A day at the DMZ: The political theater at the heart of the Korean conflict

A firsthand look at the world's most fortified border

Mr. Cho, our guide to the Demilitarized Zone, the buffer region that since 1953 has divided the Korean Peninsula, started off the tour with a stand-up routine. "Everyone has their visas to North Korea right?" The bus rustled with laughter. "Any communist defectors here? Anyone? If so, you are on the right tour!"

Mr. Cho, dressed in a gray suit jacket and a white collared shirt, stood in the aisle with a microphone in his hand. He wore a broad grin, which gradually disappeared as the chuckles subsided. Then in a lowered voice, with as much gravity as he could muster, he declared, "Ladies and gentlemen. You are about to enter the most dangerous place on Earth."

It was the summer of 2011. A year earlier, a suspected North Korean torpedo had sunk the Cheonan battleship, killing nearly 50 South Korean sailors. Tensions, as they say, remained high.

The DMZ is not your average tourist destination. Running 250 kilometers from one side of the Korean peninsula to the other, with a width of about four kilometers, the DMZ is a swath of land teeming with troops, heavy artillery, and landmines. Considered the world's most fortified border, it is a testament to both the immense devastation wrought by the Cold War and its lingering impact. It is also one of the oddest displays of political theater the world has to offer — a funhouse farce where distorted projections of national identity serve to warp reality and the historical record.

I had bought a ticket to see the DMZ as a way to kill a day during a week-long visit to Seoul, imagining that the bus would take us straight to the border, where across a charred no man's land, through powerful binoculars, I would gaze upon a soldier in an olive uniform pointing a Kalashnikov in my direction. But I soon learned that there is a whole constellation of sites to visit around the DMZ, enough to comprise a packed itinerary.

As we began the hour-long journey to the border, the tops of Seoul's skyscrapers were shrouded in mist, and the bridges over the Han River vanished into a soupy gray. Some of my fellow tourists worried that the fog would inhibit our view of the Hermit Kingdom, but the weather cleared up as we put the city behind us. My group was a healthy mix of visitors from Australia, Holland, Spain, and the U.S., traveling in small packs or couples, though there were a few solitary adventurers like myself.

Our first destination was Imjingak, a few kilometers from the border. As we pulled into a parking lot filled with other buses, Mr. Cho announced that the first order of business was to eat lunch. "Why do we eat now?" he asked. "Why do we eat now? Because it might just be the last meal of your life." This was met with winking smiles, and then we all hustled to the cafeteria and settled down at tables laden with egg drop soup, banchan, and bibimpap. The cafeteria was flanked by souvenir shops, which sold postcards, T-shirts emblazoned with the letters DMZ, and other paraphernalia. I bought some North Korean currency featuring portraits of the society's archetypal pillars: the student, the farmer, members of the armed forces. Their serene faces are viewed from below, bestowing on them all the exalted status of heroes. They gaze out into the distance, toward the glorious future of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I paid $18 for 55 won, which at the time was nearly 50 times their actual worth.

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After lunch we were allowed to stroll around on our own. There were monuments to the Korean War, which between 1950 and 1953 claimed roughly three million lives. The war technically continues to this day — the armistice that created the DMZ did not officially end the conflict — which explains why the monuments are so ambivalent in their purpose, attempting to simultaneously commemorate the past, meet the demands of the present, and express hopes for the future. Imjingak is billed as a monument to peace and the ultimate goal of unification, but the Bridge of Freedom, used by South Korean and U.S. prisoners of war returning from the North after the armistice, ends in a fence and a tangle of barbed wire, lest anyone should inadvertently wander off into enemy territory.

Beyond Imjingak are the Imjin River, lush rice paddies, and a range of hills. Mr. Cho failed us here, for it was unclear what we were looking at. Was this North Korea? My fellow tourists, garlanded with digital cameras, took photographs of the view anyway, just in case these were North Korean rice paddies, North Korean hills.

The next stop was Dora Observatory, where we did — for the first time, we later learned — get a glimpse of the North. I slotted a 500 won coin into the tower binoculars and took a look at Kijongdong, also known in the South as Propaganda Village because of the loudspeakers that used to blare a nonstop stream of paeans to the North. The village is isolated, surrounded by fields and hills. It is largely uninhabited, the immaculate buildings mere shells meant to trick southerners into believing that their northern neighbors are living the good life. I spied a few cars moving down the roads, which perhaps contained the cleaning crews that keep the village spick and span. Or perhaps they were driving around for our benefit, spending the whole day crisscrossing the village on the chance that it was being observed. Kijongdong's most prominent feature is a massive flagpole, which had been built in the 1980s in response to the erection of a smaller flagpole on the southern side of the border, a tit-for-tat that came to be known as the Flagpole Wars. We learned that the flag weighs about 600 pounds, and is thus prone to hang limply.

