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Asia,  Discussions,  South Korea

The DMZ: The World’s Most Dangerous Tourist Attraction

For many adventurous souls, travelling is about stepping out of your comfort zone. Others prefer to live life on the edge, walking that fine line between adventure and disaster. While there are plenty of countries that would be considered dangerous to travel to, they would never be regarded as a typical tourist attractions. Finding Syrian tour agencies or favela homestays is not very likely.

Despite that, one of the most potentially dangerous and life-threatening destinations in the world quite proudly sees itself as a popular attraction which welcomes enormous convoys of tourists each day – the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the Korean peninsula.

The fragile border which separates the authoritarian North and capitalist South could at any given moment become a battleground which ignites an international war. Though that doesn’t stop hordes of camera-wielding tourists from exploring its deadly grounds.

So, sit back and try to relax as we look at the paradoxical marvel that is the DMZ.

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The Dangerous History of the DMZ

The Korean peninsula has a tragic history of brutal oppression at the hands of its neighbouring superpowers – China and Japan. Following the Second World War, the United States and the Soviet Union capitalised on the void left behind and invaded either end of the peninsula. Soon after, both soon-to-be cold war adversaries came to an agreement to divide the peninsula along the 38th parallel.

Following communist-friendly Kim Il-Sung’s rise to power, the first act of direct military action of the Cold War began in 1950 as 75,000 North Korean soldiers crossed the contentious dividing line.

While the North was indirectly supported by the Chinese and the Soviets who aimed to expand their communist ideologies, the South was backed by the might of the US who sought to stop communism in its tracks.

Brothers in Arms. Photo by USMC Archives, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After justling for position, both sides eventually came to a stalemate around the previously set boundary line. Each side looked to end the fighting before the Chinese directly got involved, or worse, a third world war was caused so soon after the last.

Finally, in July 1953, the Korean War came to a fragile end as both sides agreed to a cease-fire. The two nations were divided along a 150-mile-long line which ran along the 38th parallel yet again.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established as a no-man’s land separated by a 1.2 miles (2 km) buffer zone on either side of the line. The Joint Security Area (JSA) was also established as a point of crossing, and is a place where major political meetings take place to this day. Since then, each nation’s border has been heavily fortified and prepared in the event that the cease-fire will come to an end.

Types of DMZ Tours

The story-arch of the DMZ has taken a peculiar twist over the last few years. Where it began as the deadliest place on Earth, it has now become one of South Korea’s greatest tourist attractions.

Several agencies operate daily tour groups to the DMZ directly from Seoul. These tours will explore areas surrounding the DMZ, which include old North Korean infiltration tunnels and the Dora Observatory which allows you to look directly into North Korea.

Some tours will also include a tour of the JSA. During these tours, you’ll be able to enter the iconic blue shacks. Once you walk to the opposite end of the shack, you will have technically crossed the border into North Korea!

Is the DMZ Really A “Tourist Attraction”?

It’s a little misleading to call the DMZ the most dangerous place in the world. Go for a quiet stroll along the streets of Syria or the Gaza Strip if you think otherwise. Hell, even walking down certain American streets at night would be an even worse idea.

What makes the DMZ such an anomaly is that its undoubtedly a tourist attraction, much like the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall. Buy your ticket, join a group and have yourself a fun-packed day at a heavily militarized border.

So, what makes it a tourist attraction? Well, there are a few defining factors…

Tour Groups

If this wasn’t enough proof in itself, countless tour agencies bring coaches full of tourists to the DMZ and JSA on a daily basis. Families, old-timers and backpacking youth all pack onto air-conditioned buses to make their way to the frontlines of a war which is technically still ongoing.

Museums

Of course, an area and an event of such historical importance deserve its fair share of museums. What you don’t find are those same museums right in the heart of the action as it’s still occurring!

One of the preserved relics includes an old infiltration tunnel dug by the North. These are the kind of tunnels which are likely still being dug beneath the border! After all, four have been discovered so far and there are believed to be as many as 20 hidden underground!

DMZ dangerous
Welcome to the DMZ

Gift Shops

You’d be hard-pressed to come across I love Baghdad T-shirts if you were to ever visit. Thus it’s surprising to see a highly defended military border with souvenir shops standing a few steps away. Even a military border cannot escape all the chintzy crap.

Amusement Park

When is the last time you’ve seen a fun fair on the edge of a potential warzone? It’s by far the most peculiar scene you’ll come across in the DMZ. It’s something so paradoxical to the tone of the area.

