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Inside South Korea’s Demilitarized Zone: Give peace a chance?

“War: what is it good for? Absolutely nothing,” sang Edwin Starr in his anti-Vietnam protest anthem. Not quite. South Korea’s Demilitarized Zone is one of the most popular tours, and the incentives market is keen to capitalise on this.

Business travellers can experience a dank and scary ride down the tunnels dynamited by North Korean soldiers, allegedly in preparation to invade South Korea.

While travelling down 73 metres below the surface, my companion was an American-Korean woman who was visiting her homeland for the first time, Her mother escaped at the age of 11 by crawling through underground tunnels with her mother and grandmother. Unfortunately, her grandmother was caught and never made it out of what would be known as North Korea.

What was once a scene of terror is now one of the must-see tourist attractions in South Korea. I felt uneasy as there is a fine line between remembering the past and learning from it – and voyeurism. Places of horrific scenes as places of interest for tourists are nothing new – think of Auschwitz or the Torture Museum in Hungary, where the Communists took over from the Nazis to continue torturing and killing suspected ‘enemies of the state’.

The difference is that the DMZ is a living conflict, known as one of the world’s most heavily militarised borders, with almost two million soldiers patrolling both sides of the divide. Speaking to South Koreans, there is a real desire for re-unification, even though it will cost the South dearly in economic terms.

The great divide
I was told that you could tell where North Korea started because there is no dense vegetation or woodland on the mountains, but acres of bare red rock visible. This is because people in the North still use timber as firewood and to fuel furnaces, an indication of the poverty there.

In order to get to the DMZ, I travelled by coach for miles lined with roadside barbed wire perimeter fencing. Every so often there were observation posts, equipped with loudspeakers and CCTV cameras, where South Korean soldiers kept watch on the North.

Just over 20 years ago, you could still hear North Korean propaganda entreating people living in the South to come and live with them, saying how wonderful it is to live in the Communist state.

In 1974, the first underground tunnel was discovered. The tunnels (and no one knows how many there are) were dug by North Korean soldiers planning to invade South Korea.

Both sides of the divide have a wish to join together.

Both sides of the divide have a wish to join together.

I went on the third tunnel tour, going on a deep descent by a small train to reach the dank and chilly tunnel entrance, the granite walls slimy and green with moss. The temperature dropped from 26 degrees down to a chilly 14 degrees Celsius. The third tunnel has a total length of 1,635 metres and is 73 metres below the surface.

The South Korean military was informed about the presence of the third tunnel by a North Korean defector, Kim Bu-Seong, who fled the communist state in 1974. He claimed to have measured the tunnel from a large poplar tree in the Southern Demilitarised Zone.

Fake news
The North Koreans still deny building the tunnels as an aggressive act. They say that they were building coal mines and somehow got lost on the way. In this age of fake news, it’s hardly surprising to learn that there are no coal mines in this area, only granite rock.

I put on my hard hat and prepared to walk along a small section of the tunnel. Even though it was a relatively short walk, I had to crouch down, and I am five foot four. Tall Westerners were finding it hard going, and I could hear the ‘pock-pock’ sound of the hard helmets hitting the roof of the tunnel with alarming regularity. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to escape along these tunnels in the pitch black, not knowing if you are even going in the right direction.

South Korea’s Demilitarized Zone is an unusual incentive tour for the meetings and incentives market. It’s still a hazardous area. Yellow circles sprayed on the rock face mark out where dynamite was placed to blast open the rock. Soldiers would then crawl in and manually remove the exploded pieces of granite. It must have been backbreaking work.

Today, South Korean soldiers sweep the area for explosives and it’s estimated that there are one million landmines still in the mountain.

A recovery project at South Korea’s Demilitarized Zone is ongoing to look for the remains of soldiers who were killed in the Korean War (more than 130,000), and inter them at the national cemetery.

Many South Koreans spoke to me of their fervent wish and desire for the divided parts of the country to come together. According to a survey by the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, 53 per cent of South Koreans and 95 per cent of North Korean defectors were in favour of reunification.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said: “We should tear down this wall of conflict to meet the Korean people’s constant ideals and demands to open a grand path for unification,” according to state newspaper Rodong Sinmun.

So it would appear that both sides of the divide have a wish to join together. What’s stopping this is of course, money. North Korea’s per capita Gross National Income of 1.46 million won (£1027.07m) is only about 4.4 percent that of South Korea, according to the South’s central bank. Estimates regarding the cost of reunification are hard to predict although a Reuters report cites the astronomical figure of £4 trillion, with South Korea bearing the brunt of it.

Reunification might seem like a far-off dream at present but the Berlin Wall crashing down between East and West Germany shows that nothing is impossible.