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Now that US war games are over, should you visit the Korean DMZ?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (left) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at their historic summit in April. Photo/Getty Images

Now you see him, now you don’t. Less than 100m across the planet’s most dangerous border, a North Korean soldier is playing peekaboo with a group of curious travellers on a day trip from Seoul.

Flanked by two guard towers, he will stand, eyes front and motionless, for a shift of 12 hours. If he were to try to defect, he wouldn’t make it past the bottom stair of the boxy Stalinist structure he’s protecting. No wonder he keeps ducking behind a pillar to avoid being the subject of another snapped shot on a tourist’s Instagram feed.
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From downtown Seoul it is just 56km to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the 4km-wide, 240km-long buffer bisecting the Korean Peninsula more or less on the 38th parallel. Views of Seoul’s soaring 21st-century skyline soon give way to the low banks of the Han River, crowned with camouflage watchtowers and festooned for kilometres with a tangle of razor wire. The river forms the border with North Korea, and stringent security has deterred northern spies and interlopers since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Our tour’s first stop is at the Dorasan railway station, opened by George W Bush in 2002, and built to link the North and South if reunification ever takes place. Spacious concourses are constructed in the optimistic expectation of accommodating thousands of travellers, and all the familiar furniture of border crossings is in place: windows for passport control, an overpriced gift shop and a shuttered currency exchange booth listing dollars, yen and euros. A graffitied slab of the Berlin Wall standing on the platform is a poignant reminder that borders once closed forever can reopen.

A North Korean guard tower. Photo/Getty Images

The earnestly named “Peace Train” departs Seoul three times a day, carrying workers and curious tourists to the border, but continuing the 205km north to Pyongyang is impossible. As tensions between the North and the South grew in 2016, the 53,000 North Korean employees at the nearby Kaesong Industrial Zone on the border were all moved out. Following the hawkish Twitter-fuelled feuding of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump throughout 2017, unification had seemed more distant than ever, but following the June 2018 Singapore summit, Trump has declared that US war games in the region are at an end, laying the groundwork for a seemingly unlikely rapprochement.

From Dorasan, bus tours climb a winding forested road further north to the Dora Observatory, a broad terrace overlooking the border. Bored-looking South Korean soldiers enforce restrictions on photography as busloads of seniors from Seoul and Busan squint through coin-operated binoculars, and strident propaganda songs drift across from banks of tinny loudspeakers on the northern side to compete with K-Pop beats from tour buses. Against a background of North Korea’s mountainous terrain, a “propaganda village” – including lights that turn on automatically at night – is a haphazard collection of empty buildings that convince no one looking from the south.

North Korean soldiers. Photo/Getty Images

More evidence of North Korean subterfuge is the nearby “Infiltration Tunnel Number 3”, one of four discovered under the border in 1978. Rumours persist of another 20, but now the subterranean surprise – also dubbed the “Third Tunnel of Aggression” – is South Korea’s most popular tourist attraction. It’s wide enough to allow as many as 30,000 North Korean troops to pass through per hour on the way to a lightning strike on Seoul and hard-hat-wearing tourists course through the 1.6km-long, 2m-high section that’s open to the public. Emerging into the sunshine from the crowded claustrophobic space is a great relief.

The JSA (Joint Security Area) exemplifies the paranoia and distrust infusing this slice of the Korean Peninsula. Scores of US and South Korean troops stationed at nearby Camp Bonifas, 400m south of the DMZ, are matched by soldiers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north. The ostensible demilitarisation of the border is belied by anti-tank traps, millions of land mines and crack quick-reaction infantry teams from both sides. The DMZ is the most militarised place on the planet.

Toy figures in the DMZ gift shop. Photo/Brett Atkinson

Tours around the JSA are led by US soldiers, and following another passport check, one Sergeant Zimmerman, a personable Texan, boards the bus to remind us that “technically, we’re still at war with North Korea”.

That’s why tour participants must sign a waiver saying that “although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile military act”.

Given the recent state of US-North Korean relations, that sentence now drips with sinister implication.

The Korean Peninsula by day and night, showing how much in the dark the north is. Photo/Getty Images

Sitting astride the Military Demarcation Line separating the two Koreas, the JSA is a humble building daubed in Smurf United Nations blue. Inside is a prosaic table where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953, and in a new century, tourists from both countries crowd – at different times – into the historic space.

A South Korean soldier stands in front of a door leading directly to North Korea. Sergeant Zimmerman jokes that the guard’s taekwondo attack position is mandatory, but the mirrored sunglasses “just make him look cool” – and at least half our tour group is technically standing across the border in the north. Through the door and up a short flight of stairs a slightly shy North Korean soldier is the subject of another of the sergeant’s wisecracks.

“We call that guy Bob.”

Almost on cue, Pyongyang’s finest promptly bobs behind his favourite grey marble pillar.

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.