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Bill Clinton called it the scariest place on earth. But visitors to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the fourkilometre-wide stretch that divides the two Koreas, can easily be lulled into a sense of security. Rolling hills that were once hellish battlegrounds now offer bucolic views of picturesque villages and several rare species of plant and wildlife, including whooper cranes and white herons. But don't be tempted into going on a nature walk, for chances are that you won't return, at least not without losing a limb or two. As one nears the DMZ, the scenery changes - troops, sentry posts, barbed wire and stark warning signs: "Beware of Landmines". The tourist buses crawl along these routes at a snail's pace for six months of the year. During the winter and the monsoon, DMZ roads are closed for civilian use since landmines often get washed up here by rainwater. Snow acts as the perfect camouflage for the deadly instruments of mass destruction. In short, taking a walk here is not a good idea. The DMZ was originally created as a buffer zone after the North Korean army was driven back beyond the 38th parallel by US-led forces and an armistice signed in 1953. The idea is that neither side deploys military hardware inside the strip. The guns may have fallen silent, but the tension between the two countries isn't over by a long shot. Earlier this week, North Korea shelled a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea. The skirmishes haven't stopped South Korea from promoting the DMZ as a tourism hotspot. The world over, conflict zones have always had an allure for the adventurous. Add sinister attractions like the Freedom Bridge and North Korea's network of secret tunnels and you have the recipe for tension tourism.
Tension, yes, but real danger probably not. The DMZ is not a do-it-yourself affair and can be visited only on guided tours. Tourists can take in the truce village of Panmunjom, where delicate negotiations still take place, or hunch along one of the extraordinary infiltration tunnels that the North Koreans dug to penetrate the South. The tunnels would have allowed the invaders to strike Seoul within a couple of hours of setting off from the north of the DMZ.
The third of the four tunnels is now open to public. Chanced upon in 1978, the discovery of these tunnels makes for an intriguing tale. A defector from the North had revealed their existence, but not the precise location. Finding them wasn't an easy task across the vast expanse of the DMZ and that too in an area strewn with landmines. But the South Korean intelligence and army hit upon an ingenious plan. They dug holes and planted pipes into the ground. In the next phase, they poured water into those ducts and voila, one day the water stayed down instead of gushing out. An excavation was carried out and the tunnels discovered, leaving the North Koreans with little option but to abandon the project and retreat behind the border.
Today, the place resembles a picnic spot with a toy monorail going down into the depths of the tunnel. The narrow damp path is lit with neon bulbs and one has to stoop at times to avoid brushing against the rough walls hewn from rocks. The tour guide explains that the black patches on the wall were a bid by the North to camouflage the tunnels as a coal mining foray.
Close to the tunnel is the border observatory, which gives tourists a wide-angle view of the other side. The guns don't fire, but both sides show off their military machismo. The game of one-upmanship has a rather strange benchmark - the height of the flag pole. While the South Korean flag flutters on top of a 98-metre pole, the North Korean flag beyond the border rests at a height of 160 metre - the highest in the world at Kijong-dong, also known as the propaganda village. Apparently, the luxurious village is uninhabited and is used by the Northern neighbour to project a thriving economy. You've got to take the South Korean word on that since there's no way one can hop on to a train from Dorasan, the last station on the southern side, to check the veracity of these statements.
No trip to the DMZ is complete without a visit to Panmunjom, the Checkpoint Charlie of Korea. Also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA), this is the area right in the heart of the DMZ where the two sides meet to negotiate in the blue huts that straddle the actual border and are painstakingly divided within equal square footage, lines down the centre of the tables, same number of chairs, etc. The JSA is also where the guards of the two nations stand face to face, legs apart and fists clenched, quivering in readiness to fight, seize, repel or shoot defectors. The South Korean soldiers sport sunglasses so a staring battle is ruled out.
But this is as far as tourists go. From here, all roads lead back to Seoul.
ON THE FRONTLINE
GETTING THERE | Conducted tours are available from Seoul. As the DMZ is only 56 km from the South Korean capital, the trip generally takes about half a day.
TOURS | There are exclusive tunnel trips as well as Panmunjom trips. For these trips, one has to register with the tour operators a day in advance. Carrying your passport is mandatory. The United Service Organizations, the US army's social and entertainment organisation, runs tours that include the Third Tunnel.
STAY SAFE | Do not step out of the sanitised areas. There are too many landmines around.
CODE OF CONTROL | No baggy pants, graffiti T-shirts, mini skirts and flip-flops. Not so long ago, even jeans were not allowed, being perceived by the North as linked to American decadence.
DON'T SAY CHEESE | Photography is strictly prohibited in most parts of the DMZ. Even at the observatory, there are only certain places where you are allowed to click photos
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