by Ian Douglas, Oct 14, 2001 | Destinations: Korea, S / Seoul

Was there ever a more ironic name? The acronym DMZ stands for Demilitarized Zone. Yet this is one of the most patrolled and barb-wired frontiers in the history of mankind! The grassy strip of no man's land runs from the west coast to the east like a knife, cutting the former Korea in two. Above the divide lies North Korea, the last stronghold of unrepentant Communism, a rogue state, as labeled by Bill Clinton. Below stands South Korea, a hothouse of capitalism and America's ally. They are like mirror images of each other, one side black the other white.

Since the cease-fire to the Korean War in 1952 the DMZ has grown into a tourist attraction. Due to its strategic sensitivity, nobody unaccompanied can visit, but tours, as organized as army maneuvers, regularly cover the short distance from Seoul to the battlefront. And make no mistake it is a battle-front!

Tourists arriving at Camp Boniface and are taken to a briefing with a GI. Proper conduct, the geography and history of the zone, etc. are among the topics. The Camp takes its name from the poor American soldier dispatched to do a little tree pruning down at the edge of the borderline. A jeepfull of North Korean soldiers zipped across the boundary catching him unawares and hacked the poor man to death. A totally unprovoked attack at a time when hostilities were in a lull. The following day the GIs sent to cut down the ill-fated trees were backed up by helicopters, jets and tanks.

After the briefing visitors are escorted to Panjummon, the 'Peace Village". A modern observation tower in the shape of a pagoda rises above the village. From here one can look down on the site of army barracks and meeting rooms. During a thaw between the two sides, North Korean and American buildings sprung up side by side. However, following attacks by the North Koreans, this was abandoned for the current situation; nobody crosses the line!

It may seem almost humorous. South Koreans stand at the Southern end of the huts, half-hidden, half-exposed by the corners of the building. North Koreans stand at the opposite end, likewise, half hidden, half exposed at ends of the buildings. Each side glares ferociously at their enemy, well a half-glare anyway. The idea is to maximize observation while protecting the body from bullets or worse.

Next tourists can actually enter one of the army huts where, from time to time, negotiations between the two factions take place. Remember, no truce has ever been agreed. Formally, the war hasn't ended yet. Because you are inside the American hut, you can actually cross over the border into North Korea, at least technically. However you will not be allowed to leave the room by a Northern exit. During this writer's time at Panjummon, a North Korean officer strode up to the window and pulled a face at me through the glass. I responded with a similarly cheeky grimace, only to be bundled away by GI's, furious I might provoke World War Three!

On very rare occasions, desperate North Koreans have made a frantic dash across the campsite to the South Korean side, semi-automatic machine guns screaming in their ears. Some made it, some did not.

After the Peace Village, a bus drives you down to a small bridge crossing over to North Korea. This was where Private Boniface was murdered. To all points of the compass stretches grass, low-lying trees and bush. But don't be fooled, all that grassland is stuffed full with landmines. As a result, paradoxically, the corridor of grass and bombs has become a nature sanctuary, home to a variety of birds endangered elsewhere in North Asia. In the distance stands the North Korean Propaganda village,, to use an unofficial name. Supposedly inhabited and built after the war, all the people living in the village board a coach every night and leave. During the day, enormous loudspeakers bellow communist broadcasts across the deserted fields to the Southern side.

Fifty years of partitioning, fifty years of tragedy and provocation. In the seventies, South Korean farmers out digging in their paddies suddenly fell through the soil into secret underground caverns. The North Koreans were tunneling their way to Seoul! The caverns were wide enough for tanks. And if this seems hard to believe the tunnels are nowadays open to tourists as proof. As recently as the mid-nineties people were still losing their lives. A Northern submarine crashed off shore. The sailors made it to land, but got lost trying to find their way back across the border. Along the way they murdered a few villagers who accidentally discovered them. The sailors too lost their lives in a shoot-out with Southern forces.

A Korean friend told me his father's story. As a small boy, on the eve of the war, the father went on a trip with his father and brothers to Seoul. While they were away War broke out. They were never able to return to the north. The father emigrated to Canada. Then in the early eighties, the father visited North Korea by way of China to see his dying mother for the first and last time. Before going, he landed in South Korea to say goodbye to his brothers. At that time, any South Korean visiting the North was automatically stripped of citizenship. Hence by seeing his mother he would never see his brothers again (this law has since been scrapped). While he was in Seoul, he was arrested by plain-clothes policemen and accused of being a spy. They beat him up for good measure.

Still among all this sadness and horror, perhaps there can be romance too. This writer knew a gay South Korean who reminisced of under cover operations with his sergeant in the wilds of the DMZ. For weeks they camped out each night in a small camouflaged tent. Well, one thing led to another and the two soldiers bonded in more ways than one!

Here we are in the 21st century, and even those most bitter of foes the two Koreas are building diplomatic bridges. Once inconceivable, it now seems that the DMZ will one day go the way of its defunct brother, the Berlin Wall. Let's pray for the day when the Korean peninsula is reunited in peace and prosperity. So if you want to savor this raw slice of Cold War history, don't hesitate. The days of separation are definitely numbered!