Korea's DMZ

"Skip it," Min had said in the hostel. Spend your money on beers instead."
I ignored him. When else would I get the chance to see over the border of the world's most secluded country?


It's a forty minute drive to the border, past mile upon mile of barbed wire and sentry posts. Every hill in the distance became a guessing game: "Is that North Korea? It sure looks pretty bleak there." It wasn't.

There were at least ten other buses on the lot as we pulled up at Freedom Bridge. A neatly-designed visitor centre sold smoothies and postcards. The seats of a Ferris wheel hung unmoving in the drizzle. Loud voices of all languages clashed in the air. Our guide spoke a language that at times resembled English. In dramatic terms, she told us a pocket version of the Korean War, the creation of the DMZ and intense security of the compound. At least I think she did.

A soldier boarded the bus at the checkpoint and walked down the aisle of the bus, casting an eye over everyone's passports. I could have showed him last night's dinner receipt for the attention he paid it. From this moment forward we were in the DMZ. Every hill became “North Korea” again. At the first stop, our fellow travellers streamed off the bus and flocked around three enormous letters, spelling out the area's acronym. Selfie sticks were extended, poses perfected, filters chosen.

Across the lot was a museum of sorts, marking the North's numerous attempts at breaching the zone. Shepherded into a cinema, we were shown a rollercoaster of scenes narrated by an enthusiastic American. Footage of the war and maimed bodies was interspersed with calming shots of the many types of wildlife now living in the DMZ. "Visit the DMZee today," it said, "where animals great and small live in perfect harmony. The DMZee is nature's haven forever."

As the film ended we donned hard hats and ventured down into one of the tunnels, the third of four discovered since the DMZ's creation. It’s unknown how many others may exist. Painted black inside by the diggers who then claimed it was a coal mine, the tunnel sits over 70m beneath the surface. A single-file procession ran in each direction, in and out of the tunnel. Most of the ceiling was propped up by metal scaffolding, and the dripping walls and shouts of tourists were punctuated by the frequent sounds of hard helmet hitting the metal. The barbed wire at the end of the tunnel was decorated with fairy lights. Boarding the bus later, I saw the row in front had bought "authentic DMZ barbed wire". Someone's mother-in-law was in for a real treat at Christmas.

Our guide was by now so incomprehensible that she could go entire streams of thought without me picking up a single word. Next, apparently, we were visiting the sober tree. It was only when we pulled up at the hill that the 'sober tree' in fact became the 'observatory'. It was also here that the tour came to resemble a trip to the zoo. Cue more loud voices, more elbows, more selfies. A row of binoculars stood at the edge of the viewing platform as we looked down into the lion enclosure. No cameras are allowed at the edge, as we wouldn't want the North Koreans seeing the latest Samsung model.

Forgive me if I'm trivialising here, but after a day of the war-zone being trivialised by the never-ending marketing surrounding it, it comes frighteningly naturally.

We moved away and found a pagoda in a haven of quiet with a view over the border. It was here the enormity of the situation really struck. We're actually looking into a country at war with our hosts, just 40 minutes from Seoul. I said a silent thanks for the freedom we take so much for granted.

We carried on to Dorasan Station, the South's final stop on the line towards North Korea, built at a time when reunification looked more likely. It had never seen a train go north. Tourists posed under signs reading "Trains to Pyongyang" and the departures board was now being used to encourage visitors to check-in on Facebook.

A booth in the corner of the station offered us the chance to get a Dorasan stamp. A sign hung above it: "Do not use in passport or on bank notes." The American beside me grinned like an imp and stamped it down opposite his Korean entry visa. I wished him a pleasant trip through Customs.

Because a bus trip is never complete without being forced through an "authentic local handicrafts" factory against your wishes, we were dropped at a two-storey ginseng showroom. Time for a tactical tap-out.

"Sorry, we're running short on time. Thanks for the tour! Gamsa hamnida!" We damn near ran out that door.


Min was in the hostel living room when I got back. He looked up as I took my shoes off at the door.

"You were right." I said. "Let's grab a beer."