Story and photo by Derek Ferrar
Considering that this is touted as “The Most Dangerous Border in the World,” it’s a little disorienting when you encounter the jolly plaster faces of the cartoon soldier figures guarding a tourist trap in the so-called Demilitarized Zone—the DMZ, where the two Koreas, still technically at war, stare each other down. Don’t get me wrong: It’s no joke, this deadly no-man’s land just thirty miles from Seoul, with hundreds of thousands of troops massed on either side. Try hoofing it across this two-mile-wide gauntlet of barbed wire and landmines, and you’ll learn toot-sweet just how dangerous it is.
But if you stick with the package tours that shuttle busloads of tourists along the south side of the DMZ—as I did on a recent trip to Korea from Hawai‘i—the zone not only feels perfectly safe, but even a little, well, cheesy. Case in point: At a failed North Korean infiltration tunnel, goofy little soldier statues stand at the entrance, and there’s even a gift shop hawking commando bobbleheads, brainwashingly potent North Korean hooch and even twenty-kilo sacks of DMZ-grown rice.
Outside the visitor center built around the tunnel entrance, a sculpture of huge pastel letters—perfect for picture posing—proclaims: “DMZ.” But the only evidence of an actual border fence here are the souvenir pieces of barbed wire you can buy in the gift shop and a freestanding section of fence erected just for photos.
Grabbing a hard hat from a rack and hunching down to squeeze past the chattering line of sightseers tromping through the barely head-high tunnel, it takes me some time to adapt to the claustrophobia and that funky “mob-in-a-cave” aroma. Discovered by the South in 1978 after a tip from a defector, the rough-walled passage was painted black in places by the retreating North Koreans, who tried to claim it was a coal mine although the area has no coal. Today it ends abruptly at a series of thick concrete walls just south of the actual border.
Back up top, you can watch your friends huffing and puffing their way along on a bank of video screens originally installed to detect any North Korean “activity.” It’s all fun and games until the tour guide mentions that there are believed to be as many as twenty such infiltration tunnels—and only four have been discovered.
Granted, it’s a different story altogether in the hair-trigger heart of the DMZ, the “Joint Security Area” area at Panmunjam, where the July 1953 truce ending active combat—though not the war—was signed. Here the border between North and South literally runs down the middle of a negotiation table where the two sides occasionally meet to avoid unintentional apocalypse. Soldiers there engage in ritualized stink-eye contests, their fists balled in ready-to-strike tae kwon do poses.
But just a few checkpoints away an atmosphere of high irony prevails at Dorasan Station, a ghostly cross-border train terminal that offers a ticket to nowhere. A relic of a brief thaw in hostilities about a decade ago, Dorasan, with its gleaming stone floors and soaring glass and metal construction, is like a monument to dashed—or at least badly delayed—hopes for peace. The departure sign reads “Next Train: Pyongyang,” but there is no next train.
At a window by the souvenir shop, a guy in a conductor’s cap will stamp whatever you give him with a quasi-official-looking North Korea border insignia, although a sign warns against stamping it on anything official like money, or—heaven forbid—your passport. In the immaculate men’s room, inspirational plaques are strategically affixed at eye level above the urinals. One in particular seems to speak to the hairy-eyeball tension of this strange zone where the tacky meets the unthinkable and barely contained Armageddon is itself the attraction. “Anger,” it reads, “can be an expensive luxury.”