Our next stop was the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of four tunnels dug under the DMZ that the South discovered in the 1970s. The South claims that the tunnels were intended for a massive surprise attack by ground forces, and according to Mr. Cho, the third tunnel alone would have enabled the North to invade the South at a rate of 10,000 soldiers per hour.

Before we entered the tunnel, we were herded into an exhibition center that features a large replica of the DMZ, replete with blinking lights denoting its boundaries, miniature guard towers, and the routes of the tunnels. The members of my group, who had been furiously photographing every plaque and statue we had seen so far, surrounded the replica like a paparazzi mob, as Mr. Cho used a laser pointer to explain the DMZ's various components. Mr. Cho, basking in the attention, didn't forget his stand-up act. "Tired of the capitalist system? Want to defect?" he cried, waving his pointer back and forth across the blinking borders. "So easy, see!"

We then filed into a small movie theater to see a documentary about the tunnels, titled DMZ: Peace, Hope, Nature. The movie opens with a thunderous volley reminiscent of breaking news updates on cable television, and is narrated by an American who sounds like Phil Hartman doing Troy McClure. He gives a very brief and rather confusing history of the war, in which the DMZ is depicted as a jagged red line snaking across the peninsula. Once it reaches the western coast, the line widens and blazes like a golden river, to the sound of swords clashing. The segment on the tunnels is a series of rapidly flashing images showing the shock of discovery, North Korea's founding father Kim Il Sung, and dense battalions of marching troops, all of which is interspersed with repeated doses of the DMZ snaking and blazing. The accompanying musical score is a rush of Hollywood adrenaline, and only grows more frantic as the movie progresses. The message is clear: South Korea lives under a constant threat of war, and the DMZ is all that is keeping the bloodthirsty others outside the gates.

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The mood of the documentary then changes abruptly, shifting to the idyllic natural preserve that the DMZ has become. While the DMZ was once a bombed-out wasteland, the movie claims it is now overflowing with wildlife. "Goats! Elks! Geese!" Troy McClure sings. Flowers bloom on the screen; the music is soothing. McClure then touches on the South's dream of peace and unification. "But until that day," he concludes, "the DMZ will be here — FOREVER." The viewer is left with a final shot of the DMZ glowing like a filament.

Dazed, we streamed toward the entrance to the tunnel. We donned hard hats and began walking down a steep chute that would eventually meet the Tunnel of Aggression. The air grew colder and damper as we descended. A group of schoolgirls was ahead of us, filling the tunnel with echoing shrieks and giggles. After 350 meters, the ground flattened out, and I entered the tunnel created by the North. It is narrow and roughly hewn, its stone interior glistening wetly, and I had to perform a kind of half-crouch to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling. I looked over the shoulder of the man ahead of me, and saw the tunnel stretching and receding into a tiny patch of black. For the first time in my life I was overcome by claustrophobia: I turned around, and brushed past my fellow travelers like a drunken man. As I ascended, my body sprouted all over with sweat, my legs grew shaky, and my breath came out in ragged gasps. I reached the top, and, with as much composure as I could summon, walked out of the exhibition center to the parking lot, where I was greeted by a chorus of screaming cicadas.

I lit a cigarette and drank some water. I became embarrassed the longer I waited, for it became clear that I was the only member of the group who had fled the tunnel. Then I was irritated by the whole charade — really, 10,000 troops per hour! A dozen, tops, with half of them crawling on their bellies and clawing at the walls.

The DMZ represents the space between substance and appearance, cosmic joke and tragedy, the real and the surreal — a space inhabited by politics.

The rest of the group started to trickle out, and we got back on the bus, my freakout apparently unnoticed. Our next stop was Dorasan Station, South Korea's northernmost train terminal. The station is a gleaming modern facility that had recently been renovated during one of the South's sporadic attempts to diplomatically engage the North. Posters of Presidents George W. Bush and Kim Dae Jung adorned the walls, commemorating a 2002 event that saw a train cross the border for the first time in 52 years. But the crossing was closed in 2008, and the station services no trains except for those carrying curious visitors from the South. It is an uncanny experience: the cavernous station empty but for tourists; the signs reading "To Pyongyang"; a hopelessly optimistic map of a planned link-up with the Siberian Railway that would allow Koreans to travel overland to Europe. We bought "tickets" to Pyongyang, swung through the turnstiles, and ventured out onto the open-air platform. A billboard read, "Dorasan: Not the last stop from the South but the first toward the North." Another had a two-way arrow indicating that Pyongyang is 205 kilometers in one direction, Seoul 56 in the other.

