I Spy the North Korean Sky
The Dorasan Observatory affords visitors clear views of the Panmunjom flagpole in North Korea, the world’s fourth largest at 525 feet. Photo by: Narvikk/E+/Getty Images
A coin drops into the binoculars, and a village comes into view, as if a projector has sputtered to life. Three- to five-storeyed mint green buildings peek from tree clusters on the right; vast fields and wooded mountains seem deserted, until I see men and women in twos and threes walking alongside crops. I wonder if they know somebody is stealthily watching them, after feeding 500 won coins into machines for minute-long, superficial glimpses into their lives.
But then chances are that I too am being watched—by a North Korean peering into where I am in South Korea.
This is the world’s most heavily guarded, volatile border: almost two million troops on both sides guard the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides South Koreans from North Korea, a country cloaked in the kind of suspicion and mystery that baffles Western media.
It is uncanny that 56 kilometres from Seoul, the city where fashion and tech trends spin as fast as K-Pop beats, the DMZ separates the city from a place whose dictatorial ‘Dear Leader’ has one finger on his nukes and a penchant for issuing threats of nuclear war. Stranger yet is how lakhs of tourists (including me) sign up for DMZ tours annually, picking a potentially apocalyptic site instead of, say, going to an amusement park. In Seoul, I see pamphlets of companies selling trips to the border (‘Paris has the Eiffel Tower! Germany has the Berlin Wall! We have the DMZ!’) as often as I am handed free samples of skin cream.
The four-kilometre-wide, 240-kilometre-long DMZ is the result of an armistice between the two Koreas after the end of the three-year Korean War in 1953. The agreement prohibits military activity in this buffer zone. At the centre of the DMZ lies the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the political border between the Koreas. I Google these facts before my tour to glean insight on two nations technically still at war—an armistice is no peace treaty. Little wonder the internet is abuzz with dire warnings and advice for those who plan to see the DMZ. Tour operators require that guests “dress appropriately” and not wear ripped jeans, sleeveless tops/dresses and shorts “because North Korea uses footage from South Korea as propaganda to show its people how impoverished foreigners can be, unable to afford decent clothing.”
A longer tour of the DMZ, which covers the Joint Security Area (JSA), includes taking tourists into a one-storey structure wherein they technically cross over into North Korea, under the watchful eyes of their soldiers. Entry to the JSA requires visitors to sign an agreement that they are subjecting themselves to the possibility of injury or death due to enemy action. As I scour more information before my booking, I learn that the forthcoming JSA tour is cancelled because North Korea has just fired two missiles over Japan. I confirm my presence for the (tamer) DMZ tour.
Haeryong Han, the guide who greets about 50 of us in the tour bus, ticks visitors off his list: largely American, some from Japan, Australia, Spain.
“Nobody from North Korea?” he looks up, amid chuckles from the group.
As Han gets chatty, I begin to see the allure of tours like the DMZ: when he tells us life stories of some of the 30,000 North Koreans who defected to the South over the past 50-odd years, or how Kim Jong-un loves his wines, German cars, Swiss cheese even as much of the country faces brutal poverty; how we’d soon enter a tunnel that North Korea dug to attack Seoul. My curiosity, that feeling that I am getting under the skin of a zealously guarded secret, gets the better of the scepticism of dark tourism.
The first stop on the DMZ tour is the Imjingak Park, an open-air site and a stark reminder of lives lost in the Korean War. I see people holding hands beside a steam locomotive with 1,020 bullet holes that was left in the DMZ after it was derailed by bombs during the war. Beside it, thousands of colourful ribbons flutter from barbed wire, carrying in miniscule handwriting the hopes of reunification of the two Koreas, or messages to families left behind in North Korea. In the distance, I see the Freedom Bridge stretched along fields, through which almost 13,000 South Korean POWs came home after the war.
War tourism is a sobering experience. Being here means trying to understand—really understand—the domino effects of war, and what it means to constantly be on the brink of one. Just last month, at this very site, a North Korean soldier was severely wounded after he defected over to the South. DMZ tours may be commodified, but they also hold a mirror to a crisis that threatens to spiral out of control any day.
I meet Han back at the bus, and he tells me that the first time he visited the DMZ was only after he bagged this job seven years ago. I’m surprised; all South Korean men have mandatory military service for two years, and you’d think their arch nemesis might be more on their minds. “Well, people in Seoul don’t like to think about North Korea, you know?” He nods at the people in the bus, “Foreigners are more worried about Kin Jong-un than we are,” he shrugs. I wonder whether this is a way for a fragile geopolitical region to deal with constant threat: it’s not going anywhere, why think of it all the time?
Further in the drive, a round-faced South Korean soldier hops on to our bus and checks passports, barely glancing at them, smiling easily. We drive along vast ginseng fields, and a village that is run by the U.N. We are also surrounded by two million landmines planted by both sides that Han says could take 200 years to clear. “But the good part is,” he adds rather cheerily, “that the region is a biodiversity hotspot because it is untouched by man.”
I crouch as we go deeper into a low tunnel, my helmet often grazing against the craggy rockface around me. Lights flicker to reveal damp walls. There’s no enemy in sight, yet we speak in whispers.
About 240 feet below ground snakes the 5,365-foot-long Third Infiltration Tunnel, which North Korea dug to invade the South. It is one of four such tunnels, and was discovered after a defector pointed it out in 1974. I descend 870 feet, and see dynamite holes facing the South. Han adds that they have no idea about how many undiscovered tunnels can lead their enemy into Seoul.
When this tunnel was discovered, North Korea claimed it was a coal mine—they had even rubbed coal onto its walls. “They keep lying to us, you know?” Han rolls his eyes, and we laugh uneasily. The shop upstairs fully milks this grim discovery and sells pieces of barbed wire from the DMZ and figurines of dapper armymen.
Those minty green buildings in North Korea seen through binoculars are empty shells, says Han—a fake, propaganda village called Kijong-dong. Watching North Korea from the Dora Observatory is full of such curious revelations. I squint at the North Korean flag on their side, a shocking 270 kilograms of it fluttering atop the fourth tallest flagpole in the world (525 feet). There is also a jamming tower in view, which blocks all foreign signals, cutting the country out further. Propaganda songs chest-thump the greatness of the North Korean regime. Cheekily, South Korea belts out K-Pop chartbusters.
The DMZ tour ends at Dorasan railway station. Between 2007-08, trains ran between Dorasan station and North Korea’s Kaesong industrial zone, ferrying South Korean workers to the Hyundai factory that it set up just beyond the DMZ as a mark of goodwill. The factory was shut after North Korea conducted a nuclear test. “If the two countries ever unite,” says Han, looking at the empty visa counters at the station, “Dorasan will again be connected to North Korea, and be a proposed stop on the Trans-Asian Railway, connecting South Korea with China, central Asia, Russia, and Europe.”
I try to gauge how hopeful he is. Han offers to take my photograph outside the station gates. “To Pyongyang!” he smiles, reading the sign above my head, “…someday.”
Several tour operators offer half- and full-day guided DMZ tours from Seoul, which include pick-ups from the hotel. The writer travelled with Cosmojin. Book at least 2-3 days in advance for their DMZ tour and 4-7 days in advance for the JSA tour (cosmojin.com; 7.30 a.m.-2.30 p.m; half-day tour KRW55,000/Rs3,200).