It’s the racket blasting from the loudspeakers that is still ringing in my ears.
From the south, soaring operatic ballads and K-Pop are belted out, while from the north, a mix of angry sermons and bombastic propaganda songs salute the Dear Leader.
Galloping across the countryside for 250km, with a 2km-wide buffer zone either side of the border, the razor wire stretches into infinity. I joined a DMZ day-trip from Seoul, which is a mere 50km drive away from the border.
As we drove towards the great divide, either side of the highway was laced with elaborate reams of razor wire, while manned military look-outs studded the roadside, in full battle readiness.
Within the buffer zone, tank traps and land mines stalk the countryside. My guide, Moon, remarked there’s an estimated two million land mines still in the DMZ from the Korean War – after a million have already been cleared.
Panmunjeom is where the armistice agreement was signed in 1953. You’ll recognise those United Nations-blue buildings, the site of the world’s most famous face-off, where South and North Korean soldiers stare interminably at each other through sunglasses.
In spite of the macho sense of theatre, the air hangs heavy with unblinking hostility. All DMZ tours begin at Imjingak, which features a variety of monuments in memory of the Korean War. An 83m bridge, used in the exchange of 13,000 POWs, is lauded as the Freedom Bridge.
Nearby, the blasted carcass of an original steam locomotive, which desperately made it back across the Imjin River just as war broke out, riddled with the scars of 1020 bullet holes.
Imjingak is also the entry point into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, the biggest of four tunnels identified by the South Koreans since 1974, although there’s apparently another 20 that haven’t been spotted yet. Dug by the North Koreans with the intent of being able to spring a surprise invasion on the south, these tunnels aren’t for the faint-hearted.
Issued with a hard hat, the third infiltration tunnel leads you 73m underground, along a 2m wide by 2m high passage. I felt like the hunchback of Notre Dame, but it’s a searing and slightly spooky encounter to traverse the border, subterranean-style.
This tunnel, which is large enough to enable 30,000 soldiers to tromp through in an hour, was discovered in 1978 after a defector tipped off the south.
Another striking stop was Dorasan Station, a $40 billion beacon of hope, built 15 years ago with a view of re-connecting Seoul and Pyeongyang by rail. Just 700m from the southern boundary line of the DMZ, it’s utterly bizarre to admire this sparkling yet haplessly under-used train station.
The shiny international customs hall has never screened a passenger. A few daily services run to Seoul, but services to the North have been on ice since the North Koreans slammed the border crossing shut in 2008.
Should Korea be re-united, Moon says the dream is Dorasan Station would not only connect Seoul with Pyeongyang, but would connect with the vast Eurasian services like the Trans-Siberian.
The undeniable highlight was soaking up the raw cross-border drama of Dora Observatory. This lookout serves up the most intimate view of the north, from South Korea, as if you can reach out and touch it, while being assaulted by those blaring loudspeakers.
With the naked eye, I gazed down at the streams of barbed wire along the border, across into North Korean villages. With the mounted binoculars, I could see locals wandering around and a massive statue of Kim Il-sung, while the Propaganda Village touts one of the tallest flags in
In a classic case of boys will be boys, the south and north have played ping-pong for years over their respective border flagpoles.
The south started the tussle by erecting a 50m-high flag. Back and forth they went, outdoing one another, until the north triumphed in this battle of attrition, mounting a 160m-high flagpole.
The flag alone weighs a whopping 300kg. The south threw in the towel at 110m. The Propaganda Village is so named because it’s widely believed that the brightly coloured buildings are just shells and are uninhabited.
Even Hollywood would be left blushing at the sheer scale of this elaborate set. For me, that summed up the weirdness of the DMZ.
A strange, surreal, unsettling place, where terror and tourism collide, at one of the world’s flash points.
•In spite of the current crisis, day trips from Seoul to the DMZ remain fiendishly popular. Every day, 5000 visitors are allowed access to the buffer zone, while 500 people can also enter the joint security area at Panmunjeom. Book well in advance. www.vviptravel.com