Photograph of Korean golf course sign.

A the end of the Second World War after the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, the country was divided into two zones along the 38th Parallel: the industrialised north under Soviet occupation, the south under the Americans.

The 1950-1953 Korean War came to an end with the division of the country along .. the 38th Parallel. To the north, with the backing of communist Chinese and Soviet troops, a Stalinist state was fully established; while in the south predominantly American forces with the backing of the United Nations supported the rime there. This division, which reflected ancient factions in Korean society, helped shape geopolitics for the remainder of the twentieth century.

The border stretches from the west to the east coast of the Korean peninsula, is 4 km wide and is known as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, something of a misnomer considering the huge number of military personnel (over two million troops) and matiel in position. This is the front line of the Cold War.

I visited the DMZ to inspect the halfway line, hoping a Hot War would not kick off during our visit.

DMZ Tours

Booking the 60,000 won (about US$50) trip the day before from a travel agent on the third floor of Seoul's elegant Lotte Hotel, we were told the rules: no blue jeans, shorts, sandals, sportswear, or shaggy or unkempt hair. No jeans: this is probably to avoid an invasion by North Koreans desperate to don a pair.

As for the shaggy hair, one can easily imagine the North Korean soldiers: 'Good Lord - er, I mean good Lenin! - that unkempt person I can see through my binoculars could well be an eccentric professor, perhaps a rocket scientist. Let's kidnap him!'

Camp Bonifas in the DMZ.
Camp Bonifas main gate in the DMZ named after one of the US officers killed in the Axe Murder Incident of 1976
Military Demarcation Line sign in the DMZ.
Military Demarcation Line sign on the South Korean side of the Bridge of No Return, DMZ

It's easy to see why there's a ban on skimpy attire: it would be construed as an enticement akin to that of the old British Southern Railway poster: 'Summer comes soonest in the South'.

What else? Oh yes, you also have to carry your passport with you at all times, so that if fighting does break out you can glance at it to remind yourself what nationality you are and thus leg it in the appropriate direction. Although not stipulated in the tour rules, we carried a compass to help in this eventuality.

The tour guide on the bus informed us we were 'joining this tour because you are interested in world peace, or peace on the Korean peninsula'. We were warned that 'North Korea is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, like Afghanistan'. More interesting information was given: although Korea has been invaded 900 times over the past 5,000 years, the Koreans have surrendered four times, and that 'Koreans have a never-surrender spirit'. The Chinese tourists missed this part; they were sleeping.

There used to be North-South joint sporting events (table tennis) until the 1970s when invasion tunnels from the North were discovered. In football, the North Koreans were, until the 2002 World Cup hosted jointly by South Korea and Japan, arguably more successful than their southern cousins, having reached the quarter-final stage of the 1966 World Cup in England.

North Korean soldier in the DMZ, 2008.
North Korean soldier in the Joint Security Area in the DMZ
American and South Korean soldiers in the DMZ.
American and South Korean soldiers monitor the North from an observation post

South Korean citizens are allowed on the tour to the Joint Security Area, but they need special permission to do so. Their families' history is scrutinised for members who may have had communist sympathies. This takes two months.

Out of the bus window, there are tank traps, sandbagged trenches, watchtowers, tank emplacements, barbed wire and low-flying copters. Mobile phones do not work in the Zone. We show our passports. The American soldier looks bored; the Republic of Korea guard is smoking.

A change of bus, the antimacassars have the UN symbol on them, and the bus clock has stopped (we hope not symbolically) at twelve o'clock. Inside the Joint Security Area, there's a single advertisement for Konica; how much do they pay for this? We alight, and it's lunch. As it's buffet-style we attempt to recoup our fifty bucks by gorging, well aware those north of the border people are supposed to be eating tree bark due to a lack of decent grub. Rock music blasts out in the refectory. Is this Iowa? Outside, a nissen hut barber shop. Souvenirs are available, too. Fans of American TV programme M.A.S.H. (the Korean war comedy show) would be unsurprised to find the single hole par 3 golf course behind the tax-free souvenir store.

Photograph of South Korean Guard in Taekwondo pose.

The climax of the tour takes us to Panmunjom truce village and the room where negotiators for the North and South meet. In the centre of the room, there's a table with microphones which the North Koreans use to listen to the tourists. Walking one side of the table takes you into North Korean territory.

Nearby there's a South Korean village, the inhabitants of which earn a healthy $82,000 average annual income. This comes at a price. The farmers have to be indoors at 11pm and must stay in the village 251 days a year. Interest was shown in this deal by some of the people on the tour bus, but we were informed you have to be born there to be eligible. Not far away, we can see the equivalent North Korean DMZ village, which, though uninhabited, has perhaps the world's largest flag.

On the return journey only half an hour out of Seoul, razor wire lines the River Imjin, North Korea occupying the other bank. The river is popular with Northern swimmers intent on banishing tree bark from their diet. The BBC World TV News announcement on 17th April 2001 that "North Korea is bracing itself for another famine" may add to North Koreans' love of such water sports.

Peter Rodd

Related Korean War Resources

Military-related sites in South Korea

DPRK Soldiers At The DMZ, North Korea.
DPRK Soldiers At The DMZ, North Korea

Books on Korea