What you see in the Korean DMZ
The closest I came to getting arrested in the DMZ was near a bank of binoculars set up for tourists at the Dora Observatory. Everyone from the tour bus was lined up to plunk 500-won coins into the viewers set up in a row facing the demilitarized zone. I unwittingly found one that didn’t require a coin, and took my time scoping out the guard shacks and barbed wire in the nearby gash between North and South, as some kind of eerie North Korean folk music was broadcast over a distant loudspeaker (later, my sis-in-law tells me, it was an instrumental version of Josh Groban’s You Lift Me Up filling the air).
After a few minutes of blissful spying, I noticed a Korean woman running towards me from the Observatory office, flailing her arms: “Military only!” she kept saying. I hadn’t noticed that the binos I was hogging had been cordoned off (someone had taken down the blue rope meant to deny tourists access). I looked again: yup, it was indeed clearly marked in English, “Military Only.” I apologized profusely, and scurried off toward the pay-only binos; I couldn’t help thinking of the disastrous repercussions if an actual military emergency had occurred while I was hogging the military viewer — or worse, if South Korean soldiers didn’t have a 500-won coin handy.
The woman was nice about it; I wasn’t, in fact, arrested or ejected from the DMZ. But it set the tone for the rest of our visit.
The Demilitarized Zone was brokered by the United Nations between North Korea, China and the US to establish a “safety zone” of about 2.5 kms on each side of the North and South Korean borders. What really goes on beyond that line is a mystery to this day. When you visit Imjingak, a seaside tourist resort where you catch a bus (about $8) to take you farther inside the DMZ, you’ll see cartoon videos of protected wildlife, deer and birds and furry creatures no longer harmed by exchanged gunfire and buried landmines. This safe zone is not so safe for cameras, though, and at the South Korea checkpoint you’re instructed not to take photos of any soldiers. (You can pose with a cutout ROK — Republic of Korea — soldier at the Dora Observatory.) An actual ROK soldier later came aboard our bus to check everybody’s passports. He was quite thorough. We didn’t provoke him, lest we end up like overbooked United Airlines passengers.
The contrast between deadly-serious security and an almost cartoon-like blissful oblivion in downtown Seoul is hard to miss. A day earlier, we had visited the Children’s Grand Park in northern Seoul, a kind of low-key midtown theme park, and, seeing the hordes of identically-backpacked schoolchildren holding hands, squealing and enjoying the bursts of cherry blossoms and attractions that included Wizard of Oz Playground and Totem Pole Village and Marine Animal House and Deer Village and a musical called “Cats” (not the Andrew Lloyd Weber version, but a stage show featuring a motley assortment of animals — seals, birds, penguins and household felines), I couldn’t help feeling there was a certain self-anesthetizing that goes on in South Korea.
We were there on Good Friday, the day before North Koreans were to celebrate their grand-patriarch Kim Il Sung’s birthday with a parade display of intercontinental ballistic missiles (read: birthday candles) said to be capable of reaching US shores (the missile tests were later declared a dud). Meanwhile, a US aircraft carrier and warships were said to be streaming towards the Korean Peninsula, presumably ready to shoot those missiles out of the sky if they did launch. And a few days after we tourists left the DMZ, US Vice President Mike Pence arrived, reportedly backed by a US armada, to denounce North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s “provocations.”
It was perhaps a fitting moment to contemplate South Korea’s precarious existence vis-à-vis North Korea, the threat of imminent doom targeted at its 50 million people round the clock.
Then again, for most South Koreans, maybe not. I mean, wouldn’t you get tired of worrying about doomsday all the time?
“We don’t really think about it,” admits our Korean guide Mark. It’s true, younger generations seem to shy away from the harder line taken by older Koreans, who actually experienced war and famine. “We don’t hate North Koreans, we just think their leaders are crazy,” he mentions, noting that his own grandparents fled the north during the war, and that he still has relatives up there.
