Despite tensions, tourists flock to Korean DMZ

High school students from Japan gestured toward North Korea on Thursday near the demilitarized zone in South Korea.
Ahn Young-Joon/Associated Press
High school students from Japan gestured toward North Korea on Thursday near the demilitarized zone in South Korea.

IMJINGAK, South Korea — Busloads of tourists still show up to gawk at the most heavily fortified border, even as governments on both sides threaten to reduce each other to rubble.

Chinese tourists browse through military garb — child-sized — in the gift shop. Japanese teens in maroon school blazers flash peace signs and giggle high above a landscape of bright-blue water, drab, brown North Korean hills, and seemingly deserted villages.

The Koreas’ border can seem surreal at the best of times — part tourist trap, part war zone. An amusement park, fast-food joints, and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ­ever-present Cold War tension that is higher than it has been in years, after North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint US-South Korean military drills.


Pyongyang has threatened to reduce Seoul to a “sea of fire” and stage preemptive nuclear attacks on Washington, while South Korea vows that if it is attacked, it will respond with even greater force. Visitors viewed the demilitarized zone with curiosity, fear, excitement — even a dash of romance.

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“We were a little bit afraid that maybe they’d throw nukes across the border,” said Thomas Wolfley, 32, a software engineer from Los Angeles, on Thursday. “It makes it more exciting. I’m confident that if anything were to happen the United States would come get me.”

The border allows visitors to experience a touch of danger — but not so much that it interferes with shopping and picture-taking. Hundreds of thousands of troops from both Koreas operate in close proximity.

Seoul is only an hour’s drive away, and that megacity can seem like another world as it gives way to farms, scrubby mountains, armed sentries watching for North Korean infiltrators, and coiled wire.

The 2½-mile-wide DMZ is potentially a violent place, a point occasionally obscured by the tourists and DMZ-stamped T-shirts and hats.


Shooting still breaks out occasionally. A monument in the DMZ stands for two American officers hacked to death with axes in 1976 by North Koreans during a fight that began over US efforts to trim a tree.

Tourists walk deep below ground into North Korean infiltration tunnels, many surprisingly well made, that have been discovered over the years.

The high point of many is a small group of huts in Panmunjom, which straddles the border and is where troops from North and South come closest.

South Korea sends some of its tallest, toughest soldiers to Panmunjom. They stand statue-still, in fierce martial arts poses, chests stuck out, fists clenched, helmets and sunglasses reflecting the sun as they stare north. North Korean soldiers, smaller than their southern counterparts, glare through binoculars and gesture toward the south.

North Korea has said it will no longer recognize the armistice that ended the 1953 Korean War, though it has made such remarks before. The most obvious product of that agreement — the DMZ — seems unchanged.