Regimented Demilitarized Zone tours offer a glimpse of North Korea

DMZ, South Korea – As two American soldiers hand out photocopied “Visitor Declaration (UNC REG 551-1)” forms to international travellers assembled inside Camp Bonifas theatre, the junior of the men prattles off an official explanation of the listed text.

His more experienced counterpart suddenly interrupts.

“Basically, what this waiver says is,” barks U.S. Army Sgt. Cory Strickland, “don’t do anything dumb that could get you killed because we may or may not be able to protect you.”

His voice is stern. When visitors inside the South Korean swath of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, head into the Joint Security Area adjoining the bitterly divided East Asian nations, teeth hold Kim Jong-un jokes on tongues.

It’s the closest civilians can get to the North Korea leader’s dictatorship and bombastic nuclear ambitions without the fear, or perhaps security, of either side wielding heavy weapons.

The group will soon hear that when Bill Clinton strolled just metres from a painted white separation line, the former U.S. president nearly stepped into the crosshairs of an assault rifle.

Clinton’s 1993 jaunt toward a young soldier armed with an AK-47 didn’t spark international incident. Both sides had enough foresight to hold back aggressive moves, Strickland says.

While such presidential licence has since faded into mere brow-raising anecdote, DMZ tour operators slyly play up the lurking danger. Insisting on passport screening and rigorous protocol, they suggest there’s little room for error inside the bona fide buffer zone that’s been caught in a time warp more than 60 years.

There’s hardly option to pull back the curtain. Tourists who stay well in line gain the thrill of getting this close to North Korea at a reduced cost and logistical difficulty than penetrating the rogue state on their own.

“(The DMZ) has become sort of fetishized in its own way. It’s supposed to be ‘the scariest place on Earth,’ according to Clinton,” said Prof. Hyung Gu Lynn, with the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

He argues the experience is part-reality, part-Disneyland.

“You have people performing with conviction,” Lynn said. “There is no imminent threat of war. It is technically an active war zone, but none of the tourists, I would say, are actually at threat if they follow the rules.”

Several organized tours to the DMZ operate from Seoul, while a new route opened in May allows journeys into the civilian-restricted territory by train. Some companies employ North Korean refugees as guides. Newshounds can take the pulse of a present-day hot spot, historians will gain on-the-ground perspective and nature lovers may catch sight of endangered wildlife.

The DMZ stretches two kilometres north and two kilometres south of the Military Demarcation Line that slices the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel. The rugged 243-kilometre span was created in the armistice agreement that ended the three-year Korean War by ceasefire in July 1953, in order to prevent provocative action and collision between the hostile neighbours.

A typical tour, such as that run by Koridoor Tours, is a choreographed foray into the heavily fortified border that carries strict rules of conduct and dress code. Operators co-ordinate with United Nations and U.S. military members to provide a daylong excursion that includes several highlights to which visitors are transported by coach bus.

Hardhats must be worn while descending 300 metres by foot to explore the “Third Infiltration Tunnel,” believed to be an attempted incursion into the south by the North Koreans. The cavern was discovered in the late 1970s and blocked to prevent any potential military invasion.

At Dorasan train station, the South’s longing for reunification is impressed by a Korea Railroad Corporation sign stating, “Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North.” Visitors cast their gaze along tracks vanishing into the distant hope Koreans might one day ride 205 kilometres to the North’s capital of Pyongyang, completing the vision of a transcontinental railway.

Chatter is kept to a minimum. But it’s not until entering the Joint Security Area, or JSA, that the full weight of the nations’ estrangement emerges.

Republic of Korea soldiers with tightly clenched fists stand perfectly immobile, facing off against a lone North Korean guard outside a cream-coloured, columned building. He stares back at the tourists through binoculars.

Don’t wave, Strickland warns. He claims North Korea might photograph the gesture and digitally modify hands to show erect middle fingers, in order to distribute as propaganda.

The JSA, or truce village of Panmunjom, is a
400-metre-by-800-metre section along the demarcation line within a
compound operated by the United Nations Command Military Armistice
Commission. It’s reserved for talks between the multinational UN
unit, North Korea and China.

Shutterbugs must exert caution. It’s OK to pose next to the R.O.K. soldier with a black belt in taekwondo, and snap the squat, eggshell-blue huts where any dialogue takes place. (Strickland says crossing over to North Korea’s side of the table technically puts you in its territory.) Shoot the tall new tower that as of last December was not on public record, and unseen officers may swiftly emerge to confiscate expensive equipment.

Strickland points out the “Bridge of No Return,” site of Clinton’s adventure and, historically, the place where Korean prisoners of war were forced to declare allegiance to only one side with no turning back.

He accompanies the group to an outcropping, the single location surrounded on three sides by North Korea, before explaining the untouched fields are an undisturbed ecosystem. It’s believed to be habitat to many rare animals, possibly even the Siberian tiger, he says. Live landmines and razor wire are sprinkled throughout.

Amid a crush of wild ferns sits a stone platform framing a memorial to two murdered U.S. soldiers, bludgeoned to death by North Korean axes in 1976. The brutal attack was launched upon a guarded group of workers who had set out to chop down a poplar tree obstructing the view of a checkpoint.

A newer monument, emblazoned with world flags including Canada’s, references the loss of “untold treasures, anguish and the lives” of approximately 150,000 R.O.K. and 40,000 UN forces in “the fight for liberty.”

“Thanks to these sacrifices the Republic of Korea is a free and democratic country!” it says below the Korean inscription.

Inside a gift shop, tourists can purchase DMZ mugs, replica JSA guard armbands and North Korean spirits.

Allowing foreign nationals to tour the DMZ was debated in South Korea through the 1960s and 1970s, said Lynn, the B.C. professor. Politicians raised concerns about using the site of a national tragedy for sightseeing, but that’s long made way for the lucrative, present-day allure that may in part revolve around North Korea’s alleged “evil status.”

Directly experiencing the DMZ through a controlled tour is undeniably important but only presents a small fragment of the complex picture, said Lynn.

“Life is hardly reducible to a list of consumable sites,” he said. “So, travel (to the DMZ) as an invitation or opening for further reading, rather than an item to be checked off some bucket list.”