With visits to Laos, Vietnam and China on this trip, plus a previous holiday to Cuba I have now visited all but one of the single party communist states in the world. After 2 days enjoying the lovely city of Seoul today we head out on a tour to get a glimpse of the one remaining one….North Korea.
A contender for ‘strangest tourist attraction’ is an organised tour to see the longest running ceasefire zone in the world. The De-Militarised Zone or DMZ was established in 1953 and forms a barrier 4km wide and 250km long between South Korea and the most secretive nation on earth, and the lack of human activity has seen the development of wildlife to such an extent that it has been declared a UNESCO Biosphere site!
The tour takes us to see a number of ‘attractions’, interspersed with some overly American-style propaganda videos (in the style of “When Cop Chases Go Wrong”) that cover the South’s seemingly unrealistic hope for reunification and some of the aggression shown by the North since the ceasefire. A desire for unification is understandable though given that the original split was determined by other countries at the end of WWII (to restrict the power of the Soviet block) and saw 15,000 families split by a new political divide.
One of the sites is one of the North Korean tunnels under the DMZ (there are 4 of them found so far) that is thought to have been a route for an invasion. They initially denied it was them and then said it was a coal mine despite the Korean peninsula being granite (though they did paint it black with carbon). Another stop is at an observation tower where you can use binoculars to look across into North Korea.
A strangely voyeuristic but captivating experience as you stare at otherwise ordinary scenes but for the bizarre political leadership that governs the people you can see, and you can see the two flags of the two nations as close together as the ideologies are far apart.
The final stop is the train station that never was, built at a time when there was genuine collaboration between the North and the South and they hoped a rail network could be forged connecting the Korean peninsula with Europe. A change in government in S.Korea from left to right resulted in North Korea pulling out and it now stands empty save the tourists that arrive by coach.
Speaking to some of the South Koreans they genuinely don’t seem concerned about the risk of hostilities from the North, they believe it is just sabre rattling every now and then when the North gets a change in leader or feels it wants to make a point. Obama is currently on a visit to Asia and is voicing the worlds concerns over North Korean nuclear weapons tests, and you have to hope that the locals are right.