A Dangerous Zoo Dark Tourism in South Korea's DMZ

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the 250-kilometer long demilitarized zone has acted as a buffer between the North and South, separating profoundly different lifestyles, governments and populations. Today, dark tourism has become a roaring trade on both sides of the DMZ. Journalist Nick Hagan explores the icy cross-border relations and what a plan for reunification would really look like.


On the steps of Freedom House, we line up to shoot North Koreans. Like rare birds, we can see them perched on the ramparts across the Joint Security Area, thin outlines of olive drab in the distance. They with their rifles and binoculars, us with our phones and cameras; we stand and watch each other. Suddenly, they’re coming down the steps toward us, quick march. Two officers in their peaked caps, flanked by four privates. Nervous excitement ripples through the crowd of Japanese, British, Aussies and Americans. Is this normal? Did we do something wrong?

Overhead, a bird of prey dips, catching the sunlight. Our technological arsenal whirs and clicks, capturing this rarest of moments, a close up sighting of Homo North Koreanus, heading straight for us. Now, as suddenly as they appeared, they stop. One of the officers produces a camera of his own and snaps back at us. Our tour guide is ecstatic. He’s been doing this for ten years, he later claims, but has never seen this before. “Quick, now’s your chance! Take a photo!”

He shepherds us forward into the hut that serves as a meeting space for the two Koreas — a practical and symbolic overlap between them. Inside, we jockey for a position to see the guards outside, hellbent on capturing the essence of these alien beings with close-ups, selfies, staring contests. Ogled through the glass, the comparison is all too obvious: we are visitors at the world’s weirdest, most dangerous zoo.

Looking over at North Korea in the DMZ. Photo by Joe Doe.
Looking over at North Korea in the DMZ. Photo by Joe Doe

South Korea would like to forget that, technically, it’s still at war. Over sixty years since the Korean War concluded and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was carved out to split the country in half, who can blame them? In Seoul, the Saturday streets are abuzz with consumption and commerce, bright lights and brand logos lit like religious icons.

A long walk through the district of Gangnam brings me face-to-face with intense, vertigo-inducing globalization. Gangnam Style was more than a novelty hit; its kaleidoscopic, knowingly-silly starburst was a celebration of South Korea’s ascendency to the top table of hyper capitalism. In the world’s fifteenth largest economy, shopping is a national pastime — the fruits of the country’s ‘economic miracle’ of the last few decades. With the longest working hours of any developed nation, most Koreans barely have time for it all, but faced with the meandering crowds of fashionable Seoul shoppers, you’d never guess.

Today, however, the atmosphere in Seoul is tempered with melancholy, anger. The Sewol ferry disaster on April 16, 2014, in which 295 people died — many of them school children — has brought deep emotions to the surface. Memorial ceremonies pepper the capital, as do protests against the government’s response — sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

On May 15, 2014, the captain of the Sewol ferry, Lee Joon-seok, was charged with homicide after he abandoned ship despite instructing passengers to remain in their cabins. Spurred on by public outrage over the tragedy, prosecutors are calling for the death penalty.

The government’s response has also been significant. Off the back of the disaster, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won resigned, while President Park Geun-hye expressed regret that “long-running evils” had contributed to the Sewol’s sinking. This was in reference to the corruption and poor safety standards that continue to linger in the background of the case. For some critics, the real story behind the Sewol ferry goes far beyond Captain Lee Joon-seok’s dereliction of duty. In actuality, they argue, the real failure lies in hunger for profit triumphing over safety; a rotten mirror image of modern Korea’s giddy commercial ambitions.

“To outsiders, the Sewol disaster may seem like another tragedy that we will inevitably overcome,” Young-Ha Kim, a renowned Korean novelist, wrote in an editorial. “But here in South Korea, it feels like the country may never be the same again. It has traumatized our national psyche and undercut our self-image. We are awash in self-reflection. Has all of our progress been a facade? Are we, in fact, an advanced country?”

So, while it’s a fun time to be young with money to burn in South Korea, the nation is also locked in a period of soul-searching. There is an inner conflict in progress here; a struggle between the bounding confidence of a nation on the up, in the prime of its history, and the lingering insecurity that maybe it’s still not enough. Over it all, the presence of the past – and their troubled neighbor to the north – looms. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than within the weird stasis of the DMZ.

