During my daily life, what with all the screaming children and endless officework and borderline alcoholism, it’s often easy to forget that I live in South Korea. Even after two months it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. So it’s a completely abstract notion that I also happen to live only 30 kilometres away from the most reclusive, bizarre and batshit insane nation in the entire world.

I find the division of Korea to be pretty fascinating. No two nations in the world are more alike and yet more different. They’re both racially homogenous countries with a shared language and common history, and yet one is a democratic technological prodigy rocketing into the 21st century, while the other is a starving Stalinist dictatorship clinging onto the Cold War. Check it, yo:

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We all have a subconscious tendency to categorise the brainwashed denizens of communist dictatorships as Others, and reassure ourselves that it could never happen to us. Yes, it’s odd that they all worship the Dear Leader and believe that he can manipulate the weather and was born on Baekdu Mountain underneath a rainbow, but, well… they’re not like us, are they? They’re different.

But not to South Koreans. You could pick up the average South Korean, plonk them down in Pyongyang and they’d be able to walk the streets having a conversation with people who were just like them… except completely brainwashed. Actually the average young Korean man, with his tight jeans and styled blonde hair, would probably last all of thirty seconds in Pyongyang before the military realised something was up and dragged him away for interrogation. But you get what I mean. Imagine if Queensland was surrounded by landmines and razor wire and ruled by a mysterious dictator with an elaborate cult of personality.

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, cuts the Korean peninsula in two roughly across the 38th parallel. It’s two kilometres wide on either side of the official border, which adds up to a four-kilometre wide band of land running all the way across Korea. It’s completely uninhabited, strewn with landmines and overgrown ruins, and contains not a single soul… except at one place.

That place is Panmunjon, or the Joint Security Area, where roads run into the DMZ from north and south and meet at a cluster of “temporary” buildings. This is the one and only place where North Korean and South Korean soldiers come face to face, staring each other down only a few metres apart. The purpose of the JSA is to hold official meetings and discuss reunification. In theory. What they actually use it for is sabre-rattling, and lots of it.

It’s a tense area. The two Koreas never officially ended the war, and hostilites continue to this day. Shots have been fired, defections have been made and axe murders have occurred (really). It might seem odd to bring tourists into such an area, but I suppose it’s appropriate – after all, this is Capitalist Korea versus Communist Korea and it’s fitting that the southern side should therefore exploit the fascinating military stalemate to rake in the cash off Western tourists. You might even say it’s their patriotic duty! (For this to work you have to ignore the fact that North Korea also runs guided tours from their side of the DMZ.)

I went on the USO tour, which is run by the US military and includes by far the largest amount of DMZ attractions. Unfortunately it also requires getting up at 5 am to be at Camp Kim by 7 am. I guess the US Army feels that’s a natural time to start things in the morning. Sucks for a teacher accustomed to sleeping in until noon every day, suddenly thrust into an environment where Saturday and Sunday mornings are precious sanctuaries of rest, but whatever.

So after spending the previous night trying to find an iTunes alarm that would wake my computer up and then play a song, so I don’t have to start my days with the fucking ear-splitting shriek of my apartment’s alarm clock anymore, I rose yesterday 5.00 AM, knocked on Tony’s door at 5.30 AM, and the two of us arrived at Camp Kim around 6.30 AM. It was a pretty big tour group, about 90 people. Mostly Americans, but not nearly as many soldiers as I expected. We waited around for about an hour while they checked all our passports, and were then piled onto two tour buses.

I’ll mention now that I absolutely hate guided tours. I hate being shepherded around, I hate having no independence, I hate the corny jokes and dull statistics dispensed by the guides and I generally hate the whole atmosphere. But you can’t exactly wander around the DMZ on your own, so I had to put up with it.

Our tour guide was a Korean woman who spoke decent English and had an obvious and amusing hatred of North Korea, her mother having barely escaped with her life to the south in 1950. As we drove north we came to a river, the name of which I forget, which empties out into the Yellow Sea just north of Seoul. This close to the coast, the river itself forms the border, and on the north side of the wide estuary we caught our first glimpse of North Korea. It’s strikingly different from the south. South Korea is covered with rice paddies, vegetation and towering apartment blocks. North Korea simply showed a few clusters of single story buildings and bare mountainsides, the vegetation having been stripped clean for food and fuel. Coils of razor wire ran the entire length of the river, and regular ROK (Republic of Korea) Army observation posts lined the highway, soldiers staring north with binoculars.

