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A Day in South Korea’s DMZ

The day dawned cold. Fog hid the details of the landscape. Barbed wire and military vehicles gave a tense tone to the day. I had arrived in Seoul late Thursday night. I rose the next day before the sun and began my journey into what most Americans imagine to be the heart of darkness: the DMZ.

The DeMilitarized Zone runs along the 38th parallel. It’s a four kilometer-wide stretch of uninhabited land between South Korea and North Korea. It’s chock full of land mines, tunnels, traps, and other sinister imaginings. It acts as a buffer between the two countries. Stern soldiers stand alert at every turn. With these images swirling around in my head, I pictured a desolate strip of smoking, charred land, tanks rattling over dusty roads, ramshackle outposts, and skittish tour guides. I imagined it to be a serious, somber place; one full of gloom, ghosts, and sorrow. I was dead wrong.

The South Koreans, realizing the place could be a tourism gold mine have turned the DMZ into a glossy, well-manicured amusement park. That’s no exaggeration; there’s an actual amusement park in the vicinity. Air-conditioned tour buses shuttle camera-clicking tourists to visitor centers complete with propaganda films in HD and more souvenir shops than you can shake an M-16 at. I saw DMZ t-shirts, soldiers posing for photos, snack shops stocked with American candy, and a plethora of tacky tsotchkes (I made it out with the most inappropriate items I could find: a DMZ fan and North Korea bandanna).

After a quick stop at the Freedom Bridge, the private tour group I signed up for was herded to the 3rd Tunnel of Aggression, a sneaky little thing dug by the North Koreans after a truce had been reached. Four such tunnels have been found so far. The 3rd is a mere 52 km from Seoul. When the South Koreans found it, they confronted their northern neighbors (the following is a dramatization of actual events):

"Hey, we found your tunnel. That’s not cool."
"That’s not our tunnel. That’s your tunnel. Are you trying to invade us? Help!"
"Dude, as if! You can see where the blasts and ax marks are going from north to south. You dug it."
"OK. We dug it, but we were looking for coal. It’s a coal mine."
"It’s dug through a limestone mountain."
"…"

Our tour guide was more interested in the shops she’d take us to at the end of the tour (commission, anyone?) than actually being a tour guide. I feel like we ran through the tunnel, so there’s not a whole lot more to report. It was cold and wet. At the end, I peered through a hole guarded by razor wire. On the other side was North Korea. I was about 20 feet from it, and I’m guessing, that’s as close as I’ll ever get.

Next, we visited the Dora Observatory, a cute little camouflage building complete with…you guessed it! souvenir shops and snack stands. On a clear day, you can see the south, the north, and the buffer zone between them. On a clear day you can see the largest flagpole in the world clutching the North Korean flag. You can see Propaganda Village, where no one lives, but the northerners keep up appearances to show off to the south. Unfortunately, this was not a clear day. I saw little more than a thick fog bank.

If you’re going to visit the DMZ, I have a little advice. Take the USO tour: http://www.uso.org/Korea/default.cfm?contentid=347. They’re not going to shuttle you to gift shops afterwards in hopes of commissions. They’ll probably be able to answer your questions, and the tours are given by soldiers who are actually stationed there (not twenty-something girls who are more interested in telling you where you can get a super awesome Prada knockoff). At the very least, opt for a full-day tour that visits Pannmunjom. If you can’t get on one of these tours, I recommend skipping it altogether. Save your money for that Prada knockoff.