Early up to catch a bus for a trip planned to visit the DMZ, the infamous strip of land, the Demilitarized Zone, the no-go corridor between North and south Korea. A brochure was lying around the backpackers advertising this ‘tourist’ half-day trip to visit this contested piece of earth. It seemed like a one-off opportunity to access something usually only heard of occasionally in the news.
The bus was full, seems there’s a lot of interest in this excursion. Along the way the tour guide recounts basic history of the Korean war, the US intervention, the 30,000 defectors a year from north to south, the reasons for kilometers and kilometers of barbwire alongside the Han river in preparation for the four stops we will make.
The first stop is Imjingak Park and also the site of the Freedom Bridge, spanning the DMZ [which at it’s widest is 4 kilometres]. This bridge gained fame as the crossover point for the handover of about 12,000 political prisoners at some point in the past. The actual DMZ is a a corridor of browning scrub and bush, snaking between the two countries. It looks like there’s also rice fields but no idea who tends those. There’s a carcass of a destroyed South Korean train engine on display in the park, riddled with bullet holes and broken from explosion from some cross-fired exchange. There are sculptures, concrete and quite brutal – maybe all propaganda art is kitsch? There’s a wall of photos of sadness, of families distraught at the separation forced from the division of land between major political actors. And most bizarrely directly next door to this militarised spectacle is a vast amusement park, full of colour and enjoyment. For the benefit of North Korean binocular watchers I suspect, to reflect on how much fun the South has.
It’s a strange thing to know that it’s a political spectacle, to be deep inside a propaganda event, and be complicit and willing participant in this event. And it’s extremely popular, the are dozens and dozens of buses, full to the brim, and hundreds constantly milling around, taking selfies, checking out the tourist stalls. Becoming cynical would be easy, but there’s no evidence to second-guess the reason why people visit; to commemorate their own divided family? What’s my own motivation to attend this specific place of power on the planet? Intrigue? Voyeurism? An itch to purchase a DMZ chocolate covered soybean at the tourist shop?
Not losing the bus requires focus, finding it is a relief. The next stop is the 3rd Infiltration tunnel. It’s a military space. Buses are stopped at checkpoints and a solider inspects passports before entry. The tunnel, obviously underground, started on the North Korean side and were then discovered by the South, who then drilled down to meet and halt them with machinery. The tunnels from the north were dug by hand and dynamite. Our party descends 350 meters from the south heading north into tight low-ceilinged tunnels. 150-200 metres away from the point where both countries boundaries meet is the closest you can get. It’s a slow, cramped, march in a single file stream of hundreds of people of all ages. A bad time to discover if your brain holds a secret dose of claustrophobia. At times like this I am thankful to the engineers who invented air-ducting shafts. After 20 minutes slouching, walking, hitting hard-hatted heads on the ceiling we reach the end. We’re faced with a solid steal wall with a tiny opening, in which you can see another solid steal wall with a small opening, in which if your lucky you’ll see a 3rd solid steal wall with a small opening. Through the final opening it is reported that you can see the North Korean side of the tunnel. It was invisible to me. Then we turn around and slouch out. Time to locate that bus again.
Third stop in this military zone is the Dora Observatory lookout, a large platform that looks out over the treeless hills of North Korea and to the closest city industrial city on the Northern side of the boarder. In the souvenir shop you can buy rusty 6 inch lengths of barbwire for about 56,000 won, a bit more than $70 NZ dollars – they stay on the shelf.
The final stop is fascinating. The Dorasan Train station. A fully functional station, built relatively recently, with a connecting line from Seoul, through Pyeongyang, all the way to Spain. It’s never been used. The platform is called the Unification Platform, in hopeful anticipation that it will ultimately be opened and used when the current standoff thaws. It seems like things are shifting though, with the recent opening of dialogue between the north and south it is reported that the lines are now being inspected for usability and safety, maybe in anticipation that sooner rather than later, the line will become functional.
It’s a fascinating place, with ticket vendors employed to sell tickets to the current train that won’t arrive.
And that’s it. Tour over. Again the process of finding the bus is a bit like a real life Where’s Wally, but it works out in the end. Back on the road and back to a show. Arrive a bit later than planned as some of the Bus drivers of Seoul’s public transportation infrastructure are on strike and protesting. Just like home.