PANMUNJOM — The eight lanes turn to six lanes, and then four. The skyscrapers of an international metropolis disappear and give way to barbed wire, jersey barriers, and military checkpoints. And then an eerie sight emerges: the Demilitarized Zone.
“This,” a guide says, “is one of the most dangerous highways in the world.”
It’s one of the most bizarre tourist experiences there is: A guided tour of one of the world’s thorniest points of conflict.
It’s a place where the Cold War is still alive, a place that could ignite World War III — and on a stretch of land that Bill Clinton famously called the “scariest place on earth.”
But for $80 — and a promise not to sue if things go awry — you can go right up to the border of North Korea. Afterward, you can buy souvenirs from the gift shop: North Korean currency, T-shirts, and barbed wire fence from the border (latest going rate was $32).
This is one of most popular attractions in South Korea. But it also felt like morbidity tourism. It’s a little like going to see Alcatraz, but before it was closed.
And I knew I had to go.
There are numerous groups that offer tours, but I chose to go with the USO, which has one of the most comprehensive. Before leaving, you must sign a waiver that warns that risks range from minor injuries such as scratches to the possibility of “catastrophic injuries including paralysis and death.”
After gathering in downtown Seoul, we leave at 7:30 a.m. on a bus filled with about 50 people of all nationalities, but mostly European and American. Suddenly there are highway signs for the North Korean capital Pyongyang, even though security checkpoints would prevent any civilian from traveling there. We pass by a river that would be picturesque if not for the barbed wire fences.
After about an hour, we arrive at Camp Bonifas, a United Nations Command military post less than a quarter-mile from the DMZ (the small military outpost has a one-hole, par-3 golf course that has been named the world’s most dangerous, in part because it is surrounded by minefields).
A US Army private boards the bus and checks everyone’s passport.
We shuttle inside for a movie and a rundown of do’s (listen to your guide, only take photos when told you can) and don’ts (in no way should you try to communicate with the North Koreans). There’s also a dress code: No ripped clothing as, apparently, the North Koreans have taken photos and used them as propaganda to suggest Americans can’t afford proper wear.
Two US military officers travel with us the whole time, protecting us, warning us, and informing us.
“We stand face to face with the enemy every day,” one of them says.
After the brief orientation, we board the buses again and begin the short trip into the DMZ, and to a place called the Freedom House, a structure on the southern side of the border where the south monitors the north.
We are ordered to form two sets of single file lines. This is the moment. We’re about to go directly to the border. We go into the Freedom House, up a flight of stairs, and through glass doors outside.
There is Panmungak, a large brutalist structure where North Korean soldiers look back out at you. It was eerily silent. There are South Korean soldiers there, facing the northern side. We are told that there are North Koreans in the buildings, and a smaller outpost nearby, watching our every move. So be careful not to make any sudden moves.
Then, we’re told, it’s OK to take photos for the next several minutes. Everyone in the group snaps away, posing on the closest spot where any Westerner not named Dennis Rodman can get to North Korea.
There are jamming towers off in the distance and, sure enough, my AT&T phone ceased working.
There are about 9,000 annual tours given from the Northern side, to North Koreans and to Chinese. In 1984, an interpreter at the Soviet Embassy in North Korea made a dash for the southern border while about 20 North Korean guards went after him. Several soldiers were killed but the man made it across the border.
Several minutes later, we are escorted even farther toward enemy territory, into a conference room that both sides share. Technically, one side of the room is in North Korea, and the other in South Korea.
There are microphones on the table, and the North Koreans, we are told, are listening to anything that is said. Some of the serious meetings here, the tour guide says, have become almost comical.
Once, one side brought a larger flag than the other to set on the table. That followed with the other side bringing a larger flag. This continued until the flags were too large to be carried into the room — at which point both sides agreed on a standard flag size.
A South Korean soldier stands at attention the entire time, never flinching (even when people walk up to him and take selfies standing next to him).
We leave and again board the bus, the most dangerous portion of the trip complete. We head down the road to a site where, in 1976, two US soldiers were killed by ax-wielding North Koreans. The soldiers were trying to cut down a poplar tree that was blocking the line of sight between two allied checkpoints when they were confronted by North Korean soldiers.
Three days later, the US helped lead Operation Paul Bunyan, with the sole purpose of cutting down that poplar tree. Two dozen vehicles, carrying more than 800 armed men — backed up by helicopters, B-52 bombers, and an aircraft carrier — helped ensure safety while a single tree was cut down.
We also view the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged in 1953. Once they crossed the bridge, there was no going back.
One of the most interesting parts in the area are two villages, one on the north and one on the south, that you can glimpse from afar. The one on the south, called Daeseong-dong, is a small farming community with just over 200 residents. They pay no taxes. Residents have to live there at least 240 days a year. Doors and windows must be locked by midnight. Women can marry into the village, but men cannot.
The village on the north, we are told, is strictly for propaganda purposes (in fact, it’s called “Propaganda Village”). No one lives here; there are no windows on the buildings. Multi-story apartment buildings don’t have floors, but people are sent here to make it appear like a lively place to live. But here’s what they do have: the tallest flagpole in the world.
Here again, it’s the result of an arm’s race of sorts. The South Koreans in the 1980s built a 323-foot flagpole in Daeseong-dong, and the North Koreans responded with a 525-foot flagpole. (Giant loudspeakers used to blare propaganda into the villages, until a deal was made in 2004.)
After leaving the Joint Security Area, we toured Dorasan Station — an immaculate train station that first opened in 2002 and is still waiting to be able to send trains to Pyongyang — and had lunch at a nearby cafeteria. We went to an observatory, which has sweeping views of the North Korean countryside (and also has a convenience store selling “the chocolate you can buy only in the DMZ”).
The last stop is to view a tunnel that was discovered in 1978 and is what the South Koreans believe is one of several tunnels that North Koreans were digging in order to launch a surprise attack. (The north claimed they were digging coal mines.)
Again, it indicates what this area has become: What was once a site of potential catastrophe is now a tourist attraction. We put on helmets and walked down the mile-long tunnel. (Turns out the helmets were necessary; I had to duck my 6-foot frame the entire way, and rammed my head into the posts several times.) This is not for the claustrophobic.
But at the end, you can look into North Korea from underground.
Then, we drive back. Slowly the barbed wire and military checkpoints give way to a highway. The four lanes turn back to six, and then eight. And eight hours after we left, we’re back in the thriving city of Seoul.