THE DEMILITARIZED ZONE – With the Cold War largely in the past, it is in no small way reassuring that one of the most volatile legacies of that conflict is a major tourist attraction.
As a North Korean soldier watches through a pair of binoculars across the divide that separates north from south, foreign tourists raise cameras, not guns, and snap photographs by the dozen.
The visitors are careful, of course, not to make any moves that could be misconstrued by the vigilant sentries across the way. Each has promised in writing not to “point, make gestures or expressions which could be used by the North Korean side as propaganda”.
Still, inside the United Nations buildings that straddle the border demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, the visitors pose beside uniformed South Korean guards standing in a permanent taekwondo-like state of readiness, as though they were Disney mascots.
According to the South Korean military, 160,000 tourists come from the south each year to visit what is known formally as the Joint Security Area (JSA), the heart of the 240km-long boundary that splits the Korean peninsula. The South Korean army provides personnel to accompany coaches and answer questions for the throngs, about half of whom are South Korean nationals.
The JSA is one of several stops during tours of the DMZ. Analysts have said allowing visits to the area serves Seoul’s public relations ends. Visitors can see threats still exist on the peninsula, said Paik Hak Soon, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think-tank. “If you are there, you automatically feel very tense. The soldiers are standing just like stone, just watching,” he said.
“Therefore South Korea’s very strong confrontational policy towards North Korea is justified. The [South Korean] government is looking for that propaganda value.”
The DMZ, created after the armistice agreement when Korean War hostilities ceased in 1953, occupies 2km on either side of a border often described as one of the last relics of the Cold War.
There have been countless skirmishes and attempts at infiltration, costing hundreds of lives on both sides.
As recently as October, South Korea reported its soldiers returned fire after two rounds were fired by North Korean troops.
The lack of industry in the DMZ has however turned the area into a peaceful wildlife haven, as it does not have the warehouses or factories that dot the landscape elsewhere.
Tours highlight what are seen as North Korean atrocities, including the 1976 “axe murder incident”, when two US servicemen from the UN command that runs the military on the South Korean side were hacked to death while cutting down a tree.
DMZ day-trips may also take in an infiltration tunnel that the North Koreans secretly burrowed with the aim of entering their southern neighbour.
At the Dora Observatory, meanwhile, tourists enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the DMZ, staring through telescopes at Gaesung City, North Korea’s second-largest city.
The current administration of Lee Myung Bak, which takes a harder line towards the North Korean government, appears particularly keen to show off the DMZ, said Brian Bridges, author or co-editor of three books on Korea and a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. Foreigners were the principal target, he suggested, since “it was difficult” to change views within South Korea.
“The South Korean government, in its national branding, projects these images of a dynamic Korea. Everyone knows about South Korea being the most wired country, but at the same time the current government wants to remind [people] the north is still there,” he said.
“For people from outside Korea, they should understand what the differences are with the north. You get the impression of that at least from the DMZ.”
The tours also allow South Korea to showcase its efforts to secure the border area, and to demonstrate what North Korea has done to try to undermine these efforts, said Dr John Swenson-Wright, an associate fellow in the Asia Programme at the London think-tank Chatham House. It was particularly important to do this, he said, after last year’s sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, blamed on North Korea, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island.
“Many of these tours include the opportunity to see the tunnels the north in the past has dug beneath the DMZ to infiltrate,” he said. At the end of tours, guides sometimes talk of the division of the Korean peninsula as being temporary, predicting optimistically the fences, like the Berlin Wall, will eventually be torn down.
“Maybe one day, when Korea is one country, the DMZ will become an ecological park and you will be able to walk all the way through,” said one female tour guide at the end of a recent trip.