatic view of North Korea.
“If you look over to the left you can see the military installations of the communist regime,” he says, using a stick to point out the offending buildings. “To the right is the biggest flagpole in the world.” In the distance an enormous 500-foot high flagpole with an equally large North Korean flag flutters in the breeze.
We exit to an outdoor viewing platform and some coin-operated telescopes. I stare through them looking for signs of the evil empire to the north. All I can see are a few workers building a wall and a couple of trucks. Behind me, on the South Korean side, stands a mammoth crucifix made out of strip lights. “It is to give the people in the North some hope of a better life,” says Jaein.
The final stop of the day is at Paju. A designated “tourist village” next to the “Freedom Bridge” – a spot where the North and South used to trade prisoners – it is filled with fairground rides and souvenir shops haggling for business. The ubiquitous machine gun nests, rolls of barbed wire and minefields provide a surreal backdrop to the squeals of holiday-makers enjoying the fairground.
At this point I give up trying to make sense of anything. I climb on board the bus and realise that day-trips will never be the same again.