After Dorasan, at long last, our bus was on the way to the DMZ proper. We were thrilled, and no one knew quite what to expect. Mr. Cho said the U.S. military might take over the tour at some point; Mr. Cho said not to take our bags off the bus because the North Koreans might mistake them for hidden bombs; Mr. Cho said not to wave or point at the North Koreans, who might mistake such gestures as a provocation; Mr. Cho said we could not take pictures aimed in a southern direction, because we were going to be on a high-security military base. "This is the southern tour, so you can only take pictures of the North," he cried. "If you want to take pictures of the South, you defect and take the Axis of Evil tour in the North!"

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We were stopped at a checkpoint, and a U.S. soldier came on board and checked our passports. We then proceeded to another exhibition center, and were ushered into another movie theater. We were each given a powder-blue United Nations badge to clip onto our shirts, which, with its promise of access to mysterious places you only read about in the news, was the source of great excitement. Our group was merged with one led by the USO, comprised entirely of Americans. The men in this group were noticeably taller and heftier than those on our tour, with close-cropped hair and a hard gleam in their eyes that suggested a very serious interest in matters of national security.

With due respect to Mr. Cho, it was the first time all day that we were given a clear picture of the DMZ and its history. A U.S. soldier, dressed in a camouflage suit of pale gray and green, stood at the front of the auditorium and recited, from memory, the history of the conflict, a narration seamlessly integrated with the photographs, diagrams, and maps shown on the screen. In a clipped and confident voice, he told us that the peninsula had been divided on roughly the 38th parallel into Soviet- and Allied-occupied territories after World War II; that the North launched an attack on the South in 1950, driving southern forces to a corner of the peninsula; that the South, with the help of Allied forces, beat back the offensive until it was the North that was cornered at the Chinese border; and that China then joined with the North, pushing the Allied forces south until the two sides were back where they started, on the 38th parallel.

The dividing line between North and South, he said, is known as the Military Demarcation Line, which runs right through the center of the DMZ. The DMZ is officially administered by a neutral body, with the assistance of the U.N., though each side of the buffer zone bristles with respective contingents of northern and southern troops. (The U.S. military presence in the DMZ operates under the auspices of the U.N.) The principal point of contact between the two sides is known as the Joint Security Area, a small roundish space containing competing watchtowers and guard posts. The main feature of the JSA is a row of conference rooms, split by the MDL, that are used for meetings between North and South. On the southern side of the row is a building called Freedom House, while its northern opposite is known as Panmungak.

The soldier informed us that the JSA is normally a quiet, if tense, place. There had been a couple of skirmishes, such as the Axe Murder Incident in 1976, in which northern soldiers, armed with axes, ambushed a U.S. group attempting to cut down a tree that was obstructing the view of a watchtower. Two U.S. soldiers were killed. In 1984, a Soviet citizen on the northern side of the DMZ raced across the MDL in an attempt to defect. A firefight broke out, killing one South Korean and three North Koreans. That was the last episode of violence in the JSA: the soldier later told us that "nothing ever happens" there, not even after serious disputes between North and South, such as the sinking of the Cheonan.

The presentation's conclusion was met with a round of hearty applause for this display of military professionalism. We were then told to leave all our belongings on the buses, with the exception of cameras, and climb aboard a bus run by the U.S. military. A different soldier served as our guide, pointing out watchtowers and other installations. Unfortunately, while he looked identical to his comrade, he was not as fluent, declaring over the microphone, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, we are crossing the northern boundary of the DMZ." No one said anything. A few moments passed before he realized his mistake and cried, "I mean, southern boundary, southern! Gah!" Everyone laughed and joked about how that would have been something.

So we were finally in the DMZ. From what we could glimpse through windows, it was an eerily beautiful place, the swaying stalks of rice a bluish green under the overcast sky. The rice paddies are maintained by the residents of Panmunjon, the only civilian village in the DMZ. In exchange for living under strict conditions, including a nightly curfew, their sons are exempt from South Korea's mandatory military service and they pay no taxes.