A South Korean guard in the DMZ.
A South Korean guard in the DMZ

“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action,” read the printed waivers. We sign as casually as if we were filling out a customer satisfaction survey, and hand the forms back to our smiling tour guide.

For both North and South Korea’s governments, DMZ tourism is one of the softer ways to take rabbit punches in the world’s most famous stalemate. Both sides offer tours top-loaded with their respective national view of the Korean War and its legacy. And there’s a fair bit of “willy waving” to drive home the mutual animosity. Famously, when South Korea set up a 323-foot flagpole on its half of the DMZ, North Korea scrambled to get its own — and made sure it was 202 feet higher.

But DMZ tourism is also a money-spinner: an unconfirmed source suggests there are around 200,000 visitors a year, organized through several tour agencies. South Korea’s tourism board wouldn’t disclose how much revenue this brings in, but as one of the country’s prime visitor attractions we can safely guess it must be a significant amount.

The ongoing conflict between the two Koreas has become an abstraction to many of the South’s citizens, who have more restricted access when visiting the DMZ. But the tourists love it. Our trip provides a one-stop gloss of just about everything you’d care to know about this 250-kilometer long strip of land, delivered with the sort of cheerful sarcasm that characterizes a certain strain of South Korean humor. “Look at him! He’s so fat!” exclaims our tour guide during the briefing, as an image of Kim Jong-un comes up on the screen. Nervous laughter ripples through the crowd.

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In 2006, South Korea rebranded the DMZ the Peace and Life Zone (PLZ). Untouched for decades, the area’s biodiversity and eco-credentials are now being pushed to the fore. Just pause and read that again: Peace and Life. In reference to what is effectively a scar severing the shared reality of a once united country; the last remnant of the Cold War that has divided families for generations and created one of the most extreme states of inequality on a national scale. As public relations go, it’s pretty audacious, like trying to reposition climate change as a way to get a better tan.

“This area has emerged from the ashes of the Korean War and has now become a symbol of peace and life,” the Visit Korea website helpfully reveals. “To help visitors discover the charms and treasures of the PLZ, a tour course has been specially designed, taking visitors to the numerous attractions in this area. After decades of seclusion, the PLZ, with its incredible biodiversity and profound history, is awaiting discovery.”

Is South Korea in a kind of denial about the whole situation, turning to the irrepressible, glossy sheen of tourism as a way of sidestepping this painful scenario? Is it a retreat from an impossible gridlock, or a more calculating type of opportunism? One thing’s for sure: my attempts to get DMZ visitor data from the Korea Tourism Organization smashed hopelessly against a glowing wall of PR charm. “Can you let me know what you intend to do with the material provided?” I was asked. “Just to confirm that your articles will be a positive tourism promotion of the DMZ.”

Back on the tour, the new wage for DMZ tourism is underscored by the surreal propaganda film we’re herded in to watch after arriving in the visitor area. A Hollywood voiceover from a bad 90s action flick lays it out: the “miracles of the DMZ” mean that the area is actually a conduit for unification. We’ve got it all wrong, the movie insists; this isn’t a lesion on the face of Korea, it’s a blessing, a “paradise”. Stirring synths play against images of wildlife frolicking in an unblemished utopia.

It’s a rhetoric of hope in a hopeless place, hammered home with plenty of chutzpah in a passive-aggressive style. You see this pattern again and again in the DMZ, from the laughing Buddha — belly bulging against a barbed wire backdrop — to the small gift shops proffering souvenir T-shirts, mugs and chocolates. Every square inch, needless to say, is snapped and chronicled by us, the tourists.

DMZ tours started in the 1960s. Newspaper reports going back to 1963 — just ten years after the Korean War ended — suggest it was a new phenomenon, and like so many commentators today, the writers from the time display a familiar mix of morbid curiosity and uneasiness at the new offering. Nonetheless, the idea would prove to be an early traiblazer in “dark tourism”. A Tokyo United Press International report from 1963 says Parmunjom was drawing “3,000 tourists a month from South Korea”, suggesting healthy interest from the get-go.

