The Surprising Lack of Gravitas at ‘One of the Scariest Places on Earth’ ™
In April 2017, I took a day trip from Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 250 km long buffer that splits the Korean peninsula in two at the 38th parallel.
Since 1953, The DMZ has existed as a 4 km wide, heavily fortified barrier that separates the nations of North and South Korea.
Despite its grim history, and Former US President Bill Clinton dubbing it ‘one of the scariest places on Earth’ back in 1993, the DMZ is also a tourist attraction. As a result, there are a number of commercial tour companies in Seoul that transport coach loads of curious visitors (like me) to the area on a regular basis.
I was expecting, given its notoriety and the international tensions brewing at the time, that my trip would be a serious, sombre and sobering experience.
Instead, it was more like a trip to a theme park.
So, without further padding to reach a thousand words, here are the 7 ways in which my trip to the DMZ was like a day at Disneyland.
1. The first thing you see is an enormous car park
Much like ‘the Happiest Place on Earth’, the DMZ attracts visitors, particularly families, all year round.
At Imjingak ‘resort’, a sprawling concrete complex of memorials, statues and monuments, there is a stadium sized car park catering to visitors both Korean and foreign.
But it’s not curiosity that brings most of them here.
Imjingak is as physically close as Koreans can get to their loved ones in the North, so it gets particularly busy during Korean national holidays like Seollal (Korean New Year) when South Koreans and North Korean refugees flock here to pay their respects to their ancestors and to those they’re separated from.
All those visitors need a place to park.
2. The excitement is palpable
Like a coach load of school kids arriving at the Magic Kingdom, passengers on my DMZ tour were yanking their bags from the overhead storage bins and spilling out into the aisle before we’d even come to a complete stop.
They simply could not wait to get off the bus.
And, once outside:
3. Photos are taken immediately.
Mostly of the great swathe of nature, just beyond the barbed wire fences, that everyone assumes is North Korea.
4. It takes a few minutes to get your bearings
“Okay, so, which way is Space Mountain/North Korea?”
“Is that it over there?”
“Should we get a map?”
“Where are they all running to?”
“They look like they know where they’re going, let’s follow them.”
This confusion is understandable when you realise:
5. It’s much bigger than you imagined
Both Disneyland and the DMZ are not single destinations but large expanses of land divided into different sections, each one containing a variety of attractions like:
There’s even a gift shop!
Buy a DMZ cap!
And, although perhaps not as thrilling as those at Disneyland, there are also rides!
Some for children at the small amusement park at Imjingak.
And some for grown ups like the small rubber tyred tram, that carries you 73 metres below ground to the 3rd infiltration tunnel.
And when it’s completed, the journey from Seoul to Moscow via the Trans Eurasian Railway is going to be amazing.
Yes, there’s an awful lot to see at the DMZ.
In fact, there’s so much to take in…
6. You might not get to do everything you wanted to
Be it The Bridge of No Return or Splash Mountain, depending on when you visit or who you travel with, you might not get to do the things you had your heart set on.
My day trip was part of an organised tour of South Korea, so I wasn’t aware that the thing I wanted to see most, the Joint Security Area, (where soldiers from North and South Korea engage in a tense staring competition with no winner) wasn’t included in the trip.
And because I don’t feel like I had the full experience…
7. You’ll consider returning…one day
Ideally, in the case of the DMZ, when it’s no longer a physical reminder of war, pain and separation, but simply a memorial to the divisions of the past.
And I guess I’ll visit Disneyland again at some point too.