We eventually drove over a bridge (further east now, the north shore of the river being South Korean territory), and headed into Camp Bonifas, the northenmost US/ROK military base in the country. It’s right below the southern border of the DMZ, as close as they can possibly be to North Korea without violating the armistice agreement. The camp’s motto is “In Front Of Them All,” which could also mean “First To Get Our Asses Kicked If The North Invades” – although that could also apply to whatever equivalent exists on the northern side. (And yes, the North would lose a war in a matter of weeks – not that it would do me any good, since Seoul would be flattened in a matter of hours by the thousands of pieces of long-range artillery they have hidden just over the border.)

We were ushered into a small meeting hall where we were issued UN visitor badges and signed forms absolving South Korea, the US and the UN of any responsibility in the event of our deaths. (“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”) Then we watched a slide show given by an MP who seemed in a rush to get through the whole thing. It outlined the history of the war and some examples of the aggression that the JSA is a hot point for, such as the Axe Murder Incident, which took place in August 1976.

Before the unpleasantness of the Axe Murder Incident, both ROK/US and North Korean soldiers were allowed to freely move about within the entire JSA, crossing the demarcation line (official border) whenever it suited them. There was a particular tree within the area at this time that, growing larger and larger, was starting to block the view between a ROK/US command post and a ROK/US observation post. They decided to trim some branches, and dispatched a fourteen man team of both Americans and South Koreans to do so, led by Captain Arthur Bonifas – at the time, the camp to the south was called Camp Kitty Hawk. Since it has subsequently been named in his honour, you may guess that this story does not end well for him.

The tree-pruning team wasn’t carrying guns. Few soldiers in the JSA do, even today; just a few MPs. It is, after all, a demilitarized zone. They did have a few axes and mattocks to prune the tree.

Shortly after they began cutting back the branches, a North Korean force of equal size appeared and ordered them to halt, because the tree was apparently personally planted by Kim Il-Sung, and was growing under his supervision. Bonifas ignored this bullshit, which was probably imprudent, because a few minutes later a truck full of 20 more North Koreans showed up with clubs and crowbars. The North Korean officer again ordered Bonifas to stop, and Bonifas again ignored them, which was definitely imprudent, because the North Korean officer then ordered his men to “kill them all!” and personally karate chopped Bonifas in the neck and then bludgeoned him to death.

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In the enusing melee, the outnumbered ROK/US forces were badly wounded, and the fight was only broken up when one of them drove their truck into the fray and over Bonifas in an attempt to protect him. When the North Korean forces retreated they dragged their own wounded with them, and also US Lieutenant Mark Barrett. Nobody realised Barrett was missing until later, when an observation post saw North Korean soldiers jumping down into a ditch and hacking at something with an axe. A medevac was dispatched, but it was too late for both Bonifas and Barrett.

Three days later the US/ROK forces dispatched into the JSA 23 trucks containing 60 soldiers, 16 chainsaw-equipped engineers, 64 Korean spec ops with M16s, grenade launchers and Claymore mines strapped to their chests, 20 utility choppers, 7 Cobra attack choppers, several B-52 bombers and F4 Phantoms, and the aircraft carrier USS Midway sitting on full alert just off-shore in the Yellow Sea. The purpose of this enormous expeditionary force wasn’t to retaliate, or to start a war. They just wanted to cut that fucking tree down.

This would all be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high.

Anyway, after hearing about all this, we jumped back on the tour buses and drove north, passing under a blue archway into the actual DMZ. Immediately there was a fence on both sides of the road lined with signs warning against landmines. I personally figured the fifty-odd metres to either side would have to be safe, because they surely would have sent mine-sweeping teams in to make sure the area around the base was clear – after all, how else could they build the road? But apparently the torrential rain Korea experiences every summer causes a lot of mudslides and constantly buries or re-exposes the mines. So yes, the danger is very real. There’s a one-hole golf course at Camp Bonifas considered the most dangerous in the world because the rough is full of mines.

