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A war zone with a gift shop? My visit to the Korean DMZ

At South Korea’s border with North Korea, tourists gawk at the hermit kingdom — and ponder the countries’ future.

By Erick Trickey

The gateway to South Korea’s border with North Korea looks like a carnival. Decades-old amusement rides — a merry-go-round, bumper cars, a Viking ship — greet visitors to Imjingak, a park just south of a restricted military area. A newer attraction stands across the parking lot: a “DMZ Peace Gondola,” an aerial tram with cars painted bright red, yellow, or white.

The gondola lifts passengers across the Imjin River, revealing a surreal landscape of playfulness and menace. Barbed-wire fences and military guard towers line both riverbanks. Below the northern gondola station, a large red triangular sign reads “MINE,” in English and Korean. Red, yellow, and blue pinwheels, twirling in the breeze behind the fence, spell out the English letters “DMZ.”

Welcome to one of the world’s strangest tourism experiences: the closest you can get to visiting a war without actual bullets flying. For decades, South Korea has promoted the Demilitarized Zone — an ominous, fortified, 2½-mile-wide no-man’s-land along its border with communist North Korea — as a part-serious, part-absurd travel destination. Today, the DMZ is mostly empty land: forests, fields, and rolling hills dotted with military guard posts and up to 2 million land mines. But in a few spots, South Korea has opened access to the zone and nearby military areas to visitors who want to see the secretive nation known as the Hermit Kingdom. In the 2010s, up to 1 million tourists a year came to visit.

Visitors to the DMZ actually are visiting a war zone. The 1953 military armistice that halted the Korean War wasn’t a peace treaty, so North and South Korea are still technically in active conflict. Low-level hostilities between them have killed more than 1,000 people since. South Korea’s military, backed by 28,000 U.S. troops, guards every day against a second North Korean invasion.

But within the attractions along the 150-mile border, layers of meaning co-exist: The DMZ is at once a war memorial, a peace zone, a vivid warning, a place of hope and mourning, and a spot for the curious and thrill-seeking. At the “Gallery Greaves,” in a decommissioned U.S. military building near Imjingak, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston album covers on the walls hark back to the building’s 1980s heyday as a soldiers’ bowling alley. Contemporary art contemplates repression and war: an archway made of sandbags, four giant chain links standing taller than a person. Inside the gondola station, across from the café (“Forbidden Place Beverage & Bread, Since 2020”), South Korea’s super-charged free-market economy has commercialized the frontier. A souvenir shop sells framed strands of barbed wire from border fences, commemorative South Korean border guard action figures, fridge magnets, tote bags, baseball caps, and “Memorial of DMZ Visit” bandanas with a map of North Korea on them.

DMZ tourism feeds the human impulse to turn fear into entertainment. “Two hundred years ago, it was just dangerous getting through life; you didn’t need to go out and pay for extra thrills,” says Steve Tharp, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who once served in the DMZ and has taken an estimated 30,000 people on border tours since 2006. “These days, people go bungee jumping and sport parachuting, all these things that are inherently dangerous. Going to the DMZ can kind of be that.”

Still, the dark humor of the tourist-trap swag adds a sense of safety and comfort: It’s OK to make light of the military border, because you are protected. It’s a reassuring counterpoint to the DMZ’s other persistent message of danger and unfinished history. Like the Berlin Wall decades ago, Korea’s DMZ has become democracy’s symbolic frontline, a physical location that represents a global threat.

“We might be entering into the new Cold War era, and the DMZ is one of the few places that one can really see and feel what it could lead to,” says Seulah Choi, a South Korea native and visiting political science professor at Northeastern University who studies international relations and security. As authoritarianism gains strength around the world, as Ukraine resists Russian invasion and China menaces Taiwan, Korea’s DMZ reminds us that we’re not done with disputed borders, with fences or walls that divide prosperity from poverty or democracy from tyranny. It also suggests that we’ll never give up on trying to bridge those divides — if not through politics, then at least through culture.

