Korea's DMZ: Tourism, Tension, History and Handshakes

As discussions of peace in the Korean Peninsula have been brought to the global headlines, the focus on the DMZ is shifting.

Since 1948, the 38th parallel has marked the division between North and South Korea. At the ‘end’ of the Korean War in 1953, both sides agreed to retreat troops from the frontline. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is 250 kilometres long and 4 kilometres wide. In almost every sense, it is a misnomer. The demilitarised zone is one of the most militarised and fortified borders in the world. The border is fenced with iconic barbed wire and contaminated with land mines, then further fortified by thousands of troops. Yet, tourists flocks to the DMZ from both Northern and Southern routes, and environmentalist’s intrigue is growing.

As discussions of peace in the Korean Peninsula have been brought to the global headlines by the Summit with the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump, the question of the future of the DMZ glares.

There is no robust data to quantify the exact extent of land mine contamination in the DMZ, although deaths caused by land mines in the DMZ have been cited on a semi-regular basis since 1953. In 2014, President Barack Obama announced a ban on the United States’ use of antipersonnel landmines everywhere, with the exception of the Korean Peninsula. Stephen Goose, the arms director at Human Rights Watch, urged that “the US should get rid of the Korea exception to its policy banning landmines and finally accede to the international treaty prohibiting these indiscriminate weapons.” Of the 11 countries producing antipersonnel mines, India, Myanmar, Pakistan and South Korea are considered by the 2017 Landmine Monitor report to be the “most likely to be actively producing.” Yet, in 2016, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that North Korea had allegedly doubled the number of landmines planted in the DMZ.

Perhaps the heavy military presence in the DMZ makes it one of the most fascinating examples of modern war tourism. Tourists can be led by military personel through the infiltration tunnels constructed by North Koreans under, and then a further 435 metres south of, the DMZ. The Joint Security Area (JSA) is the closest a person travelling from the South side can get to being inside North Korea. In fact, many tourists do stand just a few metres inside North Korea in the abundantly photographed blue conference rooms, where two South Korean guards in a modified taekwondo stance stand with clenched fists.

The Dora observatory on the Dorasan Mountain is the host of the train station that runs to Pyongyang. An accompanying sign iterates Seoul’s plan to one day connect the unified Korea all the way to Paris. The train line is fully staffed despite its dormant Northern route. This might be an amusing display of hope for tourists, but it is a serious symbol of the Republic of Korea’s readiness to reunify with their Northern counterpart immediately. In the third inter-Korean talk held at the DMZ, the Panmunjom Declaration was adopted between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea. One of the key pieces to the geopolitical puzzle of the Peninsula is the connection and modernising of the railways, which not only connects the Koreas, but also boosts North Korea’s position as a crucial connection between East Asia and Europe. Therefore, giving Pyongyang a trade link backed by modern infrastructure after years of sanctions.

The intrigue in the DMZ can be understood easily: it is the site of both armistice and axe-murderers, history and handshakes, tourism and tension.

In 1953, it was the site of the Armistice that agreed to ceasefire, but not the conclusion of the war (which continues to this day). In 1976, it was the site of an axe-murder of two US Soldiers during the event of cutting down a poplar tree in the JSA that partially blocked the view of UN observers. The DMZ has been the backdrop for numerous Presidential visits. Bill Clinton, who famously called the DMZ “the scariest place on Earth” in 1993, is listed alongside Reagan, Bush, W. Bush and Obama as visiting Presidents. It was reported in late 2017 that current President Donald Trump had a scheduled visit, abandoned due to fog. In both April and May this year, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-In met in the JSA and shared a historic handshake as they agreed on the Panmunjom Declaration. The DMZ serves as a site for discussion, conflict, and remembrance of the ongoing Korean War.

In the last decade, eyes have turned to the DMZ for reasons outside diplomacy and tourism. The tension that locks humans out of the DMZ have inadvertently made it a pristine environmental sphere. The DMZ is the last chance at life for thousands of endangered species. The vulnerable White-Naped Crane is a symbol of peace for the people of the Korean Peninsula, and finds a home in the accidental wildlife paradise that is the DMZ. From 1905, the Japanese occupation of Korea exploited the natural resources and caused mass deforestation. Then, as the site of the three-year Korean War, the land saw continued devastation. Perhaps this is the greatest environmental success of the Cold War.

For any foreign visitor, the tension and austerity of the DMZ is overt. On the diplomatic scale, the DMZ is a politically charged “neutral” zone for discussions of past and future. What the DMZ stands for in the mind’s of the people of Korea cannot be well spoken for in summary. By the very nature of its physical existence, the DMZ remains a divide. Yet, recent diplomatic discourse suggests that the divide is a site for growth, and prospective unification.

Elyse Popplewell

Elyse is an Australian Journalism student.