It’s hard to describe the feeling at that first look into North Korea from the Dora Observatory, just outside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. Through coin-operated telescopes, tourists can gaze toward a North Korean empty propaganda village along the border, and farther to the city of Kaesong, North Korea’s third largest. Speakers blare western music – right now it is Air Supply’s Making Love Out of Nothing At All – toward the border, believing that these 24-hour sounds of freedom might somehow elicit defections from the North. We share our view with a nearby watchtower, soldiers always on the lookout.

For the umpteenth time, I ask myself how a war zone can be a tourist destination.

The North Korean city of Kaesong from the Dora Observatory

The Korean War began in 1950 with the North invading the South, and nearly conquering the entire country before intervention by the United States. Subsequent involvement by China on the side of the North turned the conflict into a full-blown war between an existing superpower and a rising one. Hostilities ended with an armistice agreement in 1953, but the war technically goes on today, and there have at times been shots exchanged since, such as the 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by a North Korean submarine.

At the signing of the armistice, the DMZ was created, stretching two kilometers on each side of the border. It is one of the most heavily mined areas of the world, with more than 2 million landmines combining with two powerful militaries to act as deterrent to further hostilities. Both sides actively patrol just beyond the DMZ, and military encampments are more common than civilian towns.

The only way to see the DMZ is by organized tour, and my bus is full on this Sunday morning. With the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-In and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un scheduled for the following Friday, we aren’t even sure we will be allowed in, as security arrangements can derail these tours on a not infrequent basis. Luck holds, though, and we are allowed to proceed.

The first checkpoint is a surreal experience. South Korean soldiers board the bus to check all of our passports, and the bus is allowed a specific amount of time within the DMZ. We are advised only to take photos where expressly permitted.

A South Korean checkpoint

It is soon very evident that we are in a conflict zone. The narrow road winds through what would seem an idyllic forest were it not for the signs on both sides indicating active minefields. These and the barbed wire fences holding them are commonplace in the DMZ, and our guide tells us that it is estimated that it would take more than 200 years to clear all of the mines dropped in the area. Fences even prevent those south of the DMZ from approaching the riverbanks as mines may have floated down and lodged there. It stands in stark contrast to the flower-lined boulevards of nearby Seoul.

One of many signs warning of an active minefield

The struggle between conflict area and tourist destination continues as our bus pulls up to a small museum connected to the so-called Third Infiltration Tunnel. Four such tunnels have been discovered to date, though speculation is that many more exist. Built to try to sneak a North Korean army under the DMZ, this tunnel is 240 feet below the ground. Photography was not permitted inside, but after a steep walk down and wearing construction helmets, we were able to walk through the tunnel to within about 400 yards of the North Korean border. Back outside, we have a chance to pose for photos next to the DMZ sign. It is an emotionally confusing experience.

Yours truly doing my part as a tourist

Not all in the DMZ is a celebration of war, though. There is the undercurrent of hope. Our group heads to Dorasan Station, the northernmost stop on the South Korean rail lines, and what is hoped will be the connection ultimately for Koreans free to travel between the North and South. Inside, tourists can get their passports stamped with a commemorative (read: not political) design honoring this dream.

A sign in Dorasan Station offers hope of a united Korea.

The final stop on our tour is Freedom Bridge. The site of a mass prisoner exchange at the end of hostilities, it represents the last true contact between North and South, and the last time a mass of people crossed the border. Today, it is a site of pilgrimage for South Koreans, who tie ribbons to a fence with notes to their relatives in the North. Looking through the fence at the guard station, one can’t help but wonder if reunification of families will ever happen.

Hope and war, the dichotomy of the DMZ

We stand at an interesting moment in history. After the much-acclaimed summit between Moon and Kim, peace seems potentially attainable for the first time in generations. While history also tells us that nothing is certain – or even likely – that hope is the meaning I found in the DMZ, and why I am glad it is open to tourists. The propaganda music, ribbons at the freedom bridge, and Dorasan Station stand in stark contrast to the reasons the DMZ was created, and offer a glimmer of positivity in the face of what has been unending war. And certainly if there can be hope in a place such as this, we can find that in all areas of life.

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2 thoughts on “Finding Meaning in the DMZ

  1. Jonathan, you started this blog by asking how can a war zone be a tourist destination. I think you answered it. Tourist destinations need not be fun. They can be educational.

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