So instead of living under a cloud of Cold War dread, South Koreans have embraced the won, and the fun: there’s a hip, youthful energy expressed in fashion, food, hairstyles and designer goods, and of course the whole K-drama and K-pop worlds to live within, rather than the grim reality of a strange-haired madman wielding power only 120 miles away from downtown Seoul. Even corruption scandals, impeachments and the carefully curated political rallies that go on regularly downtown have been woven seamlessly into the fabric of daily life. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. It also helps to make life more bearable for South Koreans.
I imagine it’s like Americans getting used to the idea of daily bomb shelter drills at the height of the Cold War, though this particular chill between North and South Korea has gone on for about 65 years.
Back in the DMZ, we visited the Third Tunnel site, about the closest we would get to the North Korean border. (Those who prefer to pose with North Korean guards in shacks and take selfies are advised to schedule a visit to the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom two months in advance. There, you will indeed encounter North and South Korean forces standing face to face, and are entreated to sign a waiver in case of any violent encounter or death occurring.)
The Third Tunnel is the third and southernmost secret shaft uncovered by ROK forces along the DMZ border since 1974, dug by North Koreans to allow them free access to South Korea for various nefarious purposes. Over a mile long at the South Korean side, it’s probably hundreds of miles longer on the North side. Our guide confirms that South Koreans are still occasionally snatched by North Korean agents — usually military personnel who are never seen again, but sometimes, as Adam Johnson outlined in his Pulitzer-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son, to satisfy the cravings of North Korean elites for this or that South Korean sushi chef or opera singer.
It’s part of a network of tunnels discovered between 1974 and 1990 up and down the DMZ border, and it’s believed they were dug to stage a massive invasion of South Korea: up to 30,000 North Koreans per hour could conceivably barrel southward through the narrow passages, according to data at the Third Tunnel site. How many North Korean secret tunnels are still in operation, we couldn’t help wondering? My mother-in-law — a doctor who was basically there to tour locations of her favorite Korean dramas — was also struck by the proximity of threat so close to South Korea’s normal, everyday life. “It’s a little enlightening,” she mused, “and a little frightening.”
We donned yellow hardhats and descended down the 800-meter entry point — our breath becoming more visible as temperatures dropped — before hitting bottom. To the left was a crudely dug pathway no longer reinforced by concrete; stone walls dripped with natural spring water, leading us closer to the North Korean border. Metal boxes along the way contained gas masks and instructions (in Korean) on how to use them. Most in our party decided to turn back; the path grew narrow, requiring serious crouching as you pushed on, finally reaching a blockade entangled with barbed wire and — weirdly — red electric Christmas lights. You could touch the walls, wet with spring water, but could only imagine what went on beyond the thick blockade, now sealed off from northern incursions.
Today, places like this have become big tourist attractions. Some 100,000 people visit the Korean DMZ yearly, for the kick of posing with stern North Korean guards for Instagram, and I have to ask myself: why? Is it because we are all history buffs? Is it because we want to learn from past errors and improve mankind? Or is it because, basically, we’re fascinated by “bad dudes” and villains? (And is Donald Trump somehow related to all this?)
It seems the more secretive you are, the higher the world’s interest in what you’re up to. Does the absence of information about North Korea — its fervent secrecy — make it more tantalizing, much as paparazzi scrambled to snag the first photo of Baby Siri, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ newborn?
One clue came to me the day before our DMZ visit. We toured the War Memorial Museum of Korea in downtown Seoul (an excellent — and free — way to learn about South Korea’s many encounters with foreign intruders, by the way) and one room was reserved for vintage planes, helicopters and motor vehicles, relics from the Korean War. We came upon two recovered automobiles: one a Cadillac donated by then US President Harry Truman to first Korean president Syngman Rhee, and the other a limousine gifted to future North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung by the USSR after the war.
Guess which one we posted on Instagram later that day?
Yup. The dictator’s limo.
It seems that notoriety trumps fame, most of the time.