‘’You must not go anywhere with yellow signs’’, our guide informs us as we excitedly exit the coach in the car park of Dora Observatory. ‘‘There are around 800,000 land mines here and we do not know exactly where they are’’…
He then grins widely, motioning his hands in an effort to shoo us away. Suddenly, no one seems inclined to move and I decide it’s been a while since I re-tied my shoelaces.
I’m on a coach tour of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. It includes stops at Dora Observatory, Third Infiltration Tunnel, the Unification Village, and Dorasan Station. My companions for the day are European and U.S. travellers and we smile politely at each other as we gather in downtown Seoul, at 8 am. No one has been to the border before and there’s an air of nervous energy as we file into seats. At the front of the coach, our guide, Sung, greets us.
A little bit of history…
He explains the DMZ is the land separating the Korean Peninsula. It’s 2.5 miles wide, 155 miles long, and is one of the world’s most fortified borders. The demarcation line was established in 1953 and, although it’s been largely adhered to, no peace treaty exists between the nations. Sung explains we’ll be spending the day in a war zone. I note he omits this fact until the bus has left the platform.
As we head away from Seoul and cross the Han River, the landscape flattens and the noise fades. As we drive parallel to the border, the countryside is split by high wire fencing and is dotted with stilted wooden huts, enabling soldiers to spot potential defectors.
The coach turns sharply to cross the Imjin River and I spot a heavily-guarded checkpoint ahead. The bridge is dotted with an odd pattern of concrete bollards to foil high-speed entry. Our driver, who clearly isn’t new to the task, deftly manoeuvres the coach before arriving at a line of stern-looking South Korean soldiers.
A young soldier enters the bus to check passports and we’re instructed not to make conversation. The guard, in full military dress, grasps my documents in his immaculate white-gloved hand and carefully studies my ID. After what feels like an age, he thrusts it back at me and promptly leaves. And then it happened: I was in.
Dora Observatory is the northernmost viewing point along the South Korean side of the DMZ and regularly welcomes curious visitors. We park up and alight, eager to stretch our legs and look at our surroundings. Dora has a museum and theatre but everyone heads straight for the 5th-floor viewing platform. I dismiss the elevator as too slow and hit the stairs.
Hello, North Korea…
It’s a clear, bright day and I’m on the edge of the open-air patio. I experience an odd feeling of intrusion as I narrow my eyes to gaze through a set of ground-mounted-binoculars. I’m now looking directly into the world’s most reclusive nation: North Korea.
It’s a moment I’ve been thinking about since I arrived in Seoul and it’s surreal. Fields stretch out in front of me, with mountains framing the view. The only splash of colour is from the red and blue panels on a single North Korean flag gently swaying in the breeze. This is not what I was expecting to see. The countryside looks verdant and enticing. This, I discover, is exactly what I’m supposed to think.
My first task is to train my view at the ‘Peace City’. The North Korean regime built the city in clear sight of the South in an attempt to lure citizens across the border. Once there, they would not be permitted to leave. South Koreans humorlessly refer to it as ‘Propaganda City’.
The city looks remarkably well maintained, with pretty pastel blue apartment blocks, industrial compounds, and all the markings of a fully functioning conurbation. I slowly scan the horizon from east to west, attempting to spot signs of life.
There’s nothing; the city is a shell. Its purpose, like many other things in North Korea, is for show. The apartments have no fixtures and fittings, windows are devoid of glass, and lighting is controlled automatically. The only sound emanates from an enormous tannoy, playing a loop of anti-Western propaganda to anyone within earshot.
A dark tourism hotspot…
I’m utterly fascinated to be gazing at a nation I thought I’d never see, and I’m not alone. More than 1.2 million tourists visit the DMZ annually. While it’s a spectacle for foreigners, the buffer zone has been a fixture of daily life in Korea for 68 years. Despite the most recent summit in 2018, little progress has been made towards reunification. It appears Dora Observatory and the DMZ will continue attracting visitors for the foreseeable future.