By Kyle Barr“Did you get him?” one tourist asked another, aiming his camera like a rifle. The two were members of a small group of tourists visiting the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. They whispered, smiling, while photographing a North Korean soldier who stood 50 yards away. While looking downrange through his phone, the other replied: “It’s hard. It’s so bright, and he’s so far away.”
The small stone courtyard of the DMZ’s Joint Security Area is centered around a group of four small blue houses. It ends at the stairs of two buildings: the Freedom House to the south and the Panmungak building to the north. The soldier on Panmungak’s porch was not posing for the camera; he was there as a warning that North Korea is always watching. South Korea has responded to the North’s threat by inviting legions of tourists to its side of the DMZ. Close to 100,000 tourists visit this 2.5-mile buffer between North and South every year. It is the most heavily armed area in the world.
Tourists move by bus to sites all around the DMZ, where monuments and historical sites showcase half a century of tension. There is a memorial to the incident in 1976, when North Korean soldiers killed two US army officers with axes. There is a monument behind the Freedom House for the incident in which a Soviet defector ran to the South side, starting a firefight that led to the deaths of two North and one South Korean soldier.
Time has not brought an end to these episodes of violence. Three or four times every year, such incidents prompt military officials to shut down the tours at the DMZ. In August 2015, North Korea fired rockets over the DMZ into the sea beyond South Korea, which triggered a month-long crisis. South Korea also charged in the same month that North Korea planted landmines that maimed two soldiers. One day last summer, North Korea test fired a submarine-based missile off the Korean coast.
The JSA area bus tour is led by military men who sweat in tight military vests and slacks even on the hottest days. Tourists are first shown a video with a thumping military beat giving the military’s historical perspective, and ends with hope for future reunification. Tourists are then taken over rolling hills and forests to dead quiet sites around the JSA. Even among the empty forests, fields and roads, the military guides who take tourists around the JSA tell tourists not to make any hand gestures or shout at any North Koreans they might see. Tourists can only take pictures when given the signal from their guide.
Except for the specific sites around the DMZ, the surroundings are seemingly empty of people. The area’s stillness is a combination of natural tranquility and military tension. The forests around the DMZ play host to endangered species, like the white-naped and red-crowned cranes and the musk deer, but the ground of the wood is also covered in minefields sectioned off with fences and barbed wire. The fanciful stone bridges around the area are mined with explosives as part of the South’s reactionary plan in case of a push from the North.
Deeper into the forests the peace village of Daesong-dong set up at the end of the Korean War hides over 200 people. The Korean government had set up housing for them, a small school and a hospital. Every day, when the villagers go out to farm rice or other small crops, they need an escort of soldiers. They must check in every time they leave and return, and at night they are confined by an 11 p.m. curfew. The South Korean government incentivizes living in the village with $120,000 and a pardon from the mandatory conscription each Korean male must go through after the age of 18.
The tourists who come to the DMZ are drawn in with the promise of a tangible glimpse into the state of North Korea. At the top of Dora Observatory, tourists are able to look out across North Korean lands. To the north, tourists spot Kijŏngdong, the alter ego peace village who intelligence reports say is a mostly empty, and desolate village. Over to the west at the mountains, signs said had been stripped bare of many of its trees because of poor North Koreans needing it for the winters.
One stop on the tour takes tourists through the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, dug by North Korea and discovered in 1978. Tourists walk far underground hunched over with their heads banging against the dark, slick ceiling just to reach a concrete wall strung with razor wire. The signs around the site tell that 30,000 soldiers could have passed through the tunnel in an hour.
Like any tourist spot, both the JSA staging area and the 3rd Infiltration tunnel have gift shops, selling shirts, hats, zippo lighters and cheap colorful fans. They want everyone to visit. At the bottom of the Infiltration Tunnel there is a chair lift just for older or infirm people who can make the walk down, but don’t have the strength to make the walk back up. They want school kids to visit, and they want foreigners to visit.
Tourism continues in a time when republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said that if he becomes president the United States would pull troops from South Korea if the South Korean government would not pay for them. They have continued the tours as tensions between the two Koreas ramp up again and again. While both countries continue to use the cause of “reunification” as their main goal, many young Koreans are seeing reunification as a bitter pill to swallow when the prospect seems so arduous.
“They say, ‘we want reunification, but we want it in 20 years,’” said Steve Tharp, the chief of strategic outreach for U.S. Forces Korea’s Public Affairs. ”But in 20 years, it will be another 20 years. It’s always another 20 years.”
The problem, Tharp said, is that reconciliation would most likely mean one administration has to surrender to the other. That would mean jail for the leaders in the north, or vice versa, labor camp or execution for the south’s leaders.
“There is a profound sense among young people that unification is a bad idea,” said Jan Janowski, who has worked in the German foreign office in North Korea. “They see all the problems that Germany had with its reunification, and they don’t want that, they say they’re fine on our own.”
But that is not the impression the military at the DMZ try to present. The air at the DMZ is solemn, the only sounds coming from the Freedom House at the JSA is the scuff of shoes on floor. Despite this, the tourists hunch over and giggle. They take selfies with the South Korean soldiers standing on guard. They make poses in front of the North Korean countryside or down in the 3rd Infiltration tunnel which go straight on Facebook. They come back from the border with trinkets that they bought in the DMZ’s souvenir shops.
But South Korea’s strange military tourism is not exclusive. North Korea also hosts it’s own tours, though the two tourism groups never meet. They also stand on their side of the JSA and take pictures. They walk into the blue house while a North Korean military guide talks to them about the history of the Korean War from their point of view. Their goal, they tell those tourists, is of course, reunification.