The North Korean DMZ: The World’s Most Volatile Divide
It was the morning after the night before. I woke up in my hotel room in Pyongyang. What the hell happened?
Mr Han- my North Korean tour guide- had beaten me at Ping Pong, and then he’d destroyed my American compatriots too. I knew that much at least. It was a route. A well deserved victory for the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea over the Western Imperialists.
Then things got hazy as more of the local beers were drunk in the dingy table tennis bar in the basement beneath the International Hotel Yanggakdo, and a mysterious Mr Lee informed me that he was the man in charge of the entire North Korean tourism operation, it was he who decided where we went and when. Then he began questioning us all on our opinions of the North Korean ‘Weather Satellite’ programme, as the missile launches were endearingly known by all in the country.
What were my opinions on these ‘Weather Satellites’, the suited Mr Lee enquired. Did I really believe them to be ‘Weather Satellites’…? Things were turning decidedly shady in this North Korean basement bar, and not just because of the alcohol, but soon enough Mr Lee had disappeared as silently as he had arrived, presumably with all the answers he required, and we moved onto the hotel’s karaoke room for a few late night renditions of state approved pop songs.
The morning found me switching on the TV to a stirring chorus of Socialist Symphonies, as a recording of Kim Jong Un overseeing a mighty military parade through the streets of the capital roused me from my sleep and cut through my headache. After a hearty breakfast- every meal given to the tourists in the People’s Democratic of Korea was of course, more than bountiful in quantity, although generally lacking any flavour- my tour would be leaving the streets of Pyongyang behind for the day and driving south, towards the DMZ, the demilitarized zone which separates North Korea from South Korea. I would soon be closer to Seoul than to Pyongyang, but this is a border that no one can cross.
On the bus I regaled our English tour guide- Charlotte from Young Pioneer Tours- with the murky details of Mr Lee, while in the background Mr Han described to the other tour members- with brazen actions to accompany his patriotic speech- how he defeated me on the field of Ping Pong.
Charlotte confirmed that there was a Mr Lee who did work for the North Korean tour organisers, in fact there were many Mr Lee’s, and that there was one who loved to mess with tourists, especially in the hotel bar late at night. With more questions than answers, I was starting to learn that there was much more to this intriguing nation than I ever thought possible, and much more than I would ever be able to understand.
The bus took us through the city, and on the outskirts of suburban Pyongyang, as the apartments met the countryside, we joined the highway, the main road south, but a road which could only take us halfway down the Korean Peninsular. One day, perhaps, it could link Pyongyang to Seoul, but not this day.
As the streets of the capital ended, grey monument arched over the road. This was the Reunification Arch, and through this we passed to travel towards the most heavily armed and volatile border in the world.
The highway was a cracked, misshapen affair. Vehicular traffic was light- just the odd, battered and ancient truck- but plenty of bicycles and walkers streamed along the side.
The countryside was rather plain looking, with drab buildings dotted amongst endless fields, but still, this was exciting. This was incredible to see. People in the fields, in small villages, apartment blocks and houses along the roadsides, walking or cycling to work and going about their day to day business. This was possibly the closest to any sense of a ‘Real’ North Korea that we might hope to see on the tour, and still it would only be through the grime of the bus window.
I stole a secretive look at my phone’s GPS. Amazingly, my map App not only worked here but was actually incredibly detailed- as far as the tourists spots go anyway, there were no ‘Weather Satellite’ launch facilities labelled of course- and as we drove further south, the headache from the night before and the still too fresh a loss to Mr Han’s Table Tennis talents disappeared as I saw how close we were to the DMZ.
Many thousands of tourists visit the border between the two Korea’s every year, but most will visit from the south. Few can say that they’ve looked over the DMZ from the north. A few weeks later, I would again be at the DMZ, but looking out over to the north- to where I was heading now- on a tour from the south, while disbelieving South Koreans asked me what it was like across the dividing line.
We were visiting Pammunjom, the scene of the armistice agreement which called a ceasefire to the Korean War in 1953, and ever since one of the few points along the DMZ where both sides can, although very rarely, meet each other. The building where talks take place, the JSA- the Joint Security Area- literally straddles the dividing line, so each side can talk without crossing the border.
For a dangerous border with thousands of artillery pieces and small arms weapons pointed each way the DMZ was uncannily touristy. As we waited for the soldiers who would escort us through the minefields and checkpoints to the JSA viewing area to arrive, we shopped with a few bus loads of Western and Chinese tour groups at the ever popular Panmun DMZ souvenir shop. I bought a commie hat, a North Korean tourist t-shirt and even a can of Imperialist Cola- or Coca Cola as it is more commonly known anywhere outside of North Korea.
With tacky socialist souvenirs purchased, the soldiers guided us down into the demilitarised zone. In the distance along the border a huge North Korean flag was flying, and towards the south, a South Korean flag was flying in opposition.
This was it.
The army officers guided the by now large group of tourists- the DMZ is only open at a few limited times for visitors- into the Peace Museum, a replica of the meeting room where the armistice was agreed. Things became spectacularly touristy given the position and situation we were all in. This was dark tourism in action. Even North Korea hasn’t escaped the modern tourist, and the selfie sticks came out as people posed with the North Korean soldiers and took photographs shaking hands over the meeting table.
The Peace Museum was more war house than peace. The North Koreans have a no holds barred attitude when it comes to displaying the gruesome realities of war, especially if it involves dead Imperialists and Americans. Amongst the assorted weapons and pictures of the DMZ and the Korean War, in this macabre museum of peace was an axe which took the life of American soldiers during the infamous Axe Murder Incident which almost sparked war in 1976, just one of the innumerable skirmishes to take place along the demilitarized zone over the years since the war ended. Now the axe was displayed as a gruesome trophy to North Korean military power along the border.
At the viewing area, a kilometre away from the replicas of the armistice meeting rooms, we could see right across into the JSA itself. North Korean soldiers were on guard on one side, but their South Korean counterparts who would ordinarily face each other down across the white line were no where to be seen. When tour groups arrive on a particular side, the opposing soldiers will move out of sight I was told.
The South was still watching though. Perhaps wondering who these mad tourists in ‘Welcome to Pyongyang’ t-shirts holding selfie sticks were and how they got on the wrong side of the military demarcation line…
It was the perfect opportunity for a group photo with South Korea as the backdrop, mere metres away across the most uncrossable border in the world.
Soon enough the soldiers were moving us on.
It wasn’t wise to linger too long in the DMZ, but away from the viewing area the soldiers were more than happy to oblige us with a few more pictures as testament to our visit to the tensest border in the known world before we headed back onto the highway, away from dividing line and into the relative safety of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.
Just in time for lunch too. On the menu was dog soup, the perfect cure for any hangover…
Cover Photo Courtesy of Zachary Williams, who accompanied me on the Young Pioneers Tour! You can find more great photos from North Korea and elsewhere on his Instagram!
I travelled to DPRK with Young Pioneer Tours, an excellent company catering to budget tourists. They arrange tours to “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from!” You can find out more about their tours to North Korea and other insane travel destinations on their website, right HERE!