More Surreal than Scary at the DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone, the 38th Parallel dividing the Korean Peninsula

Warning of Landmines beyond the barbed wire

Every once in awhile North Korea and the USA have some sort of political disagreement, where N.K threatens to bomb something or other or generally antagonize the US, South Korea, and Japan.  The current rhetoric occurring back and forth between one American President Donal Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, continuously reminds me of what it was like to live on the Korean Peninsula, particularly reflecting on the time I took a tour of the DMZ.

While I was living in South Korea people would send me messages asking me about something scary in the News and I would be completely unaware of it until a quick google search revealed a slew of articles written in North America informing me of something happening about an hour North.  Not knowing any better at first, I would ask a Korean colleague what was happening, but they would usually laugh dismissively and shrug their shoulders in a non-chalant way.  I was a bit incredulous at first, wondering how they could be so passive about these aggressive threats of devastating violence.  I registered with the Canadian Embassy so that I would be in the know about what to do should things turn ugly; they would send me periodic updates about military training drills near the DMZ that could potentially provoke retaliation.

Two months after I moved to South Korea, in November of 2010, North Korea bombed YeonPyeong Island.  I had just finished class and walked into the staff room to find everyone around a computer screen depicting flames and chaos.  Shocked as I was, we were told to get back to work…after all the island was at least an hour and a half North of us and we were in no immediate danger.  The foreign teachers went for dinner that evening and discussed the day’s events, one of the veteran teachers explained to us that North Korea just does this crazy stuff sometimes, it won’t go any farther. He said if the South Koreans aren’t bothered then there’s no reason to worry.  As soon as the news reached Canada, everyone and their sister was messaging me telling me to get the hell out but I told them all was well and I wasn’t in any danger. For the next month or so, The Canadian Embassy sent emails telling us to be diligent, to keep my passport at hand and a bag of essentials ready,  my US Army boyfriend wasn’t allowed to leave his base for a few weeks.  Eventually the emails stopped, my boyfriend was granted some freedom and things went back to normal.  While my life felt somewhat disrupted by the bombing, in that I was for the first time ever, forced to consider what would happen should things turn violent where I lived; it was business as usual in South Korea.  People didn’t seem to give it much thought, dismissing inquiries about the North in a way that spoke volumes about what its like to live South of the most reclusive, unpredictable nation in the world.  Mainly that it is what it is, there’s nothing to be done about it, so why give it a second thought. And so that is the mentality I eventually adopted.

Nobody pays attention to North Korea unless they are threatening others, and most people have little to no grasp on why there are two Koreas, what the Korean war was about and the series of events that led to this division.  To summarize very simplistically: in 1910 the Japanese controlled the entire peninsula, tried to assimilate Koreans (there was no political division at this time), they enslaved men to work in factories and women to work as prostitutes and committed horrific crimes against the Korean people.  Japan lost control of the peninsula after WWII and the Soviet Union and the USA suddenly had control; Russia in the North and the US in the South.  They divided the peninsula in 2 along the 38th Parallel (now the DMZ); of course as we know, the US and the Soviets had vastly different political ideologies and thus Korea became a hostage of the Cold War.  In 1950, the North marched South to Busan and as a reaction to the aggression, and fear of communism spreading around the world, the Americans and the South resisted and pushed the North back to the Chinese border.  China not wanting the USA at their door, got involved and helped drive the South and their allies back to the 38th Parallel.  In 1953 an armistice deal was signed and hence the Korean peninsula is experiencing peace time but is technically still at war.  The Korean War intensely devastating to both sides.  The South was in ruins, both in infrastructure and economically but since then South Korea pushed forward stoically and have built up an extremely modern country with exceptional pride in their traditions and culture.  While the North, funded by the Soviets until the collapse of the Soviet Union was pushed towards communism; unfortunately the particular strain of communism in the North resulted in a dictatorship with supreme power resting solely with the Kim family.  After the Soviet Union collapsed funding stopped and the regime was left to fend for itself, which has not been very successful.  Overworked farm land resulting in widespread famine have been the main sources of discontent for North Koreans, but also the fear of labour camps and other terror tactics inflicted by their own government. Some say that Kim Jong Un’s regime will likely face a rebellion as more and more people grow disillusioned by the Kim family’s supreme power and information has become somewhat more accessible. 

A friend from Canada came to visit me at the end of my first year; included in the tourism itinerary we planned, was a trip to the DMZ.  We went with an organized tour group Adventure Korea; the tour took us through the DMZ and our tour guide gave us a very dispassionate account of the history of the DMZ, the whole time you’re made to feel as if this is just another tour to a museum, city, or some natural wonder.  You have to keep reminding yourself that you are heading to ‘the scariest border on earth’, that these two countries have an armistice agreement, not a peace treaty; the war is not officially over.

Buddhist prayer ribbons.  Praying for peace, unification, and hope.

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is an area about 4 kilometres wide that stands between the 2 Koreas.  There is a peace village on each side of the border each with their own antagonizing flag pole; we stopped in Daesong-dong for lunch.  English teachers mixed with a few tourists, largely made up the tour group and you could usually tell the difference by who dove into their food voraciously or who had to question each mouthful.  I’m not sure if I had come to S.Korea as a tourist, if I would have understood more or less, the significance of the DMZ.  As an expat, its easy to forget that you live in a contentious part of the world, South Korea is so peaceful, no one ever talks about North Korea; in other parts of the world they seem much more concerned about it all.

We stood at a lookout point with coin operated binoculars, giving you a view of Kaesong City; there was virtually no movement within the town, you couldn’t see a car or person, chicken, goat, bird. Kaesong City from our perspective looked like a ghost town.  I recall Tony Wheeler’s description on North Korea in his book Bad Lands; “At one stage, a road parallels the railway and for an hour I only see one vehicle moving, a Mercedes Benz. Throughout my visit I will never see a bus carrying North Koreans outside of the cities.” …. “You don’t go anywhere in the people’s paradise without having a permit.”  “Empty highways tell tales of a country shut down.”

