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Every two-ish years since Vancouver 2010, I’ve worked for the host broadcaster of the Olympic Games. So every two-ish years I explore as much of the host country as I can given how little free time I have during the contract period. Other than Vancouver (because I live there) and London (because of my brother’s illness), I’ve taken some post-contract time to see the country I’d otherwise experience mostly from the Olympic bubble. When I was contracted for PyeongChang 2018, I knew my one must-see in Korea was the DMZ. And not just any old place along the DMZ, but a tour that included inside the Joint Security Area, an area that surreally brings current events and the Cold War to life.

First stop: Dorasan Station

Dorasan Station, enormous and mostly empty. 

South Korea’s Dorasan train station is a gleaming, cavernous symbol of hope for Korean unification, on the outskirts of the DMZ. Largely empty and unused since it was built in 2002, it was funded by donors nostalgic for the one Korea era, and hopeful for a future where trains will run freely between the two Koreas. For now, the “To Pyongyang” signs are aspirational and the station remains a terminus, waiting for peace enough to fulfill its destiny.

The few trains that do arrive bring tourists to the demilitarized zone – the DMZ — 50 kilometers north of Seoul. The DMZ bears witness to the aftermath of a war that ended not with a peace treaty but an armistice, and one country divided in two not by a border but a military demarcation line. The four kilometer-wide zone spans the Korean peninsula, two kilometers on either side of that not-a-border. Beyond that is one of the most heavily militarized boundaries in the world.

One of the commitments coming out of the recent summit between the two Koreas was to join the two countries’ transportation lines. Others were to work toward a formal peace agreement and to reunite families separated by the war. It remains to be seen whether those commitments will become reality under the volatile North Korean regime, and the on-again-off-again summit with the United States, under the volatile Trump regime, only adds to the uncertainty.

Even tourism doesn’t really give gleaming Dorasan Station a purpose for now. Most tourists — like me — come to the area from Seoul by bus, with the train station merely a stop on a guided tour. Beside the vacant and closed-off customs area, visible through the glass walls, a small shop sells souvenirs such as North Korean wine and chocolate. Next to that is a counter with self-serve stamps.

“Don’t use your passport,” our guide warned as I pulled out the only stampable item I was carrying: a Starbucks napkin. “Some countries will not be happy if they see Pyongyang in there.” Besides the wisdom of branding our passports with the capital of a Communist country under various sanctions, there’s also the minor details that these aren’t official passport stamps nor are there officials to do the stamping nor is this yet an official border crossing. My passport has some pride.

The DMZ from the outside looking in

The tour moved on to the Dora Observatory, where we noted electrical towers in the distance change from bright blue to dull grey as they cross the demarcation line, and saw the only inhabited villages within the DMZ with their competing giant flagpoles. The guide unironically referred to the South Korean village, Taesung, as “Freedom Village” and the North Korean Kijong as “Propaganda Village”. To North Korea it’s “Peace Village,” but rumour is it’s uninhabited, and some are skeptical about the North’s commitment to peace.

The droning voice we heard in the distance (you can hear it in the latter part of the above video) was part of the propaganda war between North and South, designed to lure defectors and annoy the neighbours. Our guide translated what we were hearing as a South Korean broadcast of news, announcements and K-pop. The North retaliates with broadcasts of their own, minus the K-pop. The loudspeakers are silenced during periods of relative ease between the countries, so before the April North/South summit, the residents of Taesun – and possibly Kijong – finally had relief from the constant aural battle.

With stops at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, (aka the “Third Tunnel of Aggression”) — one of North Korea’s attempts to dig under the demarcation line –and a park including the Freedom Bridge, so far our tour had skirted the southern boundary of the DMZ without entering it. Penetration requires an escorted trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA) in Panmunjom, the highlight of the visit and well worth the additional cost and hassle.

Joint Security Area: Where the two Koreas meet

Look ma, I’m in North Korea. And looking a little like I was taken hostage.

The area is under the control of the United Nation Command and is the neutral ground where the two sides hold negotiations without being required to step foot on the other side – and where South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un made news by each crossing it during their summit.

Arrangements must be made in advance since not only do the JSA tours sell out, but the United Nations requires passport information before granting clearance to participants. A dress code is in effect – no ripped jeans, no sleeveless tops, no shorts, nothing the North Koreans can use as propaganda against the outside world — and tours can be cancelled depending on military activity.

Our affable army escort Private Pudder boarded our bus to take us first to the entrance of the DMZ ad Camp Bonifas, named after one of the two U.S. soldier victims of the luridly but accurately named Axe Murder Incident. We’re told the rules: no pointing toward North Korea, no photos except when we’re told it’s OK, listen to our escort. We walked double file, stragglers reprimanded by the female Korean tour guide who was considerably less affable than the young American.

Private Pudder is about to admonish the woman: “No pointing!” (The raised line on the raised concrete beside the blue building is the line between South and North Korea.) 

We gathered in a theatre to watch a film about the DMZ and JSA, including the many other incidents and incursions that have occurred since the Korean War. Private Pudder asked if anyone had alcohol or drugs. We dutifully replied “no.” “Is anyone planning to defect?” We laughed. We signed the waiver and, seeing us taking surreptitious pictures – as likely every tourist before us – our civilian guide offered to give them back to us after we survived the trip as a souvenir. In a page of fine print, the key language: “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

Side by side in the JSA itself are buildings positioned on the military demarcation line. From outside we could see the raised concrete line that marks the line, and inside the sky-blue conference building we’re allowed into, a microphone cable across a table serves the same purpose. Half the table and half the chairs are in the north, half in the south. This is where deals are made, and broken deals discussed.

South Korean soldiers stand in dramatic poses meant to intimidate the other side and overly casual tourists. We were instructed not to get too close, not to touch the furniture, and not to cross between the soldier and the central conference table. Eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, the soldier’s only detectable movement was to block the way of an errant tourist with a raised arm.

The blue building are half in South Korea, half in North Korea. The large concrete building is in North Korea.

We could take pictures but only facing south to north. We’re told the place is miked and the North Koreans are listening. They must be used to hearing the sound of endless selfies in this one place tourists can straddle and then cross the line between the two countries still technically at war.

We saw no North Korean soldiers during our visit, but the tension was palpable … and purposeful. The surreal experience had the air of military theatre, but people have died here. Those days may be in the past, but even as the potential for peace and reunification seems more attainable, that past has left its scars.

Getting there

• DMZ tours that include the Joint Security Area depart as day trips from Seoul.
• Only a handful of companies can take visitors to the Joint Security Area. Look for tours that include the JSA on Viator.com or www.koridoor.co.kr

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