I visited the DMZ on a hot, humid week in early August 2022, as South Koreans enjoying their summer holiday and a few foreign tourists crossed checkpoints to see the border. My travels took me from west to east: to the Dora Observatory near Imjingak, where tourists can see giant dueling flags and the ruins of a former site of North-South cooperation; to the Cheorwon Peace Observatory, where North and South Korean guard towers face off along a mountain range; and up the east coast to the Goseong Unification Observation Tower, where a forlorn, empty highway and train tracks curl along a beach to a checkpoint flying the North Korean flag.

My travels gave me an up-close view of the ever-simmering war zone. At a military checkpoint near the Cheorwon observatory, about halfway along the border, buses pass red “MINE” signs and bulky concrete structures. If North Korea ever launched another invasion, the South Korean army would blow these up so that they collapse onto the road, creating a barrier where the invaders could be attacked. Inside the observatory, an introductory video with foreboding background music — moaning strings, menacing synthesizer hums, and bone-rattle percussion — names the North Korean highland just past the border “the Ridgeline of Blood.”

I visited the Cheorwon observatory with a group of Northeastern University students who had been studying business in Seoul. Tharp, who led the tour, gathered the students around a sand diorama of the landscape outside, pointing out a tiny scale model of the observatory and little model boundary fences.

“The vast majority of the tourists were just loving it, buying everything that was there, just as if it was any other spot.”

Justin Haner, a political science instructor at Northeastern University, who visited the DMZ as a tourist while serving in the U.S. Army nearby

Then the students fanned out along a massive north-facing window that looks out on the DMZ and a North Korean mountain range. Excited, they crowded the fixed binoculars as Tharp told them where to look for a North Korean guard post: a simple, square structure atop a mountain peak, where a single soldier stood watch.

“I imagined a huge, guarded wall,” said Sam Herlihy, a Northeastern sophomore from the United States. Still, his imagination was piqued; he marveled at “the concept of being so close, yet so far. There are people only 20 miles north that are living a completely different life.”

For many native South Koreans — especially those who came of age without a memory of a unified country — the divide between North and South has the same allure. On the Dora Observatory deck, I spoke to Jo Eun-seo, 21, who had traveled from Jinju, near South Korea’s southern coast, with three of her friends.

“It’s a lot closer than I thought,” Jo said, gazing out at North Korea.

“It’s very, very exotic,” said her friend Kim Sero, 23. “I can’t believe this is the same country.”

It was their first time visiting the DMZ. Jo had decided to come after seeing the border on a Korean reality TV show.

South Koreans are fascinated with the DMZ because of the border’s distorted-mirror effect: it’s a glimpse at an alternate nation where southerners can’t go, where people speak the same language but live under an utterly opposite system. Since the Korean War, the once-impoverished South Korea has transformed itself into a wealthy nation of 52 million people — a world leader in superconductors and cell phones, a robust democracy with a vibrant protest culture.

Meanwhile, North Korea has stagnated under its bizarre mix of totalitarian communism, ultra-nationalism, and hereditary rule by the same family since 1945. It’s one of the world’s poorest countries, with about 60% of its 26 million citizens living in poverty. Yet the ruling regime spends heavily on its million-soldier army and weapons development, including nuclear bombs, and draws international outrage for its political repression.

The growing divide between the two nations, and the shifting contours of their stalemate, have played out in the changing nature of DMZ tours. They started in the 1960s as “security tourism,” showing visitors how South Korean and U.S. troops worked to deter the North Korean threat. For decades, at a military and diplomatic center near Imjingak known as the Joint Security Area, visitors could watch armed guards from the North and South silently face off amid light-blue conference buildings that straddle the two countries. Tourists could don yellow hard hats to tour a nearby infiltration tunnel — a North Korean attempt to burrow under the border for invasion or guerrilla raids, discovered by the South Koreans in 1978.

