DMZ: Road trip to the world's most heavily armed border
As the tour bus moves from central Seoul to the city outskirts, the seamless transition from one of the world's biggest and most vibrant cities to the world's most heavily armed border is as surreal as it is functional, with roadside bus stops soon giving way to security fence and military watchtowers.
“Many South Koreans don't think so much about the North”, opines So Yeon (real name withheld for security reasons), a North Korean defector in her mid-thirties currently working for the Seoul-based Panmunjom Travel Center.
Every morning So Yeon addresses a busload of tourists about her life in and escape from North Korea , while en route to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the two-kilometer-wide buffer running the length of the 250-kilometer land border between North and South Korea.
School trip meets spy thriller
Visiting the DMZ is part Cold War throwback, part school tour – imagine Enid Blyton rewriting John le Carré and you kind-of get the idea.
There is, of course, the usual array of dos and mostly don'ts that come with visiting a high-security border region -- which though only an hour's drive away, is an existential leap from sprawling Seoul, where there seem to be more coffee-shops than in Seattle and more rooftop crosses than in Rome.
It is all too easy to forget, then, that the two Koreas are technically still at war, and that in November 2010 North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, west of Seoul.
That came after the 26 March 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, in a suspected North Korean torpedo attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
Surveillance, escape and asylum
So Yeon's contribution is the real highlight of the trip. Her story -- escaping North Korea across the Yalu River into China, then escaping a 3-year forced-marriage to a local Chinese man, via the 'underground railroad' to Vietnam -- was sufficiently-captivating to rouse most of the group from their early-morning drowsiness.
So Yeon's story of grinding poverty and constant surveillance inside North Korea and virtual enslavement in China is a real reminder of what lies across the border for North Koreans, and what faces those daring enough to attempt escape.
After all, across the line is possibly the most-closed, most-repressive country on earth, with a double take-inducing 200,000 political prisoners held in gulags across the country, according to United Nations estimates (to compare, the much-maligned Burma/Myanmar government held around 2,100 at the worst of times in recent years).
It is a place that many want to leave and with good reason. For North Koreans, formal emigration (like much else that is taken for granted in most other countries on earth) is prohibited, so defection -– escape in other words -– is the only option.
This means paying a smuggler on the North Korea-China border to take the escapee across the Yalu or Tumen rivers into China, which increases the risk of trafficking. To complete the journey, the escapees must undertake gruelling physically-overland-but-effectively-'underground' trek to Mongolia or Southeast Asia, before seeking asylum and awaiting relocation to South Korea.
Joint Security Area
The physical high point of any DMZ visit is undoubtedly Panmunjeom, right in the middle of the zone and where, in theory, both sides have a common discussion space or “Joint Security Area” –- but where in reality soldiers from both countries eyeball each other across a courtyard.
Inside the conference room, visitors from the South get to cross the border onto the North Korean side (of the room at least).
Interestingly, the tourists visiting the DMZ on North Korean side -- “mostly Russians and Chinese”, according to the PTC tour guide -- seem to have a more relaxed security regimen than the mostly western, Filipino and Japanese group visiting from Seoul.
From a rooftop gantry, the North Korean-chaperoned group greets us by waving and helloing across the yard -- entreaties which we were told not to reciprocate, under pain of arrest, by the South Korean and US soldiers on the southern side.
Foreigners can visit North Korea, however, though what they see is heavily-policed and stage-managed by the North Korean regime.
Life in the world's most militarized nation
So what is it like, these days, I asked two recent visitors to the Hermit state.
"You know you are traveling to well-known tourist sites and that you are not seeing the full picture,”says Nicholas Hamisevicz of the Korea Economic Institute, who traveled to North Korea with the Young Pioneer tour group.
That full picture -– the life-in-chains that pushed So-Yeon to flee -- is hinted at, however, by what Dr Hamisevicz describes as the “constant reminders that this is not a normal tourist experience and that you are traveling in North Korea” such as “propaganda murals and signs, and large bronze statues of Kim Il Sung in the town squares.”
Nicholas Wood heads the Political Tours company based in London, a specialized agency that offers off-the-beaten-path trips aimed at current affairs wonks.
“North Korea is completely unlike anywhere else I have been, and it is difficult to have contact with ordinary people,” he says, having visited Pyongyang in late October.
The group, however, saw “clear signs that the North Korean Government wants increased contact with the West,” he says, ending on a note of cautious optimism.
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