Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Air of danger now a draw at Koreas' DMZ

Already site of odd fascination, new tension adds to border's lure

  • Print

IMJINGAK, South Korea -- Busloads of tourists still show up to gawk at the world's most heavily fortified border, even as governments on both sides threaten to reduce each other to rubble.

Chinese tourists browse through military garb -- child-sized -- in the gift shop. Japanese teens in maroon school blazers flash peace signs and giggle high above a landscape of bright-blue water, drab, brown North Korean hills and seemingly deserted villages.

The Koreas' border can seem a surreal place at the best of times -- part tourist trap, part war zone. An amusement park, fast-food joints and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ever-present Cold War tension that is higher now than it has been in years, following North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint U.S.-South Korean military drills.

Pyongyang has threatened to reduce Seoul to a "sea of fire" and stage pre-emptive nuclear attacks on Washington, while South Korea vows if it is attacked, it will respond with even greater force. Visitors to the demilitarized zone Thursday viewed the clash with curiosity, fear, excitement -- even a dash of romance.

"We were a little bit afraid that maybe they'd throw nukes across the border," Thomas Wolfley, a 32-year-old software engineer from Los Angeles, said, describing his initial feelings when he heard the North's threats. "It makes it more exciting. I'm confident that if anything were to happen, the United States would come get me."

The border allows visitors to experience a touch of danger -- but not so much that it interferes with their shopping and picture-taking.

Hundreds of thousands of troops from both Koreas operate in fairly close proximity here, each side training lots of big weapons on its opponent's not-too-distant capital.

Seoul is only an hour's drive away, and the dense, chaotic, vibrant sprawl of that megacity can seem like another world as it gives way to farms, scrubby mountains, armed sentries watching for North Korean infiltrators and coiled wire separating the highway from the banks of the Han River.

The four-kilometre-wide DMZ is potentially a violent place, a point that's occasionally obscured by the tourists and DMZ-stamped T-shirts and hats.

Shooting still breaks out occasionally. A monument in the DMZ stands as a memorial to two American officers hacked to death with axes in 1976 by North Koreans during a fight that began as a dispute over U.S. efforts to trim a tree.

Tourists line up for the chance to walk deep below ground into North Korean infiltration tunnels, many of them surprisingly well-made, that have been discovered over the years.

The high point of many tourists' DMZ visits is a small group of huts in Panmunjom, which straddles the border and is the place where troops from North and South come closest.

South Korea sends some of its tallest, toughest soldiers to Panmunjom. They stand statue-still, in fierce martial arts poses, chests stuck out, fists clenched, helmets and sunglasses reflecting the sun as they stare north. North Korean soldiers, smaller than their southern counterparts, glare through binoculars and gesture towards the south.

An attack at Panmunjom is unlikely, but a sudden North Korean strike in disputed waters in the Yellow Sea is certainly a possibility. Violence blamed on Pyongyang in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.

Pyongyang's most recent threats follow UN sanctions imposed last week over its third nuclear test, which it conducted Feb. 12. North Korea says ongoing annual U.S.-South Korean military drills are invasion rehearsals.

Among other declarations, North Korea has said it will no longer recognize the armistice that ended the 1953 Korean War, though it has made such remarks before. The UN says the armistice cannot be abandoned unilaterally. The most obvious product of that agreement -- the DMZ -- seems unchanged.

Experts dismiss the North's threat to launch nuclear missiles against the United States, saying Pyongyang is years from developing the technology needed to pull that off.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 A19

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Andrew Ladd talks about his injury

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • The sun peers through the fog to illuminate a tree covered in hoar frost near Headingley, Manitoba Thursday- Standup photo- February 02, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 060710 The full moon rises above the prairie south of Winnipeg Monday evening.

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google