We got out at Freedom House, and were ordered to form two lines before entering. South Korean sentries watched us as we made our way through the dimly lit lobby, and up a flight of stairs. They were as still as statues, and each stood in exactly the same pose, which we later learned is a fighting stance derived from taekwondo: arms hanging at the side, with fists tightly clenched; feet set shoulder-width apart; and chests thrust slightly forward. They wore smooth black helmets polished to a glassy shine, and huge black aviator sunglasses that obscured half of their faces. The glasses gave the intimidating illusion that they were staring right at you, and it was difficult to look at these men in the face for more than a moment before turning away.

We exited Freedom House on the other side, and were ordered to stand in two rows facing the North. Below us, down a few steps, across a road, were the conference rooms, a row of makeshift bungalows painted in either blue or gray. South Korean sentries stood in the gaps between the rooms, their eyes trained on the North. Others were positioned at the very corners of the rooms, leaving one half of the body exposed to the North and the other behind cover. Beyond them was Panmungak, a plain three-story building lined with windows. As our guide explained how the conference rooms were used, we saw a slim figure in a brown uniform emerge from a door in Panmungak's first story. It was hard to tell from that distance, but he appeared to be leaning against the building, with his arms crossed behind his back, taking a leisurely look at the tourists.

It was hard to believe that this was it, the Hermit Kingdom, the cause of so much trouble. We could have been in Japan or Montana.

Our guide said the central conference room, which we were about to enter, was a shared space used for meetings between the two sides. He said a room to its right belonged to the North and was known colloquially as the Monkey House, because northern soldiers would go in there and make obscene gestures through its windows. These included drawing their thumbs across their throats and dropping their pants to flash their rear ends, all in a bid to provoke the South into starting a fight. Our guide said that during meetings between northern and southern officials, the accompanying DPRK soldiers would stand a foot away from their U.S. or South Korean counterparts and look at them through a pair of immense binoculars. "It is meant to intimidate us," he said, then added, rather defensively, "But it doesn't. If anything it's hard not to laugh."

We then filed into the central conference room, which was so filled with tables and chairs that it was a tight squeeze getting everyone in. A South Korean sentry in the taekwondo position protected the door leading to Panmungak, just in case anyone got any ideas. Our guide singled out one table in the center, saying it was where officials sat to talk. He said a series of microphones protruding from the tabletop recorded everything that was said, and also served as a physical marker of the MDL. "So," he said, smiling wryly, "some of you are currently standing in North Korea, while the rest of you are in the relative safety of the South." An electric murmur coursed through the room at this revelation, with those in the South gazing longingly at the mysterious and fascinating North, and those in the North (me included) exchanging beaming glances.

"Well, that concludes the presentation," our guide said. "You can take pictures now, including with the sentry as long as you stay about a foot away." With this, the people in the room, who had spent the whole day photographing bland monuments, deserted train stations, and rice paddies that may or may not have been North Korean rice paddies, went totally berserk. The lucky few in the North leapt toward the sentry and mugged for the cameras, while those in the South stampeded across the border. It was chaos, a tumult of camera flashes, chairs scraping across the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder jostling, and unbridled cries of excitement. There was no way of escaping, so I sidled up to one side of the room and watched my fellow travelers pose with the sentry. He had been the epitome of coiled strength only seconds before, but had now been turned into a mere prop, a wax statue.

I couldn't help feeling that this was all part of some absurd joke. Was this man a real soldier, staring down real threats on a daily basis? Or was he playing a role in the psychodrama that the Korean conflict has become? In a sense, the JSA is a microcosm of northern-southern relations: an unhinged bunch of monkeys on one side, whose foreign policy consists of antic behavior just wild enough to convince you it might to do something really dangerous; and an annoyed, eye-rolling U.S.-backed alliance on the other that has trouble taking the North seriously, to the point that it allows tourists to mess around in the only high-level meeting place in the world's most fortified border. All of which is set in a place where, as our guide from the U.S. military admitted, nothing ever happens, the perfect backdrop for a seemingly endless stalemate.

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Of course, the threat from the North, with its nuclear-weapons program, is real. The 46 South Koreans who died in the Cheonan sinking were real. So were the landmines that injured two South Korean soldiers earlier this month, not to mention the millions of North Koreans suffering from the abuses of Kim Jong Un's dictatorship.

