More than half a century of fragile peace between North and South Korea has produced one of the world’s most unusual tourist attractions.
As global leaders struggle to strike a balance between punishing the communist-led North for its Oct. 9 nuclear test and engaging the volatile state in arms talks, hundreds of tourists are still flocking to the front lines each week hoping for a glimpse across the last Cold War frontier.
Littered with land mines and encased in razor wire, the 156-mile-long Demilitarized Zone between the rival Koreas is among the most popular sights for overseas visitors to South Korea.
At least 10 companies offer daily bus trips to the DMZ from the capital, Seoul, offering 24-hour phone reservation lines, free hotel pickups and customized tours in English, Japanese and Korean.
Colorful brochures scattered in hotel lobbies and tourist information kiosks across the capital promise “a real eye-opening experience” that will “leave you with a dramatic sense of the tremendous tragedy of separated families, the division of the peninsula and the hopes for reunification.”
Technically still at war since their 1950-53 war ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas are strictly separated by the 2½ mile-wide strip that is often called the world’s most heavily fortified border.
“There is no other country in the world where people with the same nationality are divided, aiming guns at each other. So this makes it a unique sightseeing destination,” said Choi Suk-bum, a spokesman for the Korea Tourism Organization, the South’s main tourism body.
On a trip this week, some two dozen American, Canadian and European tourists handed over about $42 each to make the 33-mile journey north from Seoul.
As the bus rolls into the first DMZ checkpoint — where a South Korean guard wearing full combat gear and reflective sunglasses carefully checks each passenger’s passport — a large billboard warns of land mines ahead.
Each tourist is asked to sign a release which states that their visit “will entail entry into a hostile area, and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”
Inside the zone, the tour stops at the truce village of Panmunjom, a bleak cluster of blue huts that is jointly administered by the U.S.-led United Nations Command and North Korea, and a military observation post from which the Northern village of Kijungdong can be seen.
Tourists here are strictly controlled — told where to look, where to stand, where they can and cannot take photographs — for fear of provoking the North Korean soldiers who keep a constant vigil over the invisible demarcation line. The DMZ has been the site of numerous violent confrontations over the decades, but there have been no fatal clashes since the 1980s.
At an obligatory stop at a gift store, visitors can take their pick from a range of DMZ kitsch — hats, T-shirts, tea towels, key rings, golf balls emblazoned with the U.N. logo, child-sized combat fatigues and boxes of barbed wire said to have been removed from the zone on the 50th anniversary of the cease-fire.
An hour or so later, the tour pulls into a parking lot filled with at least 10 other buses. Here, tourists are instructed to don bright yellow hard hats before descending 245 feet underground to explore part of an extensive tunnel presumably built by North Korea in the 1970s to stage an invasion into the South. Crammed with tourists and averaging just 6 feet high and 6 feet across, the tunnel feels dank and claustrophobic.
Tours to the DMZ run nearly every day of the week, and operators say they have not seen a drop in visitors since the North’s underground nuclear test last month.
“I think you could call it a spectacle, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said 27-year-old Paul Britton from Vancouver, Canada, explaining why he chose to attend the tour. “Like people watching the Berlin Wall come down. Maybe this is the next wall.”
“It’s that kind of secretive, unknown peak into North Korea,” agreed Joel Hickson, a 35-year-old applications engineer from Austin, Texas, who interrupted his five-day business trip to visit the DMZ. “There are just very few places like that left in the world.”
Hickson admitted the thought of visiting the DMZ just a few weeks after Pyongyang’s nuclear test was “kind of intimidating, but once you’re here it feels safe.”
The Korea Tourism Organization says it does not keep statistics on how many foreigners attend the DMZ tour each year. But one of the more popular companies, Korea Travel Bureau, estimates it takes as many as 12,000 visitors to the zone annually.
Another popular tour is run by the United Service Organization — the nonprofit group best known for its star-studded shows that entertain U.S. troops abroad — which takes about 8,000 mostly U.S. tourists a year.
The USO has been running tours to the DMZ since the early 1970s. It now runs two to three trips every week, “and they’re always full,” said USO Korea’s Executive Director Stan Perry.
“There is a sense of being able to visit and see something that many others around the world only hear about,” he said. “If you think about this, two countries separated by a thin line — it’s amazing.”