Awed by the Korean DMZ

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As the two Koreas marked the 60th anniversary of their armistice earlier this year, I found myself at the DMZ, looking across at the secretive North. In what is the world’s longest cease re, the South offers an unsettling tour of the Zone.

The border between North and South Korea. The Demilitarized Zone. DMZ. Not your typical tourist destination. What started off like a bad trip to a theme park during peak season turned into a rollercoaster ride of emotions, tumbling between pleasant appreciation for humanity’s tenacity and genuine fear for my life. I did wonder at first why anyone would pay to spend a day at the frontline of what felt like a big squabble between two siblings. But the prospect of experiencing something in South Korea other than its famed kimchi and K-Pop was much too alluring.

I woke up from the one-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Seoul as the bus pulled into Imjingak Park, feeling hungry, tired and cranky from travelling the whole week. To my surprise, the entire area looked like a newly constructed tourist site, with perfectly paved roads, a ton of signages and a multitude of buses ferrying Chinese tourists.

“OK. Fifteen minutes, then you come back to bus,” our petite tour guide told us.

We disembarked for the restroom first, and then proceeded to buy snacks for breakfast. That left my travel companion and me with about seven minutes to pose in front of every single monument there, viciously snapping away with our cameras, disregarding “NO PHOTOS” warning signs.

The tour went that way the rest of the morning – wrestling with Chinese tourists as we visited the Dora Observatory, the Odusan Uni cation Observatory and the 1,635km-long Third Infiltration Tunnel that is believed to have been dug by the North to launch a surprise attack on the South.

By noon, bulgogi was served for lunch with a side of regret. I made a mental note to never sign up for tours in the future, having acquired a strong dislike for Disney-esque a ractions and muscling with other tourists. However, I soon forgot that thought as my day was redeemed by the Panmunjeom tour in the afternoon. On our drive to the Unification Bridge, said to have been built by Hyundai Corp’s founder, Chung Ju Yung, our guide told us the heartfelt story. Chung, as a young man, had sold one of his father’s cows, and with the money he made, left North Korea to look for better economic opportunities in Seoul. He had been separated from his family since the Korean War and, as a hope for reconciliation, built the Unification Bridge and sent 1,001 cows to North Korea to symbolically pay his father back – with interest.

Our next stop was Camp Boniface – named in honour of Captain Arthur Boniface who was killed by North Koreans in the 1979 Axe Incident, when he and his team tried to cut a tree blocking the view of a UN outpost. 

The past should never be forgotten.

“Don't take photos here or they might shoot!” hollered our tour guide as we drove towards the site. “Sit! Sit! Don't stand!”

One might find it hard to take this lady seriously. With her golf cap, bright blouse and fanny pack, she could have passed as one of my mother's line-dancing pals. But the alarm in her voice and look of panic on her face as she scanned the tour bus for potentially disobedient tourists were enough to put me fill at ease, and I edged slowly away from the bus window. It didn’t help that we were told that we would be shortly escorted by army personnel “for our protection.” As we waited in the car park with two other tour buses, our guide shared with us the unsurprising fact that Camp Boniface is also home to the most dangerous golf course in the world, in light of the North’s surrounding mine fields.

When our “bodyguard”, a US army soldier, boarded the bus, we realised that this part of the tour was not going to be anything like the morning’s “walk in the park” trip. Escorted by the dashing soldier, we proceeded to the Conference Room – a venue built solely for the North and South to hold talks, although our guide claimed that it was never used. There, we were further escorted by a group of South Korean Army personnel who were reputably the cream of the crop: tall, smart, fit and, most importantly, handsome, so as not to scare the tourists. They stood guard, expressionless, with their Ray Ban aviators that we subsequently found conveniently available for sale at the gift shop.

A soldier walks past as tourists gaze out at the North.

We were invited to take photos with the soldiers and later lined up in twos at the vantage point to observe the North Korean side, where a North Korean soldier peered at us from afar through binoculars. I could see more soldiers standing behind windows on the other side, watching us. The air was still and the place was deathly quiet. We were given two minutes to take as many photos as we wanted from where we stood. Once our time was up, we left , still in twos. Like the rest of the group, I felt uneasy – we were all probably being monitored.

Our tour ended with a drive to the Bridge of No Return, where we were instructed frantically by our guide not to take photos or to stand up. Just sit and look. “ They might shoot you if you take pictures here,” she cautioned, referring to invisible North Korean soldiers. I sat quietly in my seat, hoping bullets wouldn’t start whizzing past me. It must have been the only tour I had ever paid for where I could have potentially gotten shot! Later, we were given some time to buy souvenirs from the gift shop, which offered the tagline: “A gift from the DMZ is not a souvenir, but a symbol of hope for reunification.”

On our drive back, we observed villagers being guided by armed soldiers as they went about tending their farm plots. I asked our guide, “Why do you want people to come here?” I couldn't help thinking that while most countries would want to hide their internal problems from tourists, South Korea seems to have made the DMZ into a tourist spot where you could bring your kids on their school break.

“We hope for reuni cation one day,” she replied. “But we cannot do it without help from the outside. So, we want people to come here, understand and maybe intervene.”

The DMZ tour was one of my most memorable experiences in South Korea. It was an eye-opening and sobering reminder that reaching a state of peace is often a long, laborious and complicated process.

 

Puah Sze Ning is a freelance documentary photographer based in KL. She’s a fitness junkie who volunteers for indigenous rights organisations and doesn’t really function until she gets a decent cup of coffee. View more of her work at http:// szening.com.



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