“You’re not to stop walking, do not raise your hands or shout,” I was told firmly. Was I back in school on some outing to a museum? Kind of. The timepiece I was visiting was the last slice of the Cold War, what Bill Clinton in those hazy pre-Iraq War days of the 1990s called “the most dangerous place on Earth”: the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
I’d been whisked from Hong Kong to Seoul at the drop of a hat on the promise of a decent conference to report on for my former newspaper. Checking in at the Lotte Hotel then my eyebrows raised somewhat when the friendly, sweet receptionist handed me an envelope with a ticket to tour the DMZ the next day.
“Yeah, well, err, turns out the conference will be all in Korean,” said my former colleague turned conference organizer, “so it’s kinda pointless you sitting through it, but since you’ve come all this way I thought I’d make your trip worthwhile.”
Fast-forward 12 hours and after a bus ride through endless barbed wire partitions where the population thins to almost nothing I was in the vast CCTVed-to-the-max compound that straddles the border. Fear was the most pungent feeling that our military guides tried to engender in us.
100 metres in front of our building was the mad, bad Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, from where a bunch of frankly scraggy guards looked out; their uniforms hanging loosely from their frail physiques. In the awful ‘Arduous March’ as the DPRK refers to its heinous famine of the mid-1990s where hundreds of thousands died, South Korean guards used to waft the smell of their cooking across the border.
The hillside behind the DPRK installments contrasted poorly with their southern cousins, raped of any trees, barren and a clear reminder why this neo-Stalinist ‘Hermit Kingdom’ is so prone to flooding.
The largest flag I’d ever seen – the red star with white circle and blue lines of the DPRK - fluttered high in the sky, while on the ground the bullshit flowed freely: from the handpicked South Korean military guards all of a certain height and frame to give off the illusion that the South is far mightier (since the 70s it is true the South’s population has grown in height, while the impoverished North’s has stunted); to the fake village on the North side whose lights come on everyday at 5pm and which bares no resemblance to real life in the DPRK, more for the movie junkie Kim Jong-il, reel life, à la Stepford Wives trying to create an illusion of modernity, and comfort.
The South Korean guards in the centre of this pissing contest, shades on come rain or shine, stand in a firm tae kwon do pose. Fear, fear, fear: that’s what one takes away from the South Korean side.
Yet, as luck would have it, I had the chance to see the bipolar opposite just a few months later and for me it showed all that is wrong with, what my chum Paul French coined, the ‘Paranoid Peninsula’.
Midway through an unforgettable and highly recommended trip to North Korea our tour party trundled down to the border. There the guards couldn’t have been nicer, taking pictures with us, cracking jokes and not hurrying us along whatsoever. The CCTVs from the other side frowned back at us, the US and ROK guards glared down from their modern bastion, yet all I felt was a sense of camaraderie, of being in the presence of friendly, kind people.
To this day the two Koreas are still technically at war having never signed an armistice. Shots were traded across the border just a fortnight back and now President Roh will travel from Seoul to Pyongyang this year for only the second ever inter-Korean summit.
Here’s what I learnt from visiting both sides of the DMZ in the space of five months. The climate of fear suits many nations most notably the US so it can station troops strategically in East Asia. If the world only knew what wonderful people the citizens of the DPRK are this whole paranoia would ease up and the paper tiger that Kim, and to a certain extent the US, have created would cease to be.