North Korea and the scariest place on Earth

12 Sep

I went to North Korea today. My sister claims my three-minute stay doesn’t really count, but since Bill Clinton once called the Korean Demilitarized Zone the scariest place on Earth, I say it does.

Because the real thing is not happening. It’s not because my curiosity is not begging me to go. But I can’t get past the comparison in the front of my mind. How would it be any different from time travel to Nazi Germany in the hope of peeking over some barbed wire to see the atrocities for yourself? There’s no need for some additional money in Mr. Kim’s pocket, and there would be no good coming out of that visit beyond a satisfied curiosity (which I assume would be offset by the grating moral thoughts kicking you in the stomach while there).

So, instead we went to the most heavily armed border in the world for a few minutes and some selfies.

As the name hints at, the Demilitarized Zone is a 4km wide strip of land between North and South Korea that serves as a buffer between the two countries. Running from coast to coast along the 38th parallel, the countries are cut almost cleanly in half.

On either side of the 250 km long divide, two countries are ready to go to war at a moment’s notice. The entire area is bristling with watchtowers, barbed wire, landmines, tank-traps and heavy weaponry.

The buffer zone dates back to 1953 and the Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended the Korean War. Once one of the most intense fronts of the Cold War, it’s still its relic and still strife with tension, hostility and also death. The North Koreans are unpredictable, and 500 Korean soldiers and 50 American soldiers have been killed along the DMZ since 1953. A fact I very much wished I had learned after and not before I walked towards the demarkation line myself.

Although the trip started as a cheerful outing with a bus load of tourists departing bright and early from Seoul, cameras in hand, it slowly got more exciting, as a dimmer switch beyond our control until tension filled the air. From the edge of Seoul and for the next 40 km, we drove alongside barbed wire and guard posts flanking the Han river. As we drew nearer to the Joint Security Area in the middle of the DMZ, we passed tank stoppers with dynamite and forests doubling as minefields. And we picked up a few American soldiers as our tour guides.

For me, and I assume for most of the thousands of yearly visitors, the highlight of the day was the visit to the blue house’s conference room. On top of the demarkation line – the formal border between North and South – in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone a few blue buildings host the talks between the two countries.

 

Coming out of the Freedom House (intended as a meeting point for relatives between North and South, though never put to use as the North suspected most of theirs would simply defect if given the chance), you see these blue houses as well as a myriad of South Korean soldiers frozen in battle stance, fists squeezed tightly, before your gaze goes upwards to the grey large building in front that’s across the border. And that’s where there’s a tiny guy with binoculars staring back at you. Laughable, if it hadn’t been so eerie. If that little guy were to walk down the steps and across the demarkation line, the US would automatically be at war. South Korea is formally still at war with the North, as no peace agreement has ever been signed.

Tourists are taken to the blue houses (also painted blue inside) on tours both from the North and South. For my tour group from the South, the excitement was obviously about walking around the massive desk in the middle – where the Armistice Agreement was signed and that straddles the border between North and South and onto the North for a few minutes.

 

 

From time to time, North Korean soldiers have been known to walk up to the windows and look in while tourists vastly overcrowd the place. But not today. I know, because just like everyone else I was posing by these windows, making sure I stood just behind the desk and on the North side of the border.

 

Among the other highlights was the walk in one of the tunnels dug secretly by the North Koreans under the DMZ for use in a potential invasion. Four have been discovered so far, though the assumption is that there are dozens.

Along with the few minutes at the Dora observatory tower, where ten-folds of binoculars are lined up so you may look into the North, the tunnel and the demarkation line meet my needs for peeking into a communist dictatorship and I’d much rather continue my stay down here in the South. It’s an interesting peek into history for a tourist, though a sad reality for Koreans.

 

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