A visit to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas was to be one of the highlights of our Korea trip, and in fact it was an unsettling and kind of surreal experience. Netflix and Youtube notwithstanding, I'd always thought of NK as a place dreamed up by historians and dystopian novelists, far away in both time and space. Well, that feeling was abruptly dispelled as I looked into the binoculars at the Dora Observatory: a human in flesh and blood, the size of an ant, pushing a wheelbarrow on the other side. All I could make out was the drab color of his clothing. So close…yet so far.
Our tour, provided by USO, began at the American military Camp Kim in downtown Seoul. A cheery young Korean woman in skinny jeans served as our tour guide and pointed out the occasional geographical feature as we made our way north. Near the border, barbed-wire fences and guard towers became more frequent sights, and eventually we reached a checkpoint where an American soldier came onto the bus to inspect our passports. We were officially in the DMZ.
Our first stop was at Infiltration Tunnel #3. According to an oddly (and unnecessarily?) propagandist video we had to watch before entering, NK has been digging these 2x2m tunnels – capable of letting 2000 soldiers through per hours – for launching a potential surprise attack on Seoul. Tunnel #3 was discovered in 1978, and god only knows how many more haven't been discovered yet.
We had to shed all belongings into a locker and go through a metal detector before entering the long and steep shaft to tunnel. The tunnel itself was dark, damp, and not a place for the claustrophobic. We shuffled along in single file, and every few minutes someone would misjudge the position of metal pipes overhead and hit their hardhat with a startling clank. At the border, SK had erected three walls to partition the tunnel into two chambers, only the first of which was visible through a small, square window. A lone incandescent bulb hung from the ceiling inside, its meek light just devoured by the forsaken passageway. Lest we forget that this is a real conduit to their enemy, a SK soldier kept watch by the nearest wall. And lest we forget that this is also a tourist attraction, there's a weird natural spring fountain at the entrance to the tunnel. Visitors are invited to take a sip of the "DMZ water." Chemical-, radiation-, and gluten-free, they promise.
We stopped next at the Dora Observatory, where a Korean soldier briefed us on the Kijong-Dong Peace or Propaganda Village on the other side. Apparently they’re thus named because loudspeakers from both Koreas are constantly exhorting citizens from the opposite side to defect (but how?). We learned about the War of the Flagpoles, wherein SK shows NK who’s boss by erecting a giant flagpole at the border, only to be immediately outdone by NK. It’s comedic, and everyone laughed. And then we looked through the binoculars. Just over the valley I could make out white washed buildings with slogans on top and that ant-man with the wheelbarrow. What does he know about this side? Does he know that someone just paid two 500 Won coins for a 60-second peek at his life?
After a quick lunch at the DMZ café to shake off that profoundly unsettling voyeuristic feeling, we visited the Dorasan Rail Station. This was built in 2000's as a hopeful symbol of the eventual reunion. (And who in SK/the rest of the world but the ever-dwindling family members actually wants a reunion? So many questions.) No trains go past here, of course, but the railway supposedly connects all the way to Pyongyang. For now, the lone and level tracks stretch far away…
Finally, we were transferred to a military bus and wound our way up a hill, past fences and signs warning of land mines, to Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA). This is one of the few places where one can cross directly between the two countries. On the SK side, the JSA is guarded by soldiers under UN Command.
Before we were led into the negotiation halls on the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), we filed into another auditorium to watch more propaganda. This time, an American soldier asked if anybody was carrying weapons or planning to defect to NK. No? Okay. And then an Indian woman raised her hand and asked what defection meant. A few people chuckled. We were also given us a piece of paper to sign: something along the lines of our being aware that we were entering a hostile area and should assume potential risks of dismemberment and death. We were admonished not to make eye contact with or gesticulate at the NK soldiers. The chaperoned visit was brief: inside the SK-guarded blue houses, we circled the conference table, toed ever so slightly past the line into NK, and let my iPhone briefly sync to Pyongyang time, before circling back.