Not far from South Korea’s capital is one of the most explosive crisis regions in the world: the border with North Korea and a few kilometers wide strip that forms this border. This strip is the “Demilitarized Zone” and this word is a paradox, because nowhere else in the world can you find so many weapons per square centimeter as here on this four-kilometer-wide section that cuts through the Korean peninsula for 248 kilometers.
I don’t know if trips to the border can be called disaster tourism. It is undoubtedly a special experience. From Seoul we book a tour that starts early in the morning with a ride in a small bus with a small tour company. Besides us, only South Koreans take part. Many people have relatives across the border and in most cases these people are unaware of the fate of their family members since the country split.
Just before the border there is a small market where we can find products from both Korean countries. I stock up on a North Korean ginseng wine as a souvenir.
The wine tastes terrible, but the packaging makes an impression.
There were always conflicts in the demilitarized zone. In addition, the southerners experienced a nasty surprise four times between 1974 and 1990. Vibrations in the ground betrayed the North Koreans in their construction of tunnels that reached under the border mark into South Korean territory.
Monuments were built for all four of these tunnels to remind them how acute the danger is today. It is not clear whether there are also tunnels from the south to the north.
We follow the border towards the “Joint Security Area”. At this point there is a transition, the checkpoint. This is where the heads of state meet from time to time to ensure the best of intentions and to swap captured spies from time to time.
On a mountain in the background, the northerners took the opportunity for a little self-promotion and built the highest flagpole in the world at 160 meters. The flag alone weighs 270 kg.
The beautiful weather, the rice fields and blooming flower meadows convey a tranquil idyll, which is only somewhat spoiled by the barbed wire fences and military equipment that are everywhere. From a viewing platform we can look far into the north. Our friendly war tour guide tells us something about what we see.
In front of us we look at the Han Gang River, which widens and becomes a bay that merges into the ocean. On the other bank we see rolling hills, idyllic villages and paddy fields, where isolated farmers work comfortably. Seems to be a beautiful country, this North Korea. And then the crunching of a record comes in our heads to cover a crack in the film.
The villages we see are made of cardboard. When there is a storm, some of the facades sometimes fall over. Apparently they didn’t even bother to build real buildings, just put up dummies like in the film. The farmers in the field are actors, but badly paid. In the morning, military vehicles come and unload soldiers dressed in work clothes for the propaganda campaign “Heidi on the rice field” in order to collect them again in the evening before they can get any stupid ideas.
Seeing the border with our own eyes was a historical lesson for us. In Germany it looked the same 24 years ago and could still be the case today. But fate was better with us.
We leave the border and embark on our journey south to a find more tranqulity in the Land of Buddha.