A visit to Korea’s DMZ: Fast food, a pirate ship – and a bit of hope

Why We Wrote This

The 155-mile-long Demilitarized Zone that divides South and North Korea contains its share of the absurd and the solemn. It also holds reason for hope that one day, it won’t be needed.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
Hikers and journalists walk along the DMZ Peace Trail in the Demilitarized Zone in Goseong, South Korea, June 14.

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From Seoul, South Korea’s teeming, tech-savvy capital, North Korea seems as remote as the moon. 

But it’s actually just 30 miles to the Demilitarized Zone, the barrier dividing North and South. As Monitor correspondent Martin Kuz set off to visit the DMZ, he imagined barbed-wire views and a grim perspective on war.

Instead, he discovered, the reality could have been titled “Universal Studios Presents: The DMZ!” – even before last week’s geopolitical fever dream of a sitting U.S. president setting foot in North Korea.

In truth, the meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reflected the day-to-day blend of absurdity and solemnity that awaits tourists drawn to the DMZ. Between the pirate ship ride, Popeyes fried chicken, and the “infiltration tunnel,” they might discover something even more unexpected: a sense of hope.

A short film for tourists declares that, until reunification, “The DMZ will be alive forever!” But the final tour stop contradicts that fatalism: a dormant train station connecting the Koreas. One sign points the way to Unification Platform. Above locked doors, another reads “To Pyeongyang.”

For now, it is the last station in the south. One day, it may be the first station to the north.

The Super Viking pirate ship surprised me. So did the Popeyes fried chicken, the soldier mannequins, and the DMZ action flick.

I had imagined that a trip to the Demilitarized Zone, the 155-mile-long barrier dividing South and North Korea, would provide only barbed-wire views and a grim perspective on the cruelties of war. The reality instead could have been titled “Universal Studios Presents: The DMZ!” And I visited a month before last week’s geopolitical fever dream that saw a sitting U.S. president set foot in North Korea for the first time.

In truth, the meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reflected the day-to-day blend of absurdity and solemnity that awaits the 1.2 million tourists drawn to the DMZ each year. Between the amusement park and the “infiltration tunnel,” they might also discover something even more unexpected: a sense of hope.

I traveled with a group of U.S. journalists to the border zone from Seoul, South Korea’s teeming, tech-savvy capital, where North Korea seems as remote as the moon. Our shuttle bus skirted the wall and guard towers that demarcate the DMZ’s southern edge before reaching Imjingak, a park dedicated to the Korean War and its enduring fallout. The collision of contrasts began.

We joined the stream of visitors pouring out of tour buses and climbed up to a viewing platform. The deep-fried aroma wafting upward from Popeyes mingled in the morning air with the squeals of children riding the Super Viking, the main attraction of Peace Land, a theme park down the hill. In the opposite direction, the so-called Freedom Bridge stretched to the north across the Imjin River. 

Some 13,000 prisoners of war returned to the South here in 1953, after the signing of an armistice established the DMZ and two Koreas. A chain-link fence blocks the entrance, and visitors have adorned the barricade with colorful ribbons and small flags depicting the Korean Peninsula that bear handwritten messages. Most plead for peace or express yearning for family beyond the border.

We stepped back on the bus and rode past Daeseong-dong, or Freedom Village. The lone South Korean town within the DMZ is home to 200 residents and a 323-foot-tall mast topped with the nation’s flag. A mile away, a North Korean flag rises 200 feet higher above Kijong-dong, or Peace Village, the North’s retort to its neighbor. South Koreans refer to the apparently empty enclave as Propaganda Village, with its brightly painted buildings and tidy lawns at odds with the North’s prevailing poverty.

Lee Jin-man/AP
A South Korean soldier gestures during a press tour in Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), South Korea, June 12, 2019.

The dueling flags waved in the breeze as we gazed through telescopes across the 2.5-mile-wide border zone from the Dora Observatory. The lack of human activity for more than 60 years has turned the DMZ into an accidental nature reserve. Black bears, musk deer, cranes, and dozens of other species flourish here – as long as they avoid the 800,000 land mines.

The lush landscape further obscures that the DMZ delineates an unmarked mass grave. Below the surface lie the remains of an estimated 10,000 South Korean soldiers and 2,000 U.S. troops, along with an unknown number of North Korean personnel.

The sleek, silver observatory opened last fall, replacing its former confines, a Brutalist-style blockhouse painted camouflage. But it was the slogan on the old building’s facade – “End of Separation, Beginning of Unification” – that trailed me to our next stop, where we hunch-walked down the “3rd infiltration tunnel.”

Three concrete barriers block the center of the tunnel, one of four entering from the north that the South Korean military has discovered. A small window cut into the third barrier offers a glimpse of the second. Until the past year, I thought, the dark space between them could have served as a tomb for the prospects of peace.

Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, encouraged by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, had met twice to discuss ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program before their “handshake summit” last week in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ. Meanwhile, talks between the two Korean leaders have brought gradual changes in relations between their countries, including the razing of 10 guard towers on each side of the border and a ban on weapons in the security area. The small steps, if criticized as largely symbolic, represent the most progress toward detente in a decade.

We had learned earlier that the security area was closed, so our only brush with poker-faced guards occurred outside the tunnel entrance. There, a pair of South Korean soldier mannequins stood in requisite sunglasses and requisite taekwondo stance – arms stiff at their sides, hands balled into fists – as they posed without complaint for photo after photo.

A few steps away, a gift shop stocked an array of DMZ-themed items, ranging from T-shirts and baseball caps to keychains, fridge magnets, and car air fresheners. Pieces of “authentic” barbed wire from the border fence, neatly mounted on plaques, suggested an entrepreneur’s cynical flair for monetizing conflict.

Tchotchkes in hand, we walked outside toward a small movie theater, passing by a set of large D-M-Z letters that visitors hugged as if greeting old friends. We watched a short film on the Korean War and the border zone that resembled an extended trailer for a summer blockbuster, complete with simulated on-screen explosions and WrestleMania voice-over. As the video concluded, the narration reached a crescendo, reassuring us that until the day of reunification, “The DMZ will be alive forever!”

Our final tour destination contradicted that fatalism. The Dorasan train station opened in 2002 near the DMZ’s southern boundary. A rail line runs into North Korea, but since a spurt of freight traffic a decade ago, the route has remained dormant.

The station, bright and clean, includes an area for customs processing, an electronic timetable, and an arrow pointing the way to Unification Platform. Above the locked doors leading to the tracks, another sign reads “To Pyeongyang.”

For now, it is the last station in the south. One day, it may be the first station to the north.

Reporting for this story was made possible by a travel fellowship provided through the East-West Center.

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