As peculiar as it may seem, it has a good reason for being there. In the never-ending war of propaganda, it was purposefully put in view of the North to show off their Southern counterpart’s prosperity and hopefully entice any would-be defector.

DMZ dangerous
Come have a dangerous day of fun at the DMZ!

Is the DMZ Really That Dangerous?

Though there hasn’t been active warfare since the DMZ was established (outside a few minor incidents), it’s pretty naïve to consider it safe. It may sound hyperbolic to call the DMZ dangerous, though boiling tensions and hot-headed pissing contests can and have flared up at a moment’s notice.

Here are some solid examples of what makes the area so dangerous…

Active Snipers

While on the typical tourist trail, you won’t often get a guide telling you that you can only spend a certain amount of time somewhere as there are snipers actively pointing their crosshairs in your direction. This is the case at the DMZ.

From the Dora Observatory, you can literally look into North Korea and spot its military installations. That also means they’ll be looking straight back at you. All it would take is one itchy trigger finger.

DMZ dangerous
North Korean military outposts

Landmines

Naturally, you or anyone else won’t be stepping anywhere near the dangerous no-man’s-land portion of the DMZ and its considerable stockpile of active landmines. Despite that, plenty of these explosives stand behind the lines of the DMZ too.

As you make your way around in your cosy coaches, you’ll pass military barracks and a considerable chunk of land that’s marked with very ominous signposts detailing its destructive contents. Just hope that your driver is a competent one.

The ultimate guide to visiting the dangerous border that separates North and South Korea, the DMZ.

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Rigged Explosives

The South has already prepared for that possibility, or as some see it, the eventuality that the war will reignite. As such, many installations have been put in place which would hopefully stop the North Koreans in their tracks.

That includes rigging bridges with active explosives, ready to go at any second. These types of booby traps are found far beyond the border, and ones that you’d pass without even realising it.

Escaping Defectors

There are very few options for defectors who wish to escape the authoritarian northern regime, the DMZ is one of them. Though there is a very strict code of conduct between the two sides at the JSA, that doesn’t stop the North Koreans from doing everything in their power to stop defectors from crossing that all-important line.

It’s happened on plenty of occasions, even as recently as 2017. In these split-second moments, bullets begin to fly, even across the all-important line.

DMZ dangerous
No return

It’s an Active War

Oh, did we forget to mention that the war is ongoing? No official peace treaty was ever signed between the two sides, putting the peninsula in a peculiar extended ceasefire for almost 70 years.

Though in 2018 there was a momentous shaking of hands across the border between each nation’s leader, there still hasn’t been an official treaty put in place. Both sides still regard each other and their chosen regime as the enemy, and both are adamant that the peninsula will one day reunite. So, who knows when that ceasefire will come to an end?

Recent Incidences Along the DMZ

Though there has been a maintained level of “peace” across the border, there have still been a plethora of incidences where that tension boiled over. Any one of these moments could have become the match that lit the fuse.

The most egregious incident since the war happened in 1976 at what was nicknamed The Bridge of No Return. This was the point where thousands of Koreans, Chinese, Americans and even British prisoners of war were released to freedom across it during post-war relations.

These exchanges came to an abrupt end in 1976 after two U.S. military officers made the unwise decision of trimming a beloved North Korean tree that obscured the American’s view across the bridge. In response, two axe-wielding North Korean soldiers hacked these poor soldiers to death for their mistake. The bridge was immediately closed, and the DMZ was moved back to where it is today at the JSA.

The dividing line of the JSA. Photo by Henrik Ishihara Globaljuggler, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The most recent, and one of the most notable incidences was of Oh Chong Song – a North Korean soldier who tried to defect in 2017. During his attempted escape, North Korean soldiers opened fire, with some of those bullets finding their way across the border. Though he was struck 5 times, he eventually made it to safety.

To this day, there are regular reports of gunfire, drones being shot down and infiltrators from both sides attempting to cross the border. Though any incidents are wisely contained in a quick and orderly manner by both nations, they still happen frequently enough.

The Dangerous Mindset of the DMZ

Yet more evidence of the contentious nature of the border is how both Korean nations define it – temporary. Both sides refuse to recognise the sovereignty of the other. Both sides truly believe that one day, the Korean peninsula will be reunited. As much as we would all hope for a peaceful reunion, unless one side is willing to give into the demands of the other, a peaceful resolution isn’t likely.

As such, the DMZ is to stay in place for the foreseeable future. In the worst-case scenario, this will become the site where the ceasefire is brought to an end.

Thank you so much for reading The DMZ: The World’s Most Dangerous Tourist Attraction! Check out these other helpful articles!

TravellingWelshman

A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.

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