As we headed north we passed by Daeseong-dong, also known as “Freedom Village.” It’s small South Korean farming community whose existence inside the DMZ is either a gesture of peace, reconciliation and determination to reunify, or a propaganda exercise, depending on who you talk to. The residents all have to be indoors by nightfall, with doors and windows locked by midnight. In return for this, and for living so nerve-wrackingly close to North Korea, they are exempt from taxes and national service, and have a hell of a lot more land to farm than most South Koreans do, so they make about a hundred grand every year.

And then we were arriving in the Joint Security Area, a fairly plain-looking collection of buildings patrolled be extremely fierce-looking ROK soldiers wearing Ray-Bans and maintaining motionless taekwondo stances. After being told several times that we must absolutely not try to communicate with the North Korean soldiersin any way, including gesturing and pointing, we were ordered into two lines and slowly led through the main ROK/US building out onto the other side, where the official border is. Several small blue and grey meeting rooms sit right on the border, the demarcation lines running right through them and over the conference tables. On the north side is the main North Korean building, an ugly and imposing structure of grey concrete.

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It was eerily quiet, and I was a little disappointed, because only ROK soldiers were in sight. Sometimes there are North Koreans stationed right there on their side of the border, staring their counterparts down. Today we could only see the ROK soldiers, standing half-behind the edge of the walls so as to present a smaller target for snipers. I don’t see why they don’t just stand behind the wall entirely. Or, if that presents a problem for visibility, have them stay inside the main building behind reflective windows or something.

Before I could scan the northern side trying to spot one of those strange, elusive creatures of the People’s Army, we were led inside one of the conference rooms. As I mentioned earlier, the border runs right through the room (and the table), so you’re allowed to walk around in what is, strictly speaking, North Korean territory. The fact that there was a South Korean guard there blocking the door to the north sort of spoiled the effect, although it was pretty amusing when one of the girls strayed too close to the door and he barked gruffly and put an arm out to block her. She freaked. They are pretty intimidating; apparently all ROK soldiers at the JSA are the cream of the crop, hand-selected by the government.

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Our US soldier guide talked about the conference room and dispensed some more amusing stories of dick-waving; at one point the North Koreans brought in a flag slightly larger than the UN flag, so the ROK/US forces responded by bringing in a slightly larger flag, and it escalated, until the flags were almost too big to fit in the room and they held a conference just to discuss the size of the flags. Mature and professional!

After that, we were led back out onto the steps of the South Korean building while the second half of our group entered the conference room. And this was where I spotted my first North Korean soldier, standing far away on the steps of the North Korean building.

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His job is to watch us through binoculars and photograph us. The dress code for these tours has relaxed in recent years, but there was a time when you had to wear dress shoes, a collared shirt and either slacks or khakis – because the UNC didn’t want photographs of scruffy Western deadbeats showing up on propaganda posters in Pyongyang.

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After a few minutes I spotted another soldier in the foliage off to our right. Not sure what he was doing.

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And then a few minutes later the first guy’s superior came out, borrowed his binoculars and peered at us himself.

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It was only later when I zoomed in on this photo that I realised they were smiling, as though one of them had just made a joke. I think seeing that was probably the most surreal part of the whole experience. They may be brainwashed tools of a brutal police state, but they still laugh. Weird.

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Anyway, the obvious question that comes to mind when you’re observing the only direct border between the two countries is: what would happen if you made a break for it?

It happens from time to time, usually by North Korean soldiers who have uneasy doubts about just how Dear their Leader really is. There were no North Korean guards standing by the conference rooms when I visited, but typically, one stands right on the demarcation line with his back to South Korea. His job is to watch all the other soldiers to make sure they don’t bolt.

Anyway, the answer to what would happen if you tried to dash across the border is that it would be a really messy situation. Regardless of which side you’re on, the guards will do everything they can to stop you. On the northern side this would involve shooting you. On the southern side, I don’t like your chances of making it over the line before being crash-tackled by the badass motherfuckers of the ROK Army’s finest. And no matter which side you fail on, you’re going to be in serious trouble: execution in North Korea, and jail in South Korea.