Suddenly we start seeing a line of cars driving south towards the border, at least as long as 2 freight trains, it was startling to see so many vehicles appear as if out of thin air when for 30 minutes prior, nothing stirred.  We were told that this was a South Korean aid convoy returning home and only recently had the 2 Koreas reached an agreement that would allow these vehicles to pass through.  I once met an EAL teacher in SK who said that she had attended an event where South Koreans would put socks and other small, light items inside of helium balloons to send across to North Korea.  I found this to be both kind, gentle and hopeful as it was defiant, and desperate.  I wondered logistically how people received these gifts and did they know when they would come, how were they collected and disseminated, and what happened if they were caught accepting these items. Once the convoy passed, Kaesong City was dead again.  We were told not to take pictures from the lookout point so of course, ever the rebel, I casually rested my camera on top of the wall extend the zoom and snapped a few grainy photos. You can’t tell much from them but for me it’s a reminder of the surrealism of that day.

Grainy photo of Kaesong City, North Korea

Nowadays the DMZ on the South Korean side is a tourist destination, you can buy N.K currency as a souvenir, and t-shirts depicting a cartoon soldier from each side proclaiming the JSA (Joint Security Area), visit the history museum , the statues and souvenir shops, and the Bridge of No Return.  Meanwhile, you are in a closely monitored area that is surrounded by barbed wire and signs warning of landmines beyond the fences.  This Joint Security Area does not feel like a copacetic arrangement but more like a standoff with one side refusing to back down from its totalitarian ideals and the other just trying to get on with life.  You have to wonder what the soldiers posted on both sides are thinking, if they ever gaze across to North Korea and feel sadness for the people, possibly family members, stuck on the other side, and if the NK soldiers ever look across to the South and wish they could cross over or if they think the South is a frivolous, evil place as the propaganda declares.

Bridge of No Return
Momument for South Korea’s allies


The tour takes you down one of the infiltration tunnels which were built by North Korea to spy on the South.  I had always thought they were escape tunnels.  You descend forever underground wearing a bright yellow hard hat. The journey stops at a concrete wall with a rectangular hole cut out; this is when they tell you that on the other side of the wall North Korean soldiers are watching you. First let me say that in the mind of these soldiers upholding the most repressive, austere regime in the world, we must have looked like a bunch of fools peering through a rectangular cutout in a tunnel wearing yellow hard hats.  Secondly, I’d like to point out that this was the moment the claustrophobia hit and I nearly scratched, kicked, and pushed people out of my way to get back out of the tunnel. Probably an overreaction but as I would come to find out a bit later in the Philippines, underground places trigger panic in me.

Our final destination on the tour was Dorasan train station, the last stop north on the Korail network; except that no trains are allowed to enter the station at all.  Prior to 2009 SK and NK negotiated a deal where passengers would be permitted to pass through North Korea through to China.  If this train were in operation, you could go from the southern most part of South Korea (Busan) through to China, Russia and on to Europe or South East Asia.  In 2009 North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean woman who had been out hiking and didn’t notice or heed signs that she was precariously close to the border. North Korea never apologized for killing the woman and diplomatic talks abruptly ended, as did plans for the Korean peninsula’s railroad.  Furthermore, aid was stopped and travel between the two countries banned.  Now the only way to enter NK is through China and its not a good idea to have a North Korean stamp in your passport if you want to visit the South.  You can however, freely stamp your own passport with a souvenir NK stamp at Dorasan station.  Apparently on the USO tours you can also visit the conference room on the military demarcation line used for UN talks but it requires special permission and advance notice.


Map of the conceptual train network from Busan South Korea. Can you imagine that trip!

While the whole tour felt a bit like any old day at Upper Canada Village, there were moments of brutal reality.  The bullet peppered train, reminding us that the Korean War was truly horrific, or the stark, unceremonious concrete wall at the bottom of the infiltration tunnel reinforcing divisionism, or the very real landmine signs on barbed wire fences, the lookout towers with armed soldiers suspicious of each other’s every move, and finally the fact that you can buy North Korean currency as a souvenir because their money is so devalued and their economy in such despair that its more valuable as a scrap book item than for actual use.

Perhaps if I hadn’t educated myself on the Korean War, why the two Koreas were separate, and the hardship that most North Koreans have to endure; I don’t think visiting the DMZ would be very impactful, in fact I think the take away would be that things are fine(ish) and there’s nothing much to worry about.  Maybe that’s what they want you to think, with each side hosting their own peace village (rumours have it that NK’s village is a front), SK is a safe place, both sides guard the DMZ equally and NK is not much of a threat.

Symbol of the Korean War

People, governments, analysts often disagree about whether or not the world should take North Korean threats seriously, many argue that Kim Jong Un knows that any aggressive move on his part will not be victorious in the end.  Some argue that the threats should be taken seriously considering their nuclear weapons, their ability to fire missiles on Seoul and Japan.  They argue that North Korea is like a toddler who throws his food on the ground to get attention, to instill fear in the world to bolster the Kim families power as supreme leaders.  I myself don’t have an opinion on this issue, all I know is that while governments and the News discuss missiles and power plays as remote issues, my thoughts turn towards the students I worked with and how their lives could be disrupted by such unnecessary aggression, and the people I’ve never met in North Korea who have nowhere to go. As theme park-esque as a tour of the South Korean side can be, the DMZ is still a blunt reminder that horrors exist in the world and for North Korea, they are almost completely inescapable.


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