Of course, tapping into the human rubbernecking instinct is nothing new. But the difference with DMZ tourism is that hostile events are still unfolding. In October 2014, soldiers from North and South Korea patrolling the DMZ exchanged fire on two separate occasions. In the first incident, North Korean soldiers shot at propaganda balloons that had been launched by South Korean activists to coincide with the 69th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean Workers’ Party. The balloons were stocked with 200,000 leaflets, money, DVDs and books that depicted South Korean life – effectively a DIY defection package for any North Koreans brave enough to make use of it. South Korea returned fire at the North after shots landed across the border.

Just over a week later, the bullets flew again. This time the South opened the firefight after a cadre of ten North Korean soldiers advanced on the DMZ’s military demarcation line in an allegedly aggressive fashion, ignoring warning shots. About ten minutes of shooting followed before the North Koreans retreated. There were no casualties in either case.

The two episodes provoked typical chest-beating responses from the Korea Central News Agency — the propaganda mouthpiece of the North’s regime. Frustratingly, the back-and-forth gunfire also represents a setback to the recent diplomatic progress in which North Korean officials visited the South for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games — an unexpected step towards improved relations.

Border guards on the North Korean side of the DMZ.
Border guards on the North Korean side of the DMZ

Regardless, the ongoing deadlock has done little to deter the South from its mission to reinvent the DMZ. The latest steps were outlined by President Park Geun-hye in August, when she detailed plans for a peace park at the heart of the no-man’s land. “By making the Demilitarized Zone a symbol of peace, we can erase the memories of war and provocations, and create a new beginning of trust, cooperation and unity on the Korean Peninsula,” she declared. Establishing the park would take detailed collaboration with both North Korea and the UN, and has already prompted intense scepticism.

The vision is, of course, commendable. But something about it also rings hollow. The South’s dogged efforts toward reunification are tethered to the unflinching belief that the free market will lead to progress — already a stance at odds with the North’s socialist doctrine. The stand-off will be diffused by stealth capitalism, the tourism logic insists; a strange cocktail of commerce and commemoration will overcome the decades of bitterness.

The concept is not without precedent. Pulitzer Prize-winning economist, Thomas L. Friedman, neatly encapsulated the idea that globalized commerce can reduce the possibility of war in The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. Friedman noted that no country with a McDonald’s restaurant had ever declared war on another nation that also had a branch there. The theory suggests that a multinational like McDonald’s would only invest in an area that is secure both politically and economically. Furthermore, the presence of the golden arches connotes strong ties to the global community, with its supposed shared economic benefits. The risk of alienating trade partners by going to war would be too great for governments in this position.

Of course, Friedman’s theory wasn’t road tested for the DMZ and its own very specific set of circumstances. Nonetheless, it gives us an interesting angle on the South’s mentality. Witnessing the DMZ in its current guise, juxtaposed between a theme park and a military frontier, you have to question just what that new symbol of peace would look like for all concerned.

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Consider another viewpoint: Is there any possibility that South Korea doesn’t really want reunification, despite the rhetoric in favor of it? “I don’t think we need reunification,” Katie, a South Korean student, told me. “It’s not really something my generation talks about. Myself and lots of young people prefer living this way.”

Barbara DeMick observes a similar mentality among South Korean youth in her book Nothing To Envy. “Young people, born long after the end of the Korean War, have less sentimentality about the missing other half of Korea,” she writes. “They would rather ignore the impoverished, nuclear-armed dictatorship looming above them. In the blur of their busy lives…it is easy to forget.”

“My grandma went through the period of a colonised Korea,” Katie continues, “she moved to the South from the North with her brother. She never knew she wouldn’t see her family again. She died two years ago. Now, I don’t know anyone who lost their families because of the war. North Korea is in real trouble as a country, so we assume that reunification will happen someday. But while we would have a responsibility to help North Koreans, it would be a burden, too. We don’t want to lose what we have.”

Likewise, from a political point of view, the topic is complicated. The South’s government pays lip service to reunification, but the reality of such a scenario would present huge challenges and reshape the new Korea in all ways. North Korea’s population stands at over 23 million — it’s fair to assume a large portion of that population would be heading South as soon as opportunity allows. Navigating Seoul’s crammed streets, the prospect of tens of millions more people flooding the capital is unthinkable. Figures ranging from $800 billion to $1.8 trillion have been floated as the reunification price tag.

