The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is one of the more surreal places I’ve visited. Razor wire, watchtowers, machine-gun nests. Mortal enemies staring at each other across a river. The only comparable experience for me is a trip I made to Bethlehem in Israel’s West Bank, where the Israeli ‘security wall’ stands harsh and utilitarian, punctuated by heavily defended checkpoints and decorated only with protest graffiti. There are few places in the world where opposing political/religious dogmas come head to head in such a starkly visible way.
A friend of mine had recommended taking a tour with the United Service Organizations. I looked into it. There was a strict dress code: no ripped jeans, no sleeveless shirts, no flip-flops. Even scruffy hair was a no-no. The key sites included infiltration tunnels dug by the North Koreans and a spot where North Korean troops killed some American soldiers with axes after a tree-pruning dispute got out of hand.
In the end my brother Tom and I opted to go to the DMZ without a tour group because Tom’s apartment was much closer to the border than the place where the USO tours start from. We got on a local bus and headed to the so-called Reunification Observation Tower.
The bus took us away from the built-up urban area, along the Han River and to the foot of a hill where we were supposed to get a shuttle bus to the tower. The ticket booth for the bus was unmanned and there was nobody around apart from a group of Chinamen playing cards outside some kind of workshop. So we went up the hill on foot, passing guard outposts and taking in the sweeping views of farmland, a busy southbound expressway and the murky waters of the Han.
The observatory was surprisingly busy considering the lack of life at the shuttle bus pick-up point. Mostly it was full of Chinese and Japanese tourists. The first thing you do when you arrive is sit down and watch a propaganda video about the history of the North-South conflict. The narrator takes pains to portray the South as a charitable, long-suffering victim. By contrast the communist North is aggressive, stubborn, unbending. You learn about South Korea’s futile attempts to extend the olive branch of peace to its warmongering neighbour. And its persistent efforts to relieve starvation in that profligate and reclusive nation with food aid shipments.
The observatory has two indoor viewing decks providing panoramic views of the DMZ. The first one we entered contained a topographical map of the area which a couple of ROK soldiers were consulting. There was also an outdoor viewing platform with mounted pay-and-use binoculars.
From the observatory you can see an empty village which Kim Jong Il built for propaganda purposes. It contains a group of modern looking apartment blocks. But if you look carefully through binoculars you’ll notice that the village is eerily still. The windows are vacant. The buildings are nothing but empty shells, built to fool viewers in the South into thinking that the North is full of prime real estate. Apparently lights in the buildings are set to go on and off at set times and crews of street-sweepers occasionally pass through to create the illusion of activity. I was reminded of a creepy horror film I once watched called House of Wax in which a couple of psychos butcher all the residents of a small village to turn them into wax figures before placing them in lifelike postures in houses and public buildings, with automations set up to open and close curtains and so on.
Also visible from the observatory is an obelisk built in memory of Kim Il Sung, the Soviet puppet who founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
There is a famous satellite picture of the Korean peninsula showing urban areas lit up at night. In contrast to the South –a blazing beacon of electric light – the North is a black hole from which only Pyongyang shines weakly like the headlamp of a solitary coal miner. It is well known that the North-South border marks a boundary between prosperity and poverty which is visible from space. It is less well known that the physical landscape also changes abruptly at the border. On South Korea’s side the hills are covered with lush vegetation, but directly north of the border the hills are stripped bare. I’m not too sure why this is. Perhaps the Dear Leader thought it would be easier to keep an eye on his enemies if there were no trees in the way. Or maybe all the wood was burned as fuel.
There are other rooms inside the observatory containing museum exhibits. There are children’s toys, simple hand tools, plain clothes, primitive shoes – all from the mysterious land to the north. One wall is covered by a timeline which carefully details every act of North Korean aggression since 1950. There are even rooms furnished to resemble typical North Korean homes and classrooms in which tourists can pose and grin for cameras.