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Volume 25 No. 88
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Trip To DMZ Unsettling, Harsh Reminder Of Daily Life In Korea

Ben Fischer

Saturday morning, I woke up in a fluffy bed on the 14th floor of the Millennium Seoul Hilton and had tea while looking out on a prosperous world capital. By noon, I was 240 feet underground in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, staring down a cramped tunnel into the most dangerous, mysterious country on earth.

After Friday’s opening ceremony, I took a side trip away from the Pyeongchang Winter Games to visit the DMZ, one of the world’s great morbid curiosities. What I saw reminded me how extraordinary it is for the North and South to even talk to each other, much less field a combined Olympic team.

Military installations are at every turn. The guns are literally pointed. If you stand still, you can hear the high-pitched sounds of the North’s propaganda speakers blasting southward. Across an inlet, you can see hills stripped clear of trees so Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship can easily spot and shoot defectors running for the water.

Photo: Ben Fischer

This scene is just a day trip from Seoul and the Olympics. The proximity of evil and war is more than a little unsettling for an American who grew up with the luxury of friendly neighbors and two oceans to protect us.

Just 20 minutes after we boarded our bus at the Hilton, our tour guide, Cindy, pointed to the left side of the highway. “See, there’s barbed wire and the military lookout posts along the river, because we’re so close to the North. They could swim across.”

As I gaped, I thought we must have gone farther than I realized. It looked like we were still in the suburbs. Turns out, we were. She pointed to the other side of the highway: “You see the apartments over there, they never go up in price because you’re so close to the North.”

Unsettling as it was, Cindy’s real estate comment was the first of many reminders that this is simply daily life for South Korea. Yes, 20 million people live in metro Seoul, all well within the range of the North’s heavy artillery, but it’s been that way for three generations now and they thrive with a mix of distrust, resignation and hope for the North.

The Dora Observatory is both a tourist attraction and military installation with a high view of the western DMZ.
Photo: Ben Fischer

Our first stop was at the Dora Observatory, a hilltop where you can see both sides of the DMZ, the frozen river that roughly separates control of the zone and, in the distance, the North. We put 500 won coins into binoculars and saw the creepy “Propaganda Village,” a town the North has named Peace Village and claims has 200 prosperous residents but shows no sign of human activity at midday Saturday.

At the next stop, we walked through a gift shop, donned hard hats and walked down a steep path tunneled into the bedrock by the South Korean army. Gas masks are stored every 100 feet or so, with instructions in English and Korean.

When the grade finally leveled out, it all changed. The tunnel got smaller and cramped. We were inside the “third tunnel,” the third of four tunnels discovered so far built by the North in a bid to facilitate an invasion. The ceiling shrunk to about five and a half feet high, and I crouch-walked another 160 meters to a barrier, just 170 meters from the Northern side of the DMZ.

The view through binoculars shows a river that cuts through the DMZ. Just past the water is the border, or The Military Demarcation Line.
Photo: Ben Fischer

From there, you could see to another barrier. Behind that, there was a third hidden barrier, the last thing between us and North Korean territory. Supposedly, 30,000 North Korean soldiers an hour could get through that tunnel, and when the South discovered it in 1978, it stopped just 27 miles from Seoul.

Here’s the scary part: They’ve found four tunnels, but experts believe there might be 20 more they don’t know about.

To my surprise, we did not visit the Joint Security Area, the best-known part of the DMZ, where the North and South soldiers eye each other from just a few hundred feet away. (That requires an extra level of vetting.) So I didn’t get the picture I was hoping for, but in visiting the other facilities, I understood better the day-to-day civilian life near the border.

Me at the platform for non-existent trains heading to North Korea capital Pyongyang, about 150 kilometers away, at Dorasan Station.
Photo: Ben Fischer

Our last stop was Dorasan Station, the train station built to service a line that goes to the North’s capital of Pyongyang, if the day ever comes when that’s allowed. Hundreds of names are engraved on a wall there, those of South Koreans with family still in the North who want to take the first trains that way.

These few hours gave me a deep sense of dread. Intellectually, I know war is not likely for a variety of reasons. But Lord, it could be so easy, and it galls me to hear Americans clamor for a hard line on the North from 6,000 miles way.

But for Cindy and many other Koreans, the DMZ is a booming tourism business. They don’t take it in stride, exactly, but the warring history and present tension is baked into the equation of life. Only as an aside, she mentioned that one of her good friends is a North Korean defector whose mother was shot and killed as they escaped to China in her childhood.

An army observation post and reinforced fencing along the upper Han River, as shot from a bus.
Photo: Ben Fischer

She laughed when someone asked her if she’s afraid of Kim Jong-un. “He doesn’t want this country to be a wasteland,” she said.

On our way home, we hit traffic in Seoul. I was still thinking about how close we were to that tunnel. But as we stopped, Cindy looked across the Han River to the skyline and said, “Look at all of these buildings. … After the Korea War, there was nothing here. It was like Ground Zero. Everything you see here has come in 60, 70 years. I am very proud of this city.”

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(Note: I joined a tour arranged by 24 Hour Fitness as part of a trip to the Olympics for its top-performing club managers. Coverage of the U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor’s broader hospitality program can be found here.)