The coach leaves downtown Seoul at 9am with a cargo of well turned-out but slightly bemused passengers. Are we correctly dressed? Will we manage to uphold the honour of the capitalist Republic of South Korea? Or - the major concern of two little old ladies from Virginia - will we be kidnapped by the Red Peril across the border and never heard of again?
A day trip to Korea's demilitarised zone, 45 miles north of Seoul, is one of the more bizarre experiences on the world's tourist circuit. At the tiny village of Panmunjom, just above the 38th parallel, the longest truce in modern times was bitterly negotiated in 1953 between communist North and capitalist South Korea. Today, Panmunjom is enclosed within a "joint security area", a few square miles of political no-man's-land, where, for the past 40 years, North and South have come together to negotiate, quarrel and occasionally fight over the fate of their divided nation.
After partition, the North disappeared into the fog of ideology surrounding its long-time ruler, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Now the country is supposedly bankrupt, and its future uncertain. In the South, however (recent industrial unrest notwithstanding), the economy is booming. Having followed events in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union closely, the South Korean people are turning their attention to reunification.
There were 40 of us on the coach, neatly divided between Japanese speakers and Anglophones. South Korea sends 190,000 tourists a year to Panmunjom, though Koreans themselves are usually denied permission to go. Mr Kim, our guide, was a smiling map in spectacles who favoured the "roll-up, roll-up" delivery of a circus ringmaster. The phrases "communist aggressors" and "struggle for freedom" echoed around the coach. Mr Kim also had a few more rules for us. No alcohol was to be consumed before entering Panmunjom: no contact was to be made with members of the "other side", who might use this for propaganda purposes.
"It's a joke," said Eddie, a Dutch journalist who had just returned from North Korea where he'd made the trip to Panmunjom from the other side. "They give you the exact same instructions on the way down, just with the names reversed."
We cleared Seoul's log-jammed traffic and headed in to the countryside through a patchwork of emerald green fields and rice paddies. At the roadside were several monuments to the "freedom fighters" of the Southern army, the Americans, the United Nations and others. "They have those in the North too," Eddie said, "except there the South and the US are the bad guys."
A cluster of watchtowers, barbed wire and tank traps signified the entrance to the demilitarised zone. The DMZ is two-and-a-half miles wide, and stretches from one side of Korea's coastline to the other. The joint security area (JSA) lies right in the middle, bisected in turn by the military demarcation line (MDL). It was already becoming a day of tiresome military acronyms.
This tone was reinforced at Camp Bonifas, the United Nations advance camp just outside the JSA that proudly proclaims itself to be "In Front of Them All". Automatic weapons bristled; sentries snapped to attention and saluted. Here we were briefed by an American captain who, with his pressed fatigues and polished boots, resembled a well-kept weapon himself.
The captain delivered a brief history of the Korean conflict, with much arcane jargon about "enforced containment", "numerical dependencies" and the rest of it, and asked us to sign a release form acknowledging that our visit entailed "entry into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action". The ladies from Virginia flinched visibly. Then it was time for the last stage of the journey, into the JSA itself.
Our military escort was a jut-jawed GI by the name (I kid you not) of Sergeant Manfull. Sergeant Manfull steered us through several military checkpoints, where young soldiers jumped on board and saluted briskly. But he also seemed to be escorting us into another dimension - a Cold War time capsule.
We passed a scruffy village on the South side of the dividing line. Here a score of families live on land donated by the government, with generous tax and other concessions (not to mention military protection) to keep them there. "This is called the Freedom Village," said Sergeant Manfull, without irony. "That other one you can see on the North Korean side is the Propaganda Village."
The heart of the joint security area resembled a miniature Korean village, with shady trees, a sunken garden and a freedom pagoda on a rise overlooking the demarcation line. Directly opposite was a North Korean pavilion, built a deliberate yard or so higher than the pagoda. We looked down on to a row of tin-roofed huts; blue for the United Nations, silver and tan for the North Koreans, with South Korean soldiers standing in frozen postures of aggression outside the huts, like plastic toys. On the steps of the pavilion, a single North Korean officer stared impassively across the border. But others, according to Sergeant Manfull, were watching. "Don't point or gesture," said the sergeant. "They'll take photographs of you and use them as propaganda."
The air of almost calculated absurdity grew stronger as we walked down to the huts (the ladies from Virginia now clinging to each other), and into the conference room. Here, on a green baize table, the border between North and South was delineated by the microphone cable. Gathered round in a horseshoe, some of us technically on North Korean soil, we listened to Sergeant Manfull describe the nature of the talks between the two sides: talks which have now been going on for more than 40 years. First, it seemed, there had been the issue of the flags on the table. The North had objected to the size of the South's, and brought in a bigger one. The South then did the same. This went on until the flags themselves were too big to fit into the conference room. A new round of talks was then scheduled to determine appropriate flag size...
Perhaps this manifest idiocy would seem funny were it not for the occasional outbreak of violence in the JSA. But the last serious incident came in 1976, and even this had its element of black farce. Two American officers, attempting to clip back a poplar tree by their checkpoint, were hacked to death by a mob of North Koreans. (Grim photographs of this event line the walls of Camp Bonifas.) Two days after the killings, the Americans mounted what Sergeant Manfull described, with pride, as "the most expensive tree-felling operation in history".
Fifty Korean martial arts specialists were brought in to chop the tree down, backed up by a squadron of GIs. There was even an aircraft carrier standing by off the Korean coast. The tree was felled, and a plaque now commemorates the spot.
We gazed at the North Korean propaganda village a few hundred yards away. Speakers on the hillside blasted out music intended to "disrupt" life in the South. You could barely hear it. Communist slogans were daubed on the hillside, and here Sergeant Manfull tried his hand at humour. "That one says, 'Coke is the Real Thing'." This brought a ripple of laughter, but not from the two ladies from Virginia, who had already retreated back to the safety of the coach. Nor from Eddie, who stood simultaneously laughing and scowling. He'd been in the propaganda village a few days before, and had heard all this in reverse. "It's all bullshit," was Eddie's comment.
Finally it was back to Camp Bonifas, to gaze at the pictures of distinguished visitors (mainly US politicians); to read the comments in the visitors' book ("very informative"; "a lesson in reality"); and finally, to down a long-awaited beer in the mess.
Heading back to Seoul Mr Kim abandoned his anti-communist rhetoric and turned his attention to the new road into the capital. "Now we are driving on the Freedom Highway. Why do we call it Freedom Highway? Because one day Korea will be free. Korea will be reunited. Korea must be reunited."
And indeed it will be - maybe even by the end of the century, ordinary people keep telling you in Seoul. But until then we have Panmunjom as a reminder of, among other things, how the military loves to play war games; and of how the tragic and the ridiculous go hand in hand whenever governments and armies get in the way of ordinary people and common sense.
Cheapest return flight London-Seoul currently with Air France via Paris, from pounds 630.
Ranges from international to quaintly local and cheap.
Day trips from Seoul to Panmunjom (approximately pounds 45, Monday to Saturday) can be arranged through the Korea National Tourism Corporation (0171- 409 2100).
Silk Steps (0117 940 2800) offer a seven-day "Ancient Temples" tour of Korea, inclusive of bed and breakfast, flights, transportation and guide from pounds 962. Other tour operators are Far East Gateways (0161 945 4321); Jetset Holidays (0161 236 6657); and AsiaWorld (01483 724883).Reuse content