Tourists get an earful from South Korean soldier after pointing cameras the wrong way in the DMZ (Photo: Simon Roughneen

A spin north to the DMZ is almost a rite-of-passage for any visitor to Seoul, but it’s best to go there with an insight into life across the line.

SEOUL – As the tour bus moves from central Seoul to the city outskirts, the seamless transition from one of the world’s biggest and most vibrant cities to the world’s most heavily armed border is as surreal as it is functional, with roadside bus-stops giving way to military watchtowers even as the city’s sun-glazed heights shimmer and recede into the background.

“Many South Koreans don’t think so much about the North”, opined *So Yeon, a North Korean defector now working for the Seoul-based Panmunjom Travel Centre. Every morning she addresses a busload of tourists about her escape from North Korea , telling her story while en route to the demilitarized zone (DMZ), a 2.5 mile wide bufferzone running the length of the 160-mile North-South border.

Visiting the DMZ is part Cold War throwback, part school tour – imagine Enid Blyton rewriting John le Carré and you kind-of get the idea. There is the usual array of do’s and mostly don’ts that come with visiting a high-security region, which though only an hour’s drive away, is an existential leap from sprawling Seoul, where there seems to be more coffee-shops than in Seattle and more rooftop crosses than in Rome.

So-Yeon’s contribution was a highlight of the trip. Her story – escaping North Korea across the Yalu River into China, then fleeing a 3-year forced-marriage to a Chinese man, via the ‘underground railroad’  to Vietnam, roused most of the group from their early-morning drowsiness. That said, I counted three who weren’t to be budged from their heads-rolling, eyes-dropping, drool-dispensing drift – despite the Hollywood-escape narrative they were being treated to. But most of the packed bus was captivated.

Her story – she spoke of grinding poverty and constant surveillance inside North Korea, before falling into virtual enslavement in China – was a reminder of what lies across the border for North Koreans, and what faces those daring or desperate enough to escape.

For North Koreans, emigration is prohibited, so despite the risks, thousands flee each year. But defectors must undertake a grueling trek through China, to Mongolia or Southeast Asia, before seeking asylum and relocation to South Korea.

Back to the DMZ itself, where the physical high point of any visit is undoubtedly Panmunjeom, right in the middle of the zone, where, in theory, both sides have a common discussion space but where in reality both countries’ soldiers eyeball each other across a 40 yard courtyard.

View from the South Korean side of the demilitarised zone across the 'Bridge of No Return' into North Korea (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The Russian and Chinese tourists visiting the DMZ on North Korean side seemed to have a more relaxed security regimen than our western, Filipino and Japanese group visiting from Seoul. From a rooftop gantry, the North Korean-chaperoned group waved across the yard – entreaties which we were told not to reciprocate – under pain of arrest – by the South Korean and US soldiers on southern side.

Between us and them is a joint conference room, where visitors from the South get to cross the border onto the North Korean side (of the room at least). By a matter of inches or feet, DMZ visitors therefore can claim to have visited North Korea.

Westerners can visit North Korea ‘for real’ however – though what they get is stage-managed by the North Korean regime. Nicholas Hamisevicz of the Korea Economic Institute travelled to North Korea recently with the Young Pioneer group. In an email, he said that “you know you are traveling to well-known tourist sites and that you are not seeing the full picture”. He blogged about his trip here, telling more about the “constant reminders that this is not a normal tourist experience and that you are traveling in North Korea, such as propaganda murals and signs, and large bronze statues of Kim Il Sung in the town squares”.

Another recent visitor to North Korea was Nicholas Wood of the Political Tours company based in London, which offers off-the-beaten-path trips aimed at current affairs wonks. Speaking by telephone after leaving Pyongyang in late October, he said that “North Korea is completely unlike anywhere else I have been, and it is difficult to have contact with ordinary people”. He ended on a note of cautious optimism, however, suggesting that the group “saw clear signs that the North Korean Government wants increased contact with the West.”

*So-Yeon is a pseudonym, as her real name cannot be divulged for security reasons.

– Roughneen was in Korea during October.

Coffeeshops and crosses in night-time Seoul (Photo: Simon Roughneen)


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