Far and away from the emotional turmoil that would surely accompany the return of long-lost relatives, the short-term reality would place immense strain on South Korea. “Although political correctness dictates that all Koreans yearn for their missing kin… some view the prospect with dread,” DeMick affirms in Nothing To Envy.

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“Next Stop: Pyongyan” the notification board reads, optimistically. For any suggestions that South Korea might only be paying lip service to reunification, Dorasan station stands as a living symbol of the possibility. Opened in 2002, the station is at the northern extremity of South Korea’s amazing subway network, often recognized as one of the most advanced and accessible in the world. In an exciting interlude, freight trains briefly passed between North and South Korea in 2007. However, when new tensions arose in 2008, the relationship quickly soured — the moratorium on traffic between South and North was quickly reinstated.

As our tour guide explains, the possibility of cross-border trains would be a vital piece of the reunification jigsaw. If freight and even passengers could travel from the South through North Korea to Beijing, the Trans-Siberian railway network would be joined with the peninsula, effectively linking Korea with Europe. Recent indications suggest it really could happen, too. The Organization for the Co-Operation between Railways (OSJD), a body comprising former Soviet states, announced at the end of April it would be holding two big conferences in 2015 and 2019 in Seoul. South Korea isn’t yet a full member of the OSJD, making the announcement all the more surprising. The nation is seeking full membership, with the trans-Korean railway being a major point on its agenda.

So far, as a full member of the OSJD, North Korea raised no objections to the Seoul conferences. It’s a good omen. But, as one of the visitors on my tour succinctly pointed out, would it really do much to challenge the reality of the split? Symbolic as a joined-up rail network would be, it’s hard to believe North Korean citizens are going to be granted holiday passes to Beijing, let alone Seoul.

Dr. Choi Yeon-Hye, the head of Korail, argues otherwise, insisting the free movement of trains between North and South would have a significant impact on the North/South divide. “Germany was reunited while I was studying there,” she explained in an interview with International Railway Journal earlier this year. “I believe Germany’s transport and traffic policy contributed significantly to the reconnection of the East and West German People and also the peaceful reunification of the country. I hope that Korea’s railways will play the same role in the relationship between North and South Korea.”

A greeting on Gyeongwon Line of the DMZ train.
A greeting on Gyeongwon Line of the DMZ train

As if there weren’t enough obstacles already in place, the playground bitching that is par for the course in North-South relations has simmered throughout 2014. The Korean Central News Agency regularly hurls vitriol at the South. Allegations in April that North Korea is using drones to spy across the border prompted the Korean People’s Army to denounce President Park Geun-hye, declaring her a “political prostitute”. Likewise, Barack Obama, who recently toured South Korea following the Sewol ferry disaster, was also dubbed a “black monkey”. South Korea’s spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, Kim Min-seok, issued a rare retort, stating “North Korea isn’t a real country is it?… It is an unreal country that constantly lies and uses historically backward-looking rhetoric. That’s why it should cease to exist.”

It all seems a bit gossip mag, except this sort of trash talk is being spouted by two heavily militarized states which share a long-standing animosity. North Korea’s response was a promise to “mete out a merciless punishment” to the South. With ongoing relations as frosty as this, Seoul’s stated hopes for a train route through the North still seem a million miles from reality.

But maybe Kim Min-seok’s comment deserves deeper scrutiny. His suggestion that North Korea is “unreal” is a symptom of the weird recurring dream both nations seem to be tethered to. Like a deadly version of Groundhog Day, the players speak their parts, and the pattern seems to keep on repeating. It’s going to take something truly monumental to break this cycle. And down at the DMZ, the doors of the buzzing gift shop remain wide open. Busloads of excited tourists are still being shuttled in past the military checkpoints, and this strangest of zoos, which peddles conflict as tourism, is still doing a roaring trade.

Want to read more about South Korea?
The Mudgang’s Dance: Journalist Gord Sellar explores South Korea’s rapid transformation from poor backwater to economic powerhouse and how the change has affected the citizens of Seoul.


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