Where it really gets interesting is if you make it over the line. Korean guards from either side are not, ever since the Axe Murder Incident, allowed to cross the line. But in pursuit of a defector they very well might. This would result in a heated battle between unarmed (but taekwondo-trained) Korean guards, and the one or two MPs that have handguns. That would last for about two minutes before fully-armed reinforcements from Camp Bonifas and whatever its opposite number is arrive, at which point the JSA would become a raging battleground while the defector is rushed to safety.

This has happened once and once only, in 1984, when a Soviet citizen on a North Korean tour fled south to defect. The ensuing firefight lasted forty minutes, with three North Koreans and one South Korean killed. I’m not sure how they defused something like that. I’m not sure how it didn’t escalate into a fully-fledged war. Either way, the Soviet guy made it to safety and now lives in Los Angeles.

I don’t think anyone has ever fled from the south to the north (at least not in the last twenty-five years, when you started actually being able to distinguish one Korea from the other). If you did, and you made it, you would probably be welcomed by the North Korean guards because a Western citizen would be an invaluable propaganda tool (and it would definitely be a Western citizen, because Koreans aren’t allowed on the tour). You’d be put up in a nice house, have to learn Korean and the Juche philosophy, and probably be employed as an actor playing white villains in propaganda films, or teaching English to the select few North Koreans who will themselves be used by the government as diplomats, spies or propagandists. You’ll be quite well off by Noth Korean standards, but you’ll have no freedom whatsoever, and when the two nations reunify on South Korea’s terms (which will probably happen in your lifetime) you’ll be in a lot of trouble.

So the moral is, don’t defect to North Korea.

That was it for the JSA tour. We stopped off to buy souvenirs (yes, there is a souvenir store in the JSA, and yes, I did buy a T-shirt) but after that we were heading towards Dora Observatory.

I’d heard of this place before, and my mind automatically assumed it was an astronomical observatory inside the DMZ, some relic from before the war that was kept operational purely for symbolic purposes. It’s not an astronomical observatory at all, and it’s not in the DMZ – it sits just south of it, and commands an impressive view of the north. On a clear day, which today was, you can see for several dozen kilometres into North Korea with the aid of coin-operated telescopes.

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You are not, however, allowed to take photographs within a certain limit of the observation balcony. There’s a yellow line painted marking the limit, which resulted in a whole heap of tourists standing on their tip-toes with their cameras held over their heads, trying to take photographs of the North. (I was one of them, which is why that last photo was of such poor quality.) A ROK soldier patrolling the area watched us like hawks and made anyone who took a photo past the yellow line delete it. He was a pretty nice guy though, spoke fluent English, and allowed me to cross the line and take a photo pointing the other way to illustrate how ridiculous this situation was:

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I have absolutely no idea why they don’t let people take photos. Normally it’s because they want you to buy postcards in the gift shop, but that wasn’t the case here. Plus it seemed like a pretty arbritrary cut-off point, since you’re only about four metres from the balcony anyway. After a while I stopped trying to get good photos and just took in the view.

From Dora Observatory you can see the small city of Kaesong, a light industrial centre which essentially looked like a typically bland South Korean city – but minus the flashing lights and corporate logos that lend this country the appearance, if not the entire truth, of being a completely developed country. Further south you could also see a good chunk of the DMZ, including Camp Bonifas, Daeseong-dong and the JSA.

On the Northern side of the DMZ is their equivalent of Daeseong-dong, a small town called Kijong-dong allowed to exist within the DMZ for the same reasons the South permits Daeseong-dong. While the South’s is nicknamed “Freedom Village,” the North’s is nicknamed “Propaganda Village,” and for a much better reason than the typical American obsession with that word. Kijong-dong is completely empty. Nobody lives there, and the buildings are concrete shells without window glasses or interior rooms. The lights are automated and the streets swept clean by caretakers bussed in from Kaesong. It was built from scratch in the 1950s, a time when both Koreas were impoverished, devastated nations languishing under military dictatorships, to encourage South Korean defection. Loudspeakers would blare propaganda about how easy and wonderful life was in the north; after several decades, when that proved ineffective, they started pumping out anti-Western speeches and patriotic marching music, and turning up the volume. The South responded by blaring out K-pop from Daeseong-dong, and as somebody who works with kindergardners who recite K-pop all day long, let me assure you that the villagers of Daeseong-dong suffered the most in this whole debacle. Eventually both sides agreed to stop broadcasting just to give themselves some peace and quiet.

