Introducing The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) & Joint Security Area (JSA)
Panmunjom, only 55km north of Seoul, is the only place in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where visitors are permitted. This is the village established on the ceasefire line at the end of the Korean War in 1953. In the blue UN buildings in Panmunjom, peace discussions still take place, though there’s something surreal, almost comic, about the pomp and precautions. Perhaps even more surreal is the giant, ultramodern train station at the border, empty save for tourists, yet ready to serve a united Korea the minute the boundary lines are lifted.
There’s nowhere else in South Korea where you can get so close to North Korea and North Korean soldiers without being arrested or shot, and the tension is palpable. And yet, at the same time, there’s a theatrical aspect here too, with posturing on both sides. Though your tour will likely be a quiet one, the soldier ‘tour guides’ will happily remind you that gun battles erupt in this frontier village – and that North Korean spies still slip across the border from time to time. (Such incidents usually end with the spies getting caught, being shot, or swallowing poison and committing suicide. And you thought that only happened in B-grade Hollywood movies, right?) Sabre rattling or no, the threat of North Korea remains a big issue in the region and conflicts flare up from time to time. Shots were fired in 2001 and 2003, and in 2006 North Korea successfully tested missiles and seemed bent on attaining nuclear capabilities despite international pressure for disarmament.
The DMZ, a strip of land 4km wide and 248km long, divides the two Koreas and is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. Even a hungry opossum would have a tough time slipping through the high fences topped with barbed wire, watchtowers, antitank obstacles and minefields that line both sides of the DMZ.
Both US and South Korean troops live in Camp Bonifas, which is ‘In Front of Them All’ and would face the brunt of any surprise attack from the North. At one point around 1800 soldiers were stationed here. Now it is about 600, most of which are South Korean men serving their required two years of military service.
There are only two villages in the DMZ, and they’re both near Panmunjom – and within hailing distance of each other if you have a big enough loudspeaker. On the south side is Daeseong, a subsidised village with a church and high tax-free incomes. Each family there lives in a modern house with high-speed internet connection, and each farms seven hectares. All 230 residents must be at home by the 11pm curfew, and soldiers stand guard while the villagers work in the rice fields or tend their ginseng plants.
Gijeong, the North Korean village in the DMZ, is even more unusual because all the buildings are empty and always have been. According to the US soldiers, it’s a ghost town whose only function is to broadcast propaganda to anyone around for six to 12 hours a day, using ultra-powerful loudspeakers as big as a house that any rock band would love to own. The village also has a 160m-high Eiffel Tower–like structure, flying a flag that weighs nearly 300kg. The North Korean flag is larger than the one on the South Korean side. Giant Han·geul letters on the northern hillsides spell out slogans such as ‘Follow the way of the Leader’, while on the South Korean side the message ‘Freedom, Abundance and Happiness’ is lit up at night.
The tour includes a visit inside one of the UN buildings, where official meetings are still sometimes held, and which look like temporary classrooms with simple tables and chairs. Both sides constantly monitor the rooms so everything you say can be overheard. On the ceasefire line soldiers from the North and South stand only centimetres apart. The South Korean soldiers stand guard in a modified ‘taekwondo’ stance, and North Korean soldiers sometimes peer – expressionless – into the windows (making for great photo ops). Dangerous or not, posturing or not, it’s a surreal experience that will make a clear impression.
See the excellent film JSA for a dramatic story set in the DMZ about what happens when ordinary soldiers from both sides meet by accident.