The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea is the happiest place on earth. In the 2.5 by 155 mile strip of land where few humans tread, nature has taken back the land, and endangered species thrive. An inland shipping corridor opens the way for free trade and development, which spreads prosperity to the northern peninsula. The new train line reconnects a country long divided—now families reunite in tearful embrace. In the DMZ, environment, economics, and politics are balanced in perfect unison.
Then the lights go on, and the movie screen flickers off. I, along with 70 other tourists, neatly file out of the theater. We’re on a guided tour of the DMZ, and this is already our third stop of the day, so we’re good at moving in an orderly fashion. Next, we line up in an airy hallway and are fitted with yellow hard hats. We’ll need the heavy plastic to protect our heads from the moist, jagged ceilings in the cramped confines of Infiltration Tunnel #3.
Entering, we pass signs explaining the tunneling techniques used by the North Koreans when they tried to invade the South. Once they made it 150 meters below ground, the North Koreans excavated another 1,600 meters southward. At an average rate of three meters a day, you can tell they really wanted to stage an underground ambush. Infiltration Tunnel #3 was built until 1978, when the South discovered the ruse and began digging its own “interception tunnel.” In their hurried departure, the North Koreans smeared coal dust on the granite walls, contending that they were just digging for fuel. (Surely, they said, only by coincidence does our tunnel make a beeline for Seoul.) According to the signs in English, Korean, and Chinese, this story illustrates the “two-facedness of the North Koreans.”
On the way out, a bubbly, jaunty sound like children’s music bounces down the tunnel. As I get closer, it resolves into something familiar yet bizarre: a chorus of “hello!” from a hundred young Koreans. The fourth graders from Seoul Elementary are excited that their class trip just turned into a chance to practice English. Like two sportsmanlike teams after a match, we move single-file in opposite directions, exchanging “hello” and “how are you?” instead of “good game” and high fives. Back upstairs, my fellow Americans reward themselves with ice cream.
A promo film shot through rose-colored lenses. Tourists shuffling between landmarks. Foreigners and schoolchildren. Multilingual signage. And don’t forget the gift shop. Except for the sign about coal dust, Infiltration Tunnel #3 could be any tourist destination in the world.
With its not-so-subtle dig at those rascally, scheming, “two-faced” North Koreans, the sign in Infiltration Tunnel #3 represents what’s so unique and, ultimately, so confounding about touring the DMZ: It is literally a line in the sand (well, gravel). It’s a palace erected to celebrate “The Other.” It’s a seven-hour exercise to reinforce the difference between us and them. And I doubt it’s any different when you take the tour from the North.
Outside, behind the strip of iconic UN-blue negotiating buildings, we can see into the North. The buildings sit atop the Military Demarcation Line. This is the literal, physical line that separates two nations. Defectors have sprinted across this line. People starve because the food they need can’t move across this line. A soldier peers at me through binoculars from across this line.
What’s the point of this line? The North has reneged on prior commitments, and is now reestablishing its nuclear capabilities. Around the world, financial contagion is threatening to knock down ailing markets like a neat line of dominoes. Pollution and dust from Beijing cross the ocean and settle against the mountains of my hometown, Santa Barbara. The DMZ is a reminder that environment, economics, and politics are never balanced in perfect unison. As I stand and contemplate the pointlessness of this line, in the face of so many threats and challenges which know no borders, an off-duty U.S. soldier next to me remarks: “I can’t believe I’m finally this close to the enemy”.
We are us. They are them. The Other lives on.
Now inside the negotiating building, we are so close. A table cleaves the room in half, and if you cross it to the far side, you’re in North Korea. U.S. Army Sgt. Murrilo’s lecture on the history of peace talks and the dos and don’ts of interacting with ROK soldiers is drowned out by the cascade of bleeps and chimes from twenty different cameras and recorders. Everyone needs a photo. Look honey, I was that close to crossing the line. The group perks up from their screens when told in a minute they will be allowed to pass the table. The group shifts northward. Everyone will cross the line. Don’t let me trick you into thinking I am any different. When Sgt. Murrilo gave the okay, I’m the first one into enemy territory.