Kijong-dong also contains one of the world’s highest flagpoles, standing 160 metres tall and just barely visible in my crummy photo further up the page. It was built after the South extended the height of their flagpole to 100 metres so it was taller than the North’s; they responded by building the current record-holder. I think this is the perfect symbol of the pointless pissing contest that goes on between these two countries. And while one would be inclined to assume that the North Koreans usually start it – they’re the bad guys, right? – the South is reponsible for their share of childish bullshit too. After working in South Korea for two months I understand much more clearly how the North operates. Confucianism and saving face – North and South both operate under these same frustrating, illogical values. Westerners may be inclined to believe that the South is always in the right, because it’s a reasonable and rational nation. Wrong. I’m not defending North Korea at all, or suggesting the two countries are basically the same. But their fundamental, traditional values are basically the same. Kim-Jong Il owes a lot more to Confucius than he does to Stalin.

Apparently there’s a gold statue of Kim Il-Sung (which isn’t quite as ludicrous as Saparmurat Niyazov’s revolving gold statue)  somewhere in Kaesong, but my binoculars snapped shut before I could find it. There’s also a huge radar mast sticking up from one of the mountains, placed there to disrupt radio signals originating in the South; it’s a crime in North Korea to listen to broadcasts from the south. What our tour guide didn’t mention, and which I later found out myself, is that the reverse is also true.

After the observatory we made a final stopover to visit one of the most insane things North Korea has ever done (the other being the kidnapping of South Korean film director Shin Sang-Ok so that he could personally make films for Kim Jong-Il). During the 1970s, residents just south of the DMZ reported hearing strange rumbles and noises, but couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. It was only after a defector tipped off the military that they realised what was going on: seventy-three metres below their feet, a team of North Koreans was digging a tunnel all the way to Seoul in preparation for a surprise invasion.

The South Koreans drilled down to it and took control of it, and today you can walk down a very long access ramp and go through the wet, rocky, low-ceilinged tunnel yourself. It’s quite cramped, but easily large enough for three soldiers abreast, and would also accommodate field artillery. At the end of the tunnel, below the demarcation line, are several concrete walls and a CCTV camera constantly watching them. I sure hope they have more walls and some minefields further up. I’m not sure why they didn’t just fill the entire tunnel with concrete.

There are several other tunnels, the most recent one discovered in 1990, and the South Koreans now have to drill all over the place looking for any new ones. North Korea’s response to all of these is that they were coal mines. They even put black paint on the walls to support this theory. The South Koreans claim this is a lie because the tunnels are dug through granite, which doesn’t contain coal. Personally I would consider it a lie because they are two-metre wide tunnels with no other branches running in a straight line directly towards Seoul. Oh, and North Korea? You’re not actually allowed to dig for coal beneath another country’s territory!

We were also treated to a short feel-good documentary about how the DMZ’s lack of humans has made it a natural wildlife preserve. My favourite excerpt: “The DMZ is now home to living fossils such as the… goat!” Then we were herded into another gift shop (fucking guided tours, man) where I bought some North Korean blueberry wine, which I assume was exported via China.

And that wrapped up the tour. We all fell asleep on the bus ride back to Camp Kim, having gotten up at the crack of dawn, and then hauled our exhausted asses back home.

I thought it was pretty good. I mostly went on it because I wanted to visit the JSA and see some North Korean soldiers, which was kind of disappointing because they were shy, like when you go to the zoo and all the interesting animals are hiding at the back of their exhibits. But it was still well worth the 90,000 won (90 AUD, 70 USD). Overall a fairly surreal experience and something that few people can say they’ve done. Also something that won’t be around forever.

I suppose I could also go on a tour to North Korea if I felt like blowing thousands of dollars.

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