As the tour bus crawls out of Seoul and heads slowly north through the traffic, the seemingly endless urban jungle slowly diminishes in size before disappearing altogether. You’re now well on the way to a place where the mists of the Cold War still linger on, and one that could still be ground zero for the Third World War – the DEMILITARIZED ZONE. More commonly referred to as “the DMZ”, this no-man’s-land is a 4km-wide buffer zone that came into being at the end of the Korean War in 1953. It sketches an unbroken spiky line across the peninsula from coast to coast, separating the two Koreas and their diametrically opposed ideologies. Although it sounds forbidding, it’s actually possible to enter this zone, and take a few tentative steps into North Korean territory – thousands of civilians do so every month, though only as part of a tightly controlled tour. It’s even home to two small communities, Freedom Village and Propaganda Village. Elsewhere are a few platforms from which the curious can stare across the border, and a tunnel built by the North, which you can enter.
While most visitors content themselves with a packaged DMZ tour, there are more adventurous options available. The city of Paju, just southwest of Panmunjeom, has a few sights not at all related to North Korea – a small arts village, and a publishing town whose buildings are among the most adventurously designed in the land. To the east, and actually in Gangwon province, is the remote border town of Cheorwon, where anyone with their own transport – or just a little luck – will be able to take a free tour of the border. And, of course, you could go for broke and book a tour to Pyongyang in North Korea itself.
For the first year of the Korean War (1950–53), the tide of control yo-yoed back and forth across the peninsula. Then in June 1951, General Ridgeway of the United Nations Command got word that the Korean People’s Army (KPA) would “not be averse to” armistice talks. These talks took place in the city of Kaesong, now a major North Korean city, but were soon shifted south to Panmunjeom, a tiny farming village that suddenly found itself the subject of international attention.
Ceasefire talks went ahead for two long years and often degenerated into venomous verbal battles littered with expletives. One of the most contentious issues was the repatriation of prisoners of war, and a breakthrough came in April 1953, when terms were agreed; exchanges took place on a bridge over the River Sachon, now referred to as the Bridge of No Return. “Operation Little Switch” came first, seeing the transfer of sick and injured prisoners (notably, six thousand returned to the North, while only a tenth of that number walked the other way); “Operation Big Switch” took place shortly afterwards, when the soldiers on both sides were asked to make a final choice over their preferred destination. Though no peace treaty was ever signed, representatives of the KPA, the United Nations Command (UNC) and the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army put their names to an armistice on July 27, 1953; South Korean delegates refused to do so. The room where the signing took place was built specially for the occasion, and cobbled together at lightning speed by KPA personnel; it now forms part of most tours to North Korea.
An uneasy truce has prevailed since the end of the war – the longest military deadlock in history – and the DMZ is now something of a natural haven filled with flora and fauna that’s been left to regenerate and breed in relative isolation. However, there have been regular spats along the way. In the early 1960s a small number of disaffected American soldiers defected to the North, after somehow managing to make it across the DMZ alive, while in 1968 the crew of the captured USS Pueblo walked south over the Bridge of No Return after protracted negotiations. The most serious confrontation took place in 1976, when two American soldiers were killed in the Axe Murder Incident, and in 1984, a young tour leader from the Soviet Union fled North Korea across the border triggering a short gun battle that left three soldiers dead.