We are travelling to Japan with our friends Sue and Pete. On the way we’ve stopped off in Seoul, capital of South Korea, for a few days. Now, I have to admit to knowing very little about The Republic of Korea, to give it its proper title. Everything we see and read in the media is about its rather scary northern neighbour, The People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea and its enigmatic leader Kim Jong-un, whose on-off love affair with Donald Trump has been making the headlines for the last couple of years. South Korea gets forgotten, seemingly dismissed as too insignificant for attention.
But South Korea is equally as interesting in its own way. Now the world’s eleventh largest economy, in the twentieth century it was devastated by 35 years of Japanese rule followed by the Korean War from 1950 to 1952, the only time the USA and the Soviet Union came into direct military conflict and a war in which the UK was a very active participant. This was followed by a period of government by military rule or autocratic presidents and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that full democracy was established. Yet during this period South Korea grew to become a major manufacturer of high technology goods (think Samsung and LG) with a reputation for innovation. It has the fastest internet in the world and is no slouch in some social measures either, for example being ranked second globally in terms of equal access to healthcare.
But it is undoubtedly its relationship with its northern neighbour that is the most interesting aspect of the country and no visit would be complete without a trip to the demilitarised zone, colloquially known as the DMZ, that separates the two countries. This has become a major tourist attraction with over 6 million people visiting each year.
Travelling north out of Seoul the urban sprawl gradually gives way to paddy fields but as the motorway approaches the Han River something else appears. Running alongside the road is a high metal fence topped by three lines of barbed wire with armed observation posts every few hundred metres.
This is because the shadowy hills on the opposite bank, just visible through the haze, are in North Korea. The two countries are officially still at war as no formal peace treaty has ever been signed since the Korean War finished in 1952. The border is probably the most heavily militarised in the world with an estimated million soldiers guarding each side . The traffic on the road thins noticeably and soon we are stopped at the Civilian Control Line. This marks the southern boundary of an area south of the DMZ itself where entry is strictly controlled by the South Korean military.
The DMZ is a four kilometre strip of land that runs right across the Korean peninsula and was established after the end of the Korean war.
Entry into the DMZ itself is strictly forbidden but there are plenty of tours on offer that take you up to the edge of it. Bill Clinton called it the scariest place on earth when he came in 2009 but visiting it as a major tourist attraction rather robs it of any real sense of danger. It’s difficult to feel threatened in a place where there are souvenir shops selling pieces of barbed wire from the fence that runs along the edge of the zone along with the inevitable T-shirts, mugs and keyrings to prove you’ve been here. The South Korean government is even trying to rebrand the area as a ’PLZ’, a Peace and Life Zone, on account of the fact that 70 years of the absence of human presence has turned the DMZ into a pristine nature reserve, with thousands of species including rare cranes, Korean flying squirrels and possibly, it is rumoured, even Siberian tigers.
But the visit does include enough to highlight that this is no ordinary meeting place between two neighbouring countries.
Our first stop is the ‘Third Tunnel of Agression’, so called because it was the third such tunnel to be discovered. They were dug by the North Koreans and are believed to have been intended as underground invasion routes as they all point towards the city of Seoul. Even though they are dug through solid granite the North Koreans claim they were for mining coal even going to the effort of painting the walls black to make it look like anthracite. The tunnel itself is quite deep underground and almost identical in its dimension to the Victoria Tunnel in Newcastle where I act as a guide. But as you walk along in a long line of people its hard to get any real sense of menace from imagining hordes of North Korean soldiers marching though on their way to war.
The second stop is an observatory perched on a hill with views over into North Korea. Banks of binoculars give people the chance to get a rare glimpse into the forbidden land to the north.
But, of course, there is little to see. A town that at a distance looks pretty much like any other, wooded hills no different from the ones in the south. The fence that marks the edge of the DMZ itself can be seen snaking through the woods below and in the distance it is possible to make out two huge flagpoles, one in S Korea, one in North topped by equally huge flags in what has been dubbed ‘The War of the Flagpoles’. Standing here in the sunshine it’s hard to imagine that this might be the flashpoint for third world war involving nuclear armageddon.
The third stop though is the strangest but maybe the most hopeful. In 2004 the rail connection between South and North Korea was re-established. The South Koreans built a new station near the border at Dorasan and it is this we visit. The station is described as being ‘international’ and large maps on the wall show the railway extending through North Korea to link up with the Trans-China and Trans-Siberian railways all the way into Europe (although, ironically, the UK appears to have been left off the map. Perhaps they know about Brexit before we did). The sign above the entrance to the platforms reads ‘Trains to Pyeongyang’ (the capital of North Korea). But no such trains run. The line was briefly used for freight but has been closed completely since 2008. The brand new platforms are deserted and the immigration and customs hall stands empty waiting for an influx of passengers from the north that seems unlikely to happen any time soon.
Is the station merely a propaganda exercise by the south, attempting to show that it is North Korea that remains as the obstacle to unification of the Korean peninsula? Or is it a genuine statement of intent, a beacon of optimism in an otherwise rather depressing and hopeless landscape? A painting on the wall shows a train breaking through the barbed wire fencing of the DMZ with the sun in the background rising over a newly unified Korea.
For an outsider its hard to tell. But standing on the hill looking over to North Korea I was struck by the thought that for many of the South Koreans eagerly queuing to look through the binoculars this is more than just another tourist experience, one more tick off the bucket list.. They will have relatives in North Korea, families separated by nearly 70 years of war, animosity and paranoia. Looking over the border they must surely wish for it to end. And if there are any North Koreans looking the other way surely they will feel exactly the same.