What the DMZ represents, however, is the space between substance and appearance, cosmic joke and tragedy, the real and the surreal — a space inhabited by politics. It is politics, with its attendant hypocrisies and dissimulations, that produced the uneasy tension between humor and seriousness that had dogged our tour all day. The DMZ is just an extreme version of a familiar spectacle, and leads to the conundrum we are so used to facing when observing our own politicians — that feeling of not knowing whether to laugh or to cry.

Unlike dramatic theater, which uses artifice to illuminate some truth, political theater uses artifice to obfuscate. The North bears the bulk of the guilt for the sheer silliness that clouds the conflict with the South, because, as the principal aggressor from the Korean War down to the latest exchange of fire on the border, it has the most to hide. It also has the impossible task of covering up the repression of an entire country. The empty deification of the common people on its currency, the empty buildings in Propaganda Village, the empty accusations against its Western enemies — this is political theater at its most blatantly transparent, and it's very easy to mock. The juvenile behavior of the North Korean soldiers in the Monkey House, which so closely mirrors their country's provocations on a global stage, only solidifies the impression that, at the DMZ, there is no daylight between the person and the policy, the actor and his role.

The South plays the game, too, if in subtler ways, and for less nefarious purposes. Peaceful unification with the North, for example, seems to be a genuine and widespread aspiration among South Koreans. During the tour, the conflict was often presented as a fraternal one, dividing a unique race that is meant to be together, with much of the blame for the split understandably ascribed to outside forces. And yet, in a place where nothing is as it seems, it is notable that the themes of unification and peace crop up so often at the DMZ and its satellites, whether they be Imjingak, the Third Tunnel of Aggression, or Dorasan Station. Historical sites and memorials are nearly always attempts by the state to project a particular self-image, and from a public relations standpoint, it makes sense that South Korea, like any other modern country, would stress that it is a member of the peace-loving community, even if it is technically at war.

At the same time, the various stops on the tour constantly remind you that South Korea lives under an ever-present, existential threat emanating from the North. This awkward contradiction between the hopes for peace and the business of war partly stems from attempting to memorialize an ongoing conflict. But the reminders serve a theatrical purpose as well, namely to convince a younger generation, who have no memory of the Korean War and are less impressed by the North's belligerence, that mandatory military service and unflagging vigilance are necessary.

And then there is the question of the tour itself. We filed out of the conference room, past the South Korean sentries who now seemed as benign as plastic action toys. We got back on the bus, and looped around Freedom House until we were once again across from Panmungak, at which point dozens of flashing cameras were pressed against the windows like plants bending toward the sun. Our guide from the U.S. military, who had once awed us in the way that only a soldier excelling in hand-to-hand combat and Korean history can, now seemed nothing more than a glorified emcee. He said the slim figure watching us from Panmungak was one of only two soldiers in the entire building; the other was behind a darkened window, filming us.

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It then occurred to me that these tours could be a way of sowing doubt amongst the soldiers at Panmungak. Moments before, we had been lined up in front of Freedom House, a diverse group representing the global friendships the South enjoys as a free and open nation. But the soldier filming us could have easily dismissed this display as southern propaganda — which is essentially what it was, even if it was propaganda that reflected the truth. So we had played our part in this sorry rigmarole, and had been turned into props ourselves. This came in addition to our principal function as observers, for after all, what is political theater without a willing audience?

The bus stopped at a vantage point with a closer view of Propaganda Village. After another frenzied bout of picture-taking, the group settled down to admire the sweeping panorama before us. Verdant meadows sprawled into the distance, meeting a range of cobalt-blue hills that were streaked by wispy clouds. Beyond the hills lay more hills, irregular mounds receding and dissolving into the milky sky. It was hard to believe that this was it, the Hermit Kingdom, the cause of so much trouble. We could have been in Japan or Montana.

We left the DMZ, and stopped at a souvenir shop at the exhibition center where the U.S. military had delivered its informative presentation. We bought DMZ hats and shirts, and then our group split, with the USO tour returning to its bus and our tour rejoining Mr. Cho. After the excitement of the day, most people dozed off on the ride back to Seoul, while Mr. Cho was uncharacteristically subdued. Just before we disembarked, however, he bade us farewell over the microphone. "Ladies and gentleman, you are the best tour group that I have ever had in my life," he said, a strangely touching flattery. He paused a beat as the bus gave him a round of applause. "But what you didn't know," he continued, grinning in anticipation of the punch line, "is that I only started doing these tours yesterday." Everyone laughed.


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