War zone or tourist trap? Mulling the Korean DMZ

Gift shop at tense border sells ‘See you in Pyongyang’ T-shirts

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PANMUNJOM, KOREA — Soldiers from rival North and South Korea eye one another across a thin strip of no man’s land that - just barely - keeps their armies apart. The tension, they insist on both sides, is palpable.

So what’s with the North Korean gift shop selling “See you in Pyongyang” T-shirts for about $16 apiece?

Or the South Korean border towns complete with amusement parks, souvenir blueberry-flavored North Korean liquor and a Popeyes chicken outlet?

Is the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas the world’s most dangerous place, or a tourist trap? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

“There is always a threat to safety here,” warned North Korean Lt. Col. Nