In recent months both North and South Korea have been in the news as historic dialogue between the two countries has caught the attention of many. Whether the prospect of lasting peace and eventual unification is on the horizon remains to be seen but certainly there has at least been a softening of rhetoric from both sides. However, in 2015 the mood in South Korea was still heavily against the North Korean government due in part to the hard-line stance of former President Park Geun-hye and her conservative Saeunri (Liberty) Party. While President Park was the first female leader of Korea as well as the first elected leader in East Asia, her presidency was marked by scandal due both to her being the daughter of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee and eventually for the revelation of election meddling that resulted in her being deposed and incarcerated. More on this later.
In 1950 the more industrialized North Korea was stronger than an agrarian South Korea and set out to unify the country, which had been divided in two since the end of the Second World War. In weeks they had taken control of most of the country, only to be stopped by the intervention of UN Forces. North Korea would soon be pushed back but saved by the newly created People’s Republic of China. The DMZ or demilitarized zone was created after the end of the brutal three-year long Korean War that effectively separated the peninsula into two opposing camps which increasingly became more and more hostile towards each other over the next 60 years.
About 50 kilometers north of the capital of Seoul lies the village of Panmunjom, in what is now known as the Joint Security Area (JSA). This area of the DMZ is the only place in its entirety where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face and this is also the site where the armistice ending the Korean War was signed; for its historic role, Panmunjom is also called the Truce Village and one can walk around the complex lined with soldiers to witness where history was made. Recently it has been the site of further efforts at peace with Chairman Kim Jong-un and recently elected President Moon Jae-in symbolically stepping over the respective line dividing the two Koreas and shaking hands in this small DMZ village.
From what I was told by South Korean nationals, the country’s spy agencies vets nationals who apply to visit thereby making it easier for foreigners to go rather than Koreans.One the way to the border buses took us along a massive highway with 6-lanes, built in case of reunification; interestingly the dozens of bridges that pass overhead as you get closer to the DMZ are not really bridges but bunkers designed to withstand a North Korean attack.
It’s actually rather weird to see that such an area has become a tourist attraction in its own right especially considering often violent confrontations which in some cases have resulted in deaths, in particular due to attempted defections. Curiously while you walk around the JSA, you’ll be warned by South Korean tour operators to not wear certain items and avoid provoking the North yet North Korean tourists also visit the village and seem to operate in a more relaxed manner, with their citizens taking selfies with soldiers and having an overall enjoyable time. Needless to say something like this was a bit off-putting given the constant demonization of the country but there’s always much more to the story.
Under the complex lie a system of tunnels with the initial purpose of infiltrating the South quickly though they have since become yet another attraction for tourists to explore. While I’ve learned about the history of the Korean War in the past, it was another thing entirely to be there and see it for myself. With tensions still high, it may still yet take a long time to fully ease the issues that plague both North and South. A visit to the DMZ can be a really surreal experience where history meets present and where history continues to be made, hopefully for the better.