The easiest way to visit the DMZ is through an organized tour. I’ve chosen VIP Tours, based in Seoul, because they’re locally owned. No one goes in or out without registering in advance and passports are shown at military checkpoints. My guide, Pogeun Ji, has been conducting tours of the DMZ and other areas for 15 years. She has a historian’s knowledge of the topic and well-informed views of public opinion.
To accommodate the 5,000 daily visitors, tours are tightly timed to the minute. Most companies offer two options: a half-day tour covering the memorial park and Freedom Bridge, the 3rd infiltration tunnel, the Dora Observatory and Dorasan Station, or a full day, including lunch, with the afternoon spent at the Joint Security Area in Panmujom, where the high-level talks between South and North Korea take place. Half of the room is located in South Korea, the other half of the room in the North. It is the only spot in which one can actually set foot in North Korea. I highly recommend booking in advance for the latter. There are strict limits on visitor numbers, so it gets booked weeks and months ahead of time. Unfortunately, ever these tours can be cancelled at the last minute to allow for official meetings.
In a landscape of fences, barriers and boundaries, the most popular attraction is the infiltration tunnel, one of four dug by the North Koreans in preparation for an attack. Now walled off, the 350-meter-deep tunnels are more than one and a half kilometers long. They’re also only 6’4” high and not for weak-hearted, the unfit or the claustrophobic.
Each side of the DMZ – the North and the South – possesses one village in the buffer zone. North Korea has Peace Village. South Korea has Freedom Village. Each has named the others’ Propaganda Village.
Fog and pollution cloud the views from the Dora Observatory, the only place where North Korea’s Peace Village is visible from. North Korean flags fly in front of the buildings, yet no one actually lives there. “It used to be so noisy here,” Poegun says. Rival broadcast messages from North Korea and medleys of K-pop, sports and music from South Korea would blare through loudspeakers throughout the peace villages. It’s quieter now, but despite the sonic ceasefire, Poegun warns there’s still an invisible tension.
About 200 people live in South Korea’s Freedom Village, Taesung. Just 500 meters separate the villagers from North Korea. Life in Taesung comes with high risk and high reward. We learn from Pogeun that despite the decades-long threat of nuclear war, security curfews from midnight to 5am, and daily military escorts to avoid landmines, those who live here do far better than the average South Korean farmer. Residents are given homes and large plots of land and typically earn 80-100,000 USD a year. The village is under the control of the UN Command, which comes with other benefits: no federal taxes, and no mandatory military service. The land in Taesung and the villages surrounding the DMZ is some of South Korea’s most fertile, producing soybeans, ginseng, and rice. Gift shops sell the local honey, one of the most unusual souvenirs I’ve ever brought home.
Many villagers in Taesung want reunification. But when I ask Poegun how most South Koreans feel about a united Korea, she explains that the answer differs by generation. “My grandmother always talked of reunification. She died last year at 92 years old, separated from her family. Because of this, I understand why people want to unify. But the younger generation is too distant from it. They see the two Korea’s as two separate countries. They don’t want to have to support North Korea with higher taxes and aid. They equate it with the reunification of Germany.”
But Poegun points out there might be pros to a united Korea. “We have one of the lowest birth rates in the world. We can benefit from their cheap labour pool. North Koreans speak a different dialect, but we share a common language. And North Korea has abundant natural resources, like charcoal, gold, crude oil and tungsten. There’s a lot of opportunity.”
The practical and economic opportunities are at the forefront of talks between North and South. Pragmatic plans agreed in April focus on connecting and modernising roads and railways and organising a reunion for separated families.
One of most interesting sites we visit is Dorasan station, the northern-most stop on South Korea’s railway network. It was given a state-of-the-art renovation and re-opened in 2002. A vacant train sits at an empty platform, still awaiting reunification, when the railway line could continue through North Korea and ultimately, all the way to Paris. The journey would take ten days and could transform local fortunes, carrying cargo through the region. The South Koreans upgraded this facility in hope, with the view that ‘if you build it, peace will come.’
There’s now resurgent hope that rather than being a haunting metaphor and a futuristic vision, this station may actually serve its intended purpose.
Be sure to book well in advance. DMZ tours are increasingly popular and can be sold out. For more information please visit VIP Travel at www.vviptravel.com
Amy Guttman is a freelance journalist and broadcaster based in London regularly reporting for PBS Newshour, BBC and Forbes, focusing on current affairs and entrepreneurship.
Photographs courtesy of VIP Travel