Security tourism remains DMZ visitors’ biggest motivation, says Choong-ki Lee, a tourism management professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. But he says DMZ visits are also a form of “dark tourism,” which involves tragic historical events: war memorials and battlegrounds, Holocaust memorials, and places once involved in slavery. “Actually, we are very curious about tragedy,” Lee says. Since then, DMZ sites have also become art tourism, as they commission contemporary art on themes of war, repression, and division. Added to that is a layer of peace tourism, with messages about diplomatic summits, inter-Korean brotherhood, and the hope of bridging Korea’s division.

An undercurrent, through it all, is commerce. Until early 2020, when the pandemic drove North Korea to close its borders to outsiders, North Korean tour groups brought foreign visitors to the Joint Security Area for some mirror-image communist DMZ tourism. Two gift shops, one on each side of the Military Demarcation Line (the de facto border), capitalized on visitors’ appetite for collectibles: the Northern side sold propaganda posters and “See You in Pyongyang” T-shirts; the Southern shop sold camouflage vests, U.S. Army water canteens, and DMZ cigarette lighters.

“The vast majority of the tourists were just loving it, buying everything that was there, just as if it was any other spot,” recalls Justin Haner, a political science instructor and Ph.D. candidate at Northeastern University, who visited the JSA as a tourist in the mid-2010s while serving in the U.S. Army near the DMZ.

Lately, some attractions have transitioned from militaristic messages to expressions of a vague hope for peace. After a series of 2018 summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-South Korean president Moon Jae-in, South Korea created several walking trails and bus paths along the border that were designated DMZ Peace Trails. The most popular, at Goseong on the east coast, leads into the DMZ, where hikers are driven to a South Korean guardpost that offers a closer look at North Korea’s beautiful Mount Kumgang. The hiking path’s entrance is a wood and wrought-iron gate flanked by white doves carrying olive branches in their beaks.

The Moon-Kim agreements included a few steps toward making the DMZ into a so-called “peace zone.” Both sides silenced loudspeaker broadcasts and stopped scattering propaganda leaflets. Each country removed 11 of the DMZ’s 300-some guardposts. Guards at the Joint Security Area no longer carried guns. JSA tours stopped visiting the site of the 1976 Ax Murder Incident, when North Korean soldiers, trying to stop the South from trimming a tree, hacked two U.S. soldiers to death.

But the peace talks fizzled, and since 2020, the North-South conflict has heated up again. South Korea’s new conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol, inaugurated in May 2022, has adopted a tougher stance toward the North. In fall 2022, Kim launched dozens of missile tests into southern waters. Meanwhile, North Korea has isolated itself even further, sealing its borders to try to keep COVID-19 out.

Because of those COVID fears, North Korean guards are no longer visible from the South Korean side of the JSA: they now watch the border from inside a building, neutralizing the thrill for some who visit. “One of the boring parts about the JSA now is you don’t have the guys with guns there,” said Tharp, the veteran tour leader. “It’s just not as exciting anymore. It used to be a little scarier.”

As South Koreans grow weary of the North’s cycles of détente and belligerence, the DMZ’s role in South Korean pop culture has slid from existential threat to absurdity. The blockbuster 2000 film Joint Security Area, about a fictional murder investigation in the DMZ, was a dark, serious take, depicting both countries’ soldiers as longing for brotherhood but brutalized by the mental toll of DMZ guardpost service. But by 2019, the mood had shifted to semi-farce, as in Crash Landing on You, a TV rom-com that starts with a wealthy South Korean woman and a North Korean army captain meeting cute in the DMZ after a tornado blows her hang glider over the border. The latest entry to the genre, coming soon, will be DMZ Daesong-dong, a four-part television series about a North Korean soldier who defects after he somehow finds a South Korean lottery ticket worth $40 million.

Real-life details of the North-South conflict can be stranger than fiction. DMZ Daesong-dong is named after — and was partially filmed in — the only South Korean village inside the DMZ, which got into a whose-flagpole-is-bigger contest in the 1980s with a nearby North Korean village, Kijong-dong. Daesong-dong installed a 323-foot pole with a massive South Korean flag. Not to be outflagged, North Korea built a 525-foot pole in Kijong-dong, which the South contends is a “propaganda village” with no actual residents. Both flags are visible from the Dora Observatory, about three miles away.

