x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Business as usual along Koreas' demilitarised zone

From the summit of South Korea's Mount Dora, all appeared normal in North Korea with the flag flying at full mast on the Kijongdong flagpole despite the death of Kim Jong-il.

Tourists take photos at Freedom Bridge which lies just south of the demilitarised zone that separates North and South Korea.
Tourists take photos at Freedom Bridge which lies just south of the demilitarised zone that separates North and South Korea.

DORA OBSERVATORY, SOUTH KOREA // From the summit of South Korea's Mount Dora, all appeared normal in North Korea with the flag flying at full mast on the Kijongdong flagpole despite the death of Kim Jong-il.

The flag's presence atop the world's third-tallest flagpole is one of several indications to tourists, taking day-trips in and around the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that separates North and South on the Korean peninsula, that things here are carrying on as normal.

There is no sign of increased security, visitors are still posing for pictures beside cartoon-style statues of soldiers, and the tourist shops continue to do a busy trade in postcards, trinkets and DMZ coffee mugs that proclaim "freedom is not free".

It is a stark contrast to the scene after some other major recent events on the peninsula. Following the November 2010 shelling of South Korea's Yeonpyeong island by the North, visits to the DMZ and nearby attractions were suspended for about two weeks, according to tour guides.

Yesterday tourists still arrived by the coachload even though North Korean television announced on Monday that Mr Kim, who led North Korea from 1994, had died at 69.

Dora Observatory lies just south of the DMZ, which stretches 2 kilometres on each side of the 240-kilometre border that splits the peninsula in two, separating the impoverished communist North from the wealthy US-allied South.

Tourists have long been drawn to the DMZ and the Joint Security Area within in it, where North and South Korean troops face one another without any barriers between them. The Joint Security Area alone draws 160,000 visitors from the South each year.

Kim Gwang-hyeon, 41, a tour guide who leads trips to the area, said despite the apparent normality, tourists have been asking whether South Koreans feel more worried after Kim Jung-un took over as North Korean leader.

"I've got that question several times recently since he died," he said. "My impression is they're not afraid that much. When you are travelling, you can see the atmosphere. They don't feel any tension."

There has been intense speculation about how tight of a grip on power North Korea's new leader has, and whether he faces challenges to his leadership, especially from factions within the military.

North Korean media, trying to boost the credibility of the country's 20-something "Great Successor", yesterday hailed him an "outstanding leader".

Back at the DMZ, tourists continued to arrive as usual at a section of the third infiltration tunnel, one of four tunnels built by North Korea with a view to invading the south.

Dorasan Station, just south of the DMZ, is another key attraction. It was reopened almost a decade ago to encourage rail traffic between the Koreas, but the rail border has been shut since 2008 and the station remains unused.

Many visitors come to feed a fascination with the secretive North whose capital, Pyongyang, lies 205 kilometres up the railway line to the north.

"Sometimes people are more attracted to something they cannot understand," said Mr Kim, the tour guide. "If [North Korea] was just open to everybody, they wouldn't be as interested."

For a small number of tourists, however, a visit to the DMZ is interesting not only because it offers the chance to get close to perhaps the most reclusive nation on earth, but because it is a reminder of home.

"Basically my whole country is one DMZ," said Lior Chetrit, 26, an Israeli student on holiday. "[North Korea] is a live topic even in Israel, even though it's on the other side of the world. Many Israelis are aware of similar situations all over the world."

dbardsley@thenational.ae