August 08, 2022
Far Flung
Playtime in the Demilitarized Zone

It’s disconcerting, walking among monuments to the fallen, to hear the happy screams of children riding the carousel

South Koreans adore cartoon logos; they’ve even tried to make war look cute. In the demilitarized zone between war and south, we find two mascots for South Korean soldiers: the man in a dashing blue uniform, helmet, and shades; the woman in a saucy beret and red jacket. Even the figure of the North Korean soldier, in a hat with a prominent red star, grins sweetly. With their large eyes and pinchable cheeks, the figures look like the kind of GI Joes Precious Moments would make.

Although South Korea is anxious about its proximity to the North, it’s also used to it. For instance, it circulates an emergency number for reporting North Korean spies. (Some years ago, a South Korean fisherman noticed a North Korean submarine floating calmly down a river, dialed the number, and was given a $250,000 reward.)

The DMZ, a 150-mile long, 4-mile wide strip of disputed land between the two countries, is riddled with landmines and checkpoints. But the authorities have tried to make it appealing. So there’s an amusement park, and other tourist attractions.

I book a tour with a group of fellow English teachers; the drive from Seoul takes about an hour. We stop at Paju City, just south of the DMZ, where besides an amusement park, there are many Korean War-related sites. We find several monuments to the dead, including Freedom Bridge, where 13,000 POWs were released after armistice in 1953. The bridge is covered with mementos left by people touched by war, including from families separated by the border.

On Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving, part of the day is devoted to cleaning the graves of ancestors. For those unfortunate people whose ancestral graves are in North Korea and therefore inaccessible, Paju has erected an enormous urn as a substitute grave to tend.

The Paju Peace Bell is part monument for peace, part ghastly art installation. Tourists must pay to ring the enormous bell (signifying their desire for a unified Korea — it takes a least six people to ring it). A garish six-foot teardrop hangs from the back. A nearby is wall studded with rocks, drawn from battlefieds spanning human history. Rocks from Spanish-American War battlegrounds are embedded beside rocks from the site of the Peloponnesian war.

Life has a way of overtaking sites of death. It’s disconcerting to walk among monuments to the fallen and hear the happy screams and laughs of children on a carousel.

Panmunjeom, where the armistice that halted the Korean War was signed, has become a Korean Mayberry. If a book disappears from the local library, everyone knows who took it. There are few residents, each receiving a stipend from the Korean government for living there, and for acting as ambassadors for peace.

We roll past security checkpoints, showing our passports to South Korean soldiers, then over rivers and around hills. We aren’t allowed out of the bus, except in well-trodden areas, since the woods just off the road are studded with landmines. Despite the danger, we see families with children taking photos along the road. Perhaps they find the beauty of this area attractive; while the DMZ has been in dispute for more than 50 years, most stretches haven’t been disturbed in all that time. So the DMZ seems a throwback, from modernized Korea. It’s full of trees, animals and birds; there is talk of one day, after reunification, turning the place into a nature preserve.

We get our passports stamped at Dorasan Station, the last train station in South Korea before the North Korean border. This gleaming railway station, still under construction, is meant to one day link the two Koreas with the rest of the world. It will eventually be possible to take a train from Korea to Portugal. To Portugal, through Siberia and Paris! My stamp entitles me to free ride to North Korea once the station opens.

Crossing into North Korea, we stop in Kijong-dong village, where a North Korean soldier briefs us on what we may be able to see of the North, through binoculars. This included the world’s largest flagpole, bearing a North Korean flag. The South claims no one actually lives in Kijong-dong, beyond the 20 or so people caring for it, turning lights on and off at set times.

Stepping up to the binoculars, I see an impossibly large statue of Kim Il-Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong-Il - as well as small figures on motorbikes, kicking up dust. I am peering into North Korea, staring at North Koreans, but have no idea if I am looking at army personnel paid to make the village look inhabited, or at real denizens of a village. I take in the sweeping vistas of the mountains - the village is in a valley - then step back to allow others a glance at life in the North.

We’re taken to some narrow, dank North Korean tunnels the southerners have unearthed, and told they could allow some 20,000 North Korean troops to enter Seoul within hours. The South estimates that the North has dug over 20 such tunnels, only about a quarter of them discovered.

And we’re shown unconvincing propaganda films about the future of the DMZ, in which a laughing girl chases a butterfly over the former war zone, ignoring the reality of the landmines that will undoubtedly linger underfoot long after any peace is achieved.

Getting to Korea’s DMZ
Many Seoul-based companies offer DMZ tours, most making the same stops: at Paju City, Panmunjeom, an Army base, and the North Korean tunnels. We used the Panmunjeom Travel Center Seoul City, Chung-Gu, Sogong-dong, Lotte Hotel 6nd floor (Main Bldg) Tel: 02-771-5593 x5; Fax: 02-771-5596.

2 comments about “Playtime in the Demilitarized Zone”

  1. Jurgen Akenbrand says:

    Very interestinmg.

    In 1987 I went to China and on the way there I also visited S. Korea. Very view signs in English but I rented a car and drove around teh entire peninsula solo. I left at 7 AM and returned past midnight with a few involuntary detours but that’s the way I travel and have done so for the paast 30 years. Soul is an interesting city and I was lost in a four block shopping center below the Hotel Lotte for several hours until I found my way out, all part of adventure travelinmg and explorating a foreign country. I have visited about 75 of them on every continent and very little faces me.

    J?rgen Ankenbrand
    visit my photography web site at:

  2. Michelle says:


    This is a great story! I teach ESL in Korea too. I know describing a country as “a land of contrasts” is the ultimate travel cliche, but…that’s truly what South Korea is. All around are these reminders of a dark and tragic history mingled with Hello Kitty shops. Craziness.

    Thanks for sharing!

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