Even nominal acts of North Korean aggression can come across as theatrical gestures. Beyond Kijong-dong stands the abandoned Kaesong Industrial Complex, where, in a period of cooperation, South Korean manufacturers employed North Korean workers. In 2020, in a fit of staged provocation, North Korea detonated the complex’s Inter-Korean liaison office; through binoculars at Dora, tourists can see a half-exploded building, its white frame exposed. But it was a symbolic attack; the building was vacant.

Photo by Jieun Choi

All along the DMZ, curiosities show how a stalemate can drift into farce. At the DMZ Museum in Goseong, tourists can view a collection of propaganda flyers each side has sent across the border. One shows a vicious caricature of Kim Jong Un playing with nuclear missiles. A set of 1980s South Korean leaflets show beautiful, scantily clad young women. The embedded message: Defect. Our girlfriends are hotter.

There’s also opportunity, at Goseong, to think about how the Korean conflict fits into broader history. The DMZ Museum makes explicit references to the Cold War divide between East and West Germany. Outside, a piece of the Berlin Wall stands near small wooden ships that North Koreans have used to defect south. Inside, an exhibit on Germany’s division and 1990 reunification, marked with the title “Sympathie” and curated with the help of a German museum, offers implicit hope for an end to Korea’s Cold War.

South Korea has a hazy plan for the tourist role the DMZ would play in a unified Korea. A map in the Goseong observatory imagines future train trips all the way from South Korea to India and Europe. Another map shows a dream trans-Korean itinerary: from Seoul to the DMZ to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, then north to the Chinese frontier at the Yalu River, then back south to Mount Kumgang before recrossing the old border. In this scenario, the DMZ — now so devoid of human presence that it has become an unofficial nature preserve — would gain that status officially, with some carefully demined areas open for visitors. “They could also visit the demilitarized zone,” the text next to the map reads, “preserved from human access for 70 years.”

But North Korea’s renewed hostility has left many South Koreans disillusioned about the prospect of lasting peace. When I asked the four young South Koreans at the Dora Observatory if the two countries would ever reunify, all four friends make the same noises: an anxious intake of breath, then a skeptical ooooh.

“As time goes by, it’s going to get harder and harder for us to reunify,” said Baek Si-eun, 21. “There’s so much cultural difference. That difference will get bigger as time passes.”

Yeom Kyu-im, a 71-year-old homemaker visiting the same deck, also saw reunification as a near-lost cause. “No, not in my generation,” she said. “Maybe before I die?” asked my interpreter, who’s 30. “No,” Yeom replied. “I don’t think that gap will ever be bridged.”

But by phone, I spoke to a North Korean defector who still held out hope. Paik Yeong-sook fled North Korea in 2009 with her son after her husband died, spending a year as a refugee. (“If I die on my way out of North Korea,” she says she told herself, “it’s not different than starving to death here.”) Now, she performs at Imjingak most Sundays with the Imjingang Art Troupe, a defectors’ group she co-founded that demonstrates music and dances learned in the North Korean army.

The acts include drumming groups, operatic solo singers, and accordionists (the accordion is huge in North Korea, a Russian influence). Some of the artists were North Korean celebrities. And the message is one of longing — for the day when this odd, fraught border can be crossed, or even erased. “The artists, who are all originally from North Korea, perform in hopes of reunification,” Paik says, “and thinking of the fathers and mothers they left behind.”

Jieun Choi contributed to this article as a Korean-English interpreter.

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Erick Trickey is Experience's deputy editor. He has written for Politico Magazine, The Washington Post, Boston magazine, and more.


Top photo: A family pose for photos at an observation deck overlooking the Demilitarized Zone at the Goseong Unification Observatory on South Korea's northeast coast. Photo by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images


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