DMZ: What it’s like to visit the North Korean border

Korea’s DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, is under the spotlight again as a South Korean presidential candidate vows to reopen a long closed tourist resort. Melissa Twigg remembers an uncomfortable visit to what’s often seen as a tourist attraction

Thursday 20 January 2022 10:15
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Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in make history by stepping into each other's territory at South Korea summit

For a disconcerting moment I felt like I was on safari. A red-headed bird emerged from a nearby bush, fluttering towards a startled white crane that was picking away at the hard ground, and I instinctively picked up my camera to take a photograph.

Until I remembered that along with a clause accepting my potential impending death and the presence of landmines all around me, I had signed away the right to take any photographs that pointed in the direction of North Korea.

On a whim, on the back of a glitzy weekend filled with beauty products and barbecues in skyscraper-ringed Seoul, I had decided to spend my last afternoon in the country on a tour of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – between South and North Korea.

In stark contrast to the violent restrictions on every step taken by a human being, red-spotted deer and brown bears roam freely in the untouched 2.5-mile wide stretch of land that runs across the length of this divided peninsula – one which remains the world’s last Cold War border.

Our tour set off from Seoul on a cool spring afternoon to Panmunjom. Known colloquially as the “truce village”, it is where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, and is where Kim Jong-un became the first North Korean leader to cross into South Korean territory back in 2018, walking over the Military Demarcation Line to meet President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.

Before this historic moment, back when I was there in 2016, I found it oppressively quiet, with only the chatter from my tour group and the occasional bird cry breaking the silence. Eerily, although it is quiet, there are people everywhere, with troops mere feet away from each other in their dark brown uniforms, clutching guns the size of children and staring stonily ahead of them.

On the North Korean side, behind the soldiers is a double line of tall, chainlink fences topped with razor wire. And behind these defences are endless rows of bunkers and strong points guarded by North Korean troops in mirrored sunglasses – who we were not to engage with or provoke under any circumstances, we were told. No laughing, joking or gesturing – we must be silent too.

Our tour moved onto Unification Hill, which gives visitors a 360-degree view of the Korean peninsula. The weak spring sunlight bounced off the mirrored skyscrapers of Seoul to the south, but turning north, the Songaksan Mountain across the border looked bleak and empty bar a few old fashioned-looking villages. Through the binoculars, I could see North Koreans going about their day. Men in 1950s workwear pushed carts up the hill and children played in the muddy fields.

The village is also a clear symbol of the country’s patriotism; home to a flagpole that stands 525 feet high, which makes it one of the tallest on earth.

That it felt voyeuristic goes without saying. But it also felt disconcerting to look casually in to such a violent world – one that I have read so much about but have rarely seen captured on screen. As I stood there in my London-bought clothes, I felt like I was peeking into apartheid-era South Africa or the former Soviet Union.

The ability to see deep into both countries at the same time is widely believed to be a powerful message for reunification – hence the name Unification Hill. But as I watched the ant-like figures of the North Koreans going about their day, trapped in the most repressive regime on earth, I questioned why on earth I was there.

There is an argument that DMZ tourism can help in reunification efforts – one that my South Korean tour group leader was forceful about. The majority of young Koreans have never known their peninsula to be united. Seeing their counterparts on the other side of a razorwire wall can, the belief goes, only help bring them closer together. It is a stance shared by politicians: in January 2022, South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung pledged to “reopen the doors of tourism to Mount Kumgang as soon as possible.” The resort has been closed for almost 15 years, ever since a 53-year-old South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard there in 2008.

However, I found visiting the DMZ served only to indicate how divided the country remained. A line of bright blue huts sits between the North and South Korean troops, who stare at each other with an aggression that is so tangible you can almost taste it.

One can only hope that future tourism efforts might help take the threat of violence down a notch or two.

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