*This is a piece of travel writing I wrote for a competition that I didn’t win, so can therefore share with you now. Please enjoy.*
"No pictures!" the soldier yelled. The translator pushed my camera arm down, indicating to the soldier that she would handle me. Her name is Linda (her Western name) and she is the guide on our tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, which, despite the name, is the most heavily militarised border in the world.
Perhaps the only remaining relic of the Cold War, the North and South have been staring at each other for the past 60 years, with all the tension of a Spaghetti Western stand-off on pause. Incidents of violence occasionally break out, from warning shots, to border hopping defectors to even an axe murder in 1976.
On the drive up from Seoul, we passed watchtowers every 100 yards and drove through tunnels that could be detonated and collapsed to slow military vehicles. A necessary precaution considering Seoul is just 37 miles away.
Upon entering the JSA we signed waivers for “the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” We had already been warned in advance about the dress code: No High Heels, No Shorts, No Oversized Clothes. They should have just said wear something smart-casual. This was to avoid fueling the North’s propaganda of the South as deviant and hippyish. Making gestures to Northern guards and tourists was also forbidden, though photographs (within designated areas) were encouraged. We took turns posing with North Korea. North Korea held for our cameras, but didn’t say cheese.
In a war based on constant observation, image is everything. Across the border lies Kijong-dong, the only village within sight, though telephoto lenses have revealed that the buildings (painted brightly to give an image of decadence, and thereby encourage Southern defection) are empty shells. It is someone’s job to turn the lights on and off to give the impression of activity. Linda referred to it as Propaganda Village, and filled us in on something called The Flagpole War.
It started when Daesong-dong (the only village allowed on the South side of the DMZ) erected a 323 ft flagpole. The North promptly responded by erecting a 525 flagpole, and thereby concluding The Flagpole War. Not the most gripping or noble of rivalries, but in a conflict as bitter and stale as this one, victories count wherever you can get them. “But ours is thicker!” said Linda proudly, with no hint of irony.
The grand finale of the tour was being allowed in a conference room that sits precisely on the border, which contained only a simple table and set of chairs.
I crossed over to the Northern side, but was disappointed to find that it felt exactly the same. The door to the rest of North Korea was just a few feet away, obstructed only by a young officer in sunglasses. No matter the weather, all the officers wear sunglasses. Here on the border, they feel the glare from the North more than the glare from the sun.