The bus windows were speckled with a flaky substance our bubbly tour guide explained was disinfectant spray to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease. It hampered our view and sounded alarmingly carcinogenic, but we could still make out the white fields and surrounding hills she was in the process of telling us about.
“You can tell which hills are ours and which are theirs by the number of trees,” she said. “Theirs are bare, because they’ve chopped down all the trees for heating. They don’t have coal, like us.”
I hated to think of the North Koreans living through this winter in particular – the coldest South Korea had seen in 40 years, with temperatures as low as -17°C and only dropping as we trundled north in our tour bus. I wasn’t unique in this musing – whenever the weather turns bad in the south, the uncomfortable thought lingers in many South Koreans’ minds as their eyes flicker guiltily northward: How much worse must this be for them?
Forty kilometres south of the North/South Korea border, Seoul is a vibrant, enigmatic city. Vats of silk worm larvae from street food stalls waft pungent steam in the direction of westernised nightclubs and coffee houses.
Planning a stopover trip to Seoul from the safety of our home in Sydney, Australia, the idea of visiting its border with North Korea, also known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), sounded a bit too risky, so we hadn’t included it on our itinerary. However, reality has a tendency to tilt on its axis when you arrive in a foreign country, and soon the idea of being within reach of the most secretive totalitarian regime in the world seemed too alluring to pass up.
In the rare event that a journalist sneaks footage from across the North Korean border (usually via its communist cousin, China), the product is stories and images of desperate and dirty-faced citizens, and the occasional appearance of Kim Jong-il’s (or nowadays, Kim Jong-un’s) smugly plump jowls. And when North Koreans do occasionally make it to the south (also usually via China), they take a long time to assimilate. This is generally because they speak and act as if they’ve come from a different era. They have never heard of concepts considered Western, such as jeans, or ‘diet’, our tour guide tells us. The direct translation of their old-world terminology for the latter, for example, is to ‘cut the flesh’.
So I expect this day-trip to the DMZ to be tense, fraught with sadness and poignant, and when an armed soldier boards our bus to check passports (I managed to steal a photo before our guide nervously translated his clipped order that this was not allowed), it was exactly as expected.
Having successfully navigated our way through tank traps scattered across the road like a kid’s game of jacks, we arrived at the DMZ theme park (closed for the winter) complete with a frozen-over swimming pool and inoperative amusement rides.
Bracing ourselves against the northern chill, we left the bus and followed our guide to the first tourist stop, the so-called Bridge of Freedom (also known, paradoxically, as the Bridge of No Return). This is the only bridge crossing the Imjin River and therefore connecting the north and south. It was here the two sides exchanged prisoners at the end of the Korean War, with the signing of an armistice in 1953.
The tourists milled gingerly around the ice-crystal-swathed bridge, shivering and eyeing each other sideways. Whitney Houston was belting “I-eee-I will always love you-ooo-uuu” over the PA speakers lining the bridge. The razor-wire fence at the end of the bridge was covered with colourful ribbons bearing Korean messages of peace and reconciliation to their long lost ancestors and family members on the other side.
The idea, I gathered, behind this bizarre dichotomy of quiet poignancy and, well, cheese at the tourist site was that, post-unification, the DMZ would be rendered little more than an historic monument to the bad-old-days. North and South Koreans alike could become teary-eyed to the vocal refrains of Céline Dion, and then enjoy a ride together on a merry-go-round. Instead this DMZ Disney Land gives a surreal, tawdry effect to a place that is otherwise one of the saddest I’ve ever visited.
Herded like school children into what I want to call the DMZ Discovery Centre, we shuffled through a museum of Korean War photos and educational displays, before entering a cramped cinema where we were shown a propaganda film. As the lights switched back on and curtains drew back over the screen, I had an uncanny sense of experiencing a Cold War I thought I’d been born too late for, but which never ended at this 250km-long by 4km-wide slash at the 38th parallel, separating two peninsulas populated by otherwise racially, culturally and linguistically identical people.
Our final destination before being shipped back to the relative normalcy of Seoul was Dorasan Station, a modern train station in all its digitally timetabled, air-conditioned grandeur, bar one glaring absence: passengers. A couple of giggly tourists made snow angels near the unused tracks pointing north – tracks ready in every way, except politically, to transport imaginary commuters to Pyongyang. If it ever gets up and running, it will connect Korea to the rest of Asia and Europe – a backpackers’ rite of passage waiting to happen.
Adjacent to the train station was a small shop marketing the DMZ in a very unusual way – for its organic produce. Think about it: around 1000 square kilometres of fertile land relatively untouched (bar the odd land mine) for almost 50 years.
Albeit, after a breakfast of steamed silk worm pupae, the fruity biscuits we purchased were indeed tasty. The bottle of made-in-North-Korea soju (Korean vodka) was less so, but I’ve kept it as a memento of my weird trip into no-mans land. It serves as a reminder that, until things change, on the other side of that tacky border theme park exists an almost invisible population of suppressed, desperate people who are, among other things, fast running out of trees to burn for warmth.
Note: My husband, Paul, and I travelled to Seoul, South Korea, and visited the North Korean border back in 2011, which was when I originally wrote this piece.