Terror and tourism collide

 Gazing through the haze towards one of North Korea’s border villages from the safety of South...
Gazing through the haze towards one of North Korea’s border villages from the safety of South Korea’s Dora Observatory. PHOTOS: MIKE YARDLEY
Dorasan Station was built 15 years ago with a view to reconnecting Seoul and Pyongyang by rail.
Dorasan Station was built 15 years ago with a view to reconnecting Seoul and Pyongyang by rail.
One of the four infiltration tunnels found by South Korea.
One of the four infiltration tunnels found by South Korea.
The Freedom Bridge and border fortifications around the DMZ.
The Freedom Bridge and border fortifications around the DMZ.
Crowds at Dora Observatory.
Crowds at Dora Observatory.
The last train to cross the Imjin River as war broke out.
The last train to cross the Imjin River as war broke out.

Slashing across the Korean Peninsula, the Demilitarised Zone is an improbable tourist attraction. But there is no other place quite like it, writes Mike Yardley.

It's the racket blasting from the loudspeakers that is still ringing in my ears. From the South, soaring operatic ballads and K-Pop are belted out, while from the North, a mix of angry sermons and bombastic propaganda songs salute the Dear Leader.

Galloping across the Korean countryside for 250km, with a 2km-wide buffer zone either side of the border, the razor wire stretches into infinity. I joined a DMZ day-trip from Seoul, which is a mere 50km drive from the border.

As we headed towards the great divide, both sides of the highway were laced with elaborate reams of razor wire, while military look-outs studded the roadside, in full battle readiness. Within the buffer zone, tank traps and landmines stalk the countryside.

My guide, Moon, remarked there are an estimated two million landmines still in the DMZ from the Korean War - and that's after a million were cleared.

Despite the current crisis, the day-trips remain fiendishly popular. Every day, 5000 visitors are allowed access to the buffer zone, while 500 people can also enter the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjeom, which is where the armistice was signed in 1953.

You'll recognise those United Nations-blue buildings from television. It's the site of the world's most famous face-off, where South and North Korean soldiers stare interminably at each other through sunglasses, while standing in modified taekwondo positions. Despite the macho sense of theatre, the air hangs heavy with unblinking hostility.

All DMZ tours begin at Imjingak, just past the security checkpoint where young Korean soldiers, on compulsory military service, boarded our coach to check our passports. Seven kilometres from the border, on the banks of the Imjin River, there are a variety of monuments in memory of the Korean War. An 83m-long bridge, used in the exchange of 13,000 POWs, is lauded as the Freedom Bridge.

Nearby, the blasted carcass of a steam locomotive, which desperately made it back across the Imjin River just as war broke out, is riddled with the scars of 1020 bullet holes.

Imjingak is also the entry point into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, the biggest of four tunnels identified by the South Koreans since 1974, although there's apparently another 20 that haven't been spotted yet. Dug by the North Koreans with the intent of being able to spring a surprise invasion on the South, these tunnels aren't for the faint-hearted.

Issued with a hard hat, the Third Infiltration Tunnel leads you 73m underground, along a 2m by 2m passage. I felt like the hunchback of Notre Dame, but it's a searing and slightly spooky encounter to traverse the border, subterranean-style.

Moon pointed out how the North Koreans had even gone to the effort of painting the rock walls black, so that they could claim it was a coal mine, not an invasion route. This tunnel, which is large enough to enable 30,000 soldiers through in an hour, was discovered in 1978 after a defector tipped-off the South. The tunnel comes to an abrupt, premature end; sealed with a locked concrete door at the border line.

Another striking stop was Dorasan Station, a $40 billion beacon of hope, built 15 years ago with a view of re-connecting Seoul and Pyongyang by rail. Just 700m from the southern boundary of the DMZ, it's utterly bizarre to admire this sparkling yet haplessly under-used train station. The shiny International Customs Hall has never screened a passenger.

A few daily services run to Seoul, but services to the North have been on hold since the North Koreans closed the border crossing in 2008. Should Korea be reunited, Moon says the dream is Dorasan Station would not only connect Seoul with Pyongyang, but would connect with the vast Eurasian services such as the Trans-Siberian, enabling travel by train from Korea to western Europe.

The undeniable highlight was soaking up the raw cross-border drama of Dora Observatory.

This lookout serves up the most intimate view of the North from South Korea. It is as if you could reach out and touch it, all while being assaulted by those blaring loudspeakers.

With the naked eye, I gazed down at the streams of barbed wire along the border, across into North Korean villages. With the mounted binoculars, I could see locals wandering around and a massive statue of Kim Il-sung, while the Propaganda Village touts one of the tallest flags in the world.

In a classic case of boys will be boys, the South and North have played ping-pong for years over their respective border flagpoles.

The South started the tussle by erecting a 50m-high flag. Back and forth they went, outdoing one another, until the North triumphed in this battle of attrition, mounting a 160m-high flagpole.

The flag alone weighs a whopping 300kg. The South threw in the towel at 110m. The Propaganda Village is so named because it's widely believed that the brightly coloured buildings are just shells and are uninhabited.

Even Hollywood would blush at the sheer scale of this elaborate set.

For me, that summed up up the weirdness of the DMZ. A strange, surreal, unsettling place, where terror and tourism collide, at one of the world's flashpoints.

Want to know more?
For more information on a tour to the DMZ, visit www.vviptravel.com

Mike Yardley is a Christchurch-based travel writer.

 

 

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