A South Korean soldier stationed at the JSA gazes into North Korea. Photo: Andrew Salmon
A South Korean soldier stationed at the JSA gazes into North Korea. Photo: Andrew Salmon

Finding Panmunjeom is not difficult. Simply climb into a car in central Seoul, drive in a straight line up Chayuro (‘Freedom Expressway’) alongside the capital’s Han River, and stop where South Korea ends.

The journey – it takes around 40 minutes, traffic permitting – transports you from thriving, 21st century capital to grim Cold War frontline.

Departing Seoul in a stream of speeding Hyundais and Kias, you zoom under what looks like a semi-finished bridge over the road: a massive, suspended concrete block, bedecked with recruitment posters for the armed forces, with no on- or off-ramps. This is a roadblock: In the event of a North Korean invasion, it will be blown, blocking this key highway to Seoul.

Beyond Seoul, traffic thins. The river bank to your left (west) is fenced off. The further north you drive, the more guard posts you see crouched among the razor wire, for the Han is a potential infiltration route for North Korean commandos.

To your right (east) is the modern, high-rise dormitory town of Ilsan. If North Korea ever surges across the Demilitarized Zone, this city will become a Stalingrad that grinds down enemy troops in street fighting before they can penetrate Seoul. (A second invasion corridor to the east is similarly blocked by the city of Uijongbu.)

Just before the DMZ itself – demarcated by chain-link fences and camouflaged troops who will wave down your car – you pass Imjingak, a unification-themed fun park, open-air art gallery and observatory. Here, through binoculars, you can peer into the mysterious North. Many of the locals doing this are senior citizens, members of a dwindling population who remember pre-1945, pre-division Korea, and who may still have relatives beyond the razor wire, guard posts and minefields.

The Koreas’ most iconic location

To get to Panmunjeom, you pass through checkpoints on ‘Unification Bridge’ over the Imjin River and through the South Korea-US Camp Bonifas (named after a US officer hacked to death by North Korean troops in the infamous axe murders of 1976), with its proud motto, “In Front of Them All.” Four hundred meters north from there you enter the DMZ itself, a 4km-wide zone that extends 2km on either side of the actual border, the MDL (Military Demarcation Line), which is marked by a series of white posts that extends the width of the peninsula. Assuming you have the appropriate permits, you arrive in Panmujeom in minutes; the village, uniquely, straddles the MDL.

A Swiss Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission observer and a South Korean sentry are pictured on the southern side of the inter-Korean border in the truce village of Panmunjeom. Photo: Andrew Salmon

Panmunjeom – more properly the “Joint Security Area” (JSA) – is, thanks to global TV coverage, probably the most recognizable landmark on the peninsula. Korean War truce talks ended here and its blue huts host military and Red Cross talks; high-level negotiations are usually held in the less iconic but more comfortable Southern Peace House or Northern Unification Pavilion, both nearby.

Both sides are allowed to station 35 soldiers in the JSA at any one time, but troops are permitted no weapons heavier than pistols, under the terms of the armistice that suspended the 1950-53 Korean War. (North Korean troops broke that rule, deploying assault rifles, during the defection of a soldier in November.) The area’s only full-time inhabitants are the Swiss and Swedish contingents of the Neutral Nations’ Supervisory Commission, who oversee the armistice. Though Panmunjeom is often described as “tense,” they say their cozy, wooded barracks are peaceful: they sleep with doors unlocked.

A British Korean War veteran is pictured at one of the many battle monuments that dot the hills and valleys south of the DMZ. Photo: Andrew Salmon

Anyone believing that the sealed-off village of Panmunjeom represents the wider DMZ is mistaken. It bears minimal resemblance to a Cold War frontline that is one of the most dangerous flashpoints on earth.

Zone of silence: the ‘real’ DMZ

The DMZ proper is empty of everything except wildlife and soldiers. Since 1953, it has been a silent land, undeveloped and heartbreakingly beautiful.

Fortified guard posts and observation posts stand on both sides of the MDL. Tense foot patrols skirt the many, many minefields. Wildlife, such as the legendary “three-legged DMZ pig,” sometimes detonate mines, igniting wildfires in the scrub. High, chain link fences are not set in one place but frequently moved according to tactical requirements. And both sides’ fortifications have crept forward over the years.

Excited correspondents love the cliché that “the DMZ is actually the most heavily militarized zone on earth!” They are wrong: weapons heavier than rifles are forbidden inside the DMZ. The real big boys’ toys – armor and artillery – are deployed either side of it. A US officer notes that “there is more firepower in the area between Seoul and the DMZ than anywhere on earth,” and anyone driving east along the Imjin, south of Panmunjeom, may feel like they have blundered onto a war movie set.

Foreign visitors photograph a South Korean armored vehicle maneuvering during spring military exercises, southeast of Panmunjeom. Photo: Andrew Salmon

Beside the road squat huge grey concrete bunkers; barrels of 155mm self-propelled guns, trained north, poke out under camouflage netting. Military bases, their wire-topped walls often incongruously painted with bright, cheerful murals, are everywhere. So, too, are concrete blocks suspended over, or alongside, roads and lanes: more roadblocks. Guard towers loom over the river, and unwary fishermen may trip over knee-high, camouflaged bunkers dug into its banks. Armed troops are common visitors in rural villages and markets.

Interspersed between the area’s scenic low hills are weekend chalets owned by wealthy Seoulites; the area boasts competitive real estate prices. One drawback may be getting here in spring: During the exercise season, convoys of armor can jam country roads, while squadrons of helicopters drone overhead.

War tourism

Some counties south of the DMZ have leveraged geopolitical tensions to establish tourist sites such as Korean War museums, cross-border observatories and infiltration tunnel tours. Shops sell camouflage clothing, ration packs and slices of DMZ barbed wire.

Bus tours, advertised on leaflets in Seoul hotels, go to the iconic Panmunjeom (though these tours are subject to cancellations when talks are imminent); to Dora San, an OP that allows visitors to look across the DMZ and into the city of Kaesong and the ridge beyond, where much of North Korea’s long-range artillery is emplaced; to Cheorwon, a county offering dramatic scenery, war-smashed buildings, and visits to a North Korean infiltration tunnel; and to Gangwha, an island with superb views into the North.

Binoculars aim north from the observation post on Gangwha Island. Photo: Andrew Salmon

But while this may invigorate selfie-focused, thrill-seeking tourists, nobody can look upon this with pleasure. The rolling hills were Korean War deathscapes, the area is dotted with somber monuments to fallen soldiers from lands as far distant as the Philippines and the United Kingdom; and the DMZ represents an ongoing tragedy.

“The JSA is the top place to visit, as it is the only place where you can get close to the bad guys,” says retired US Army Colonel Steve Tharp, who leads DMZ tours and has written books on it. “But when you go to the DMZ, it is a visual example of the separation of the Korean people and the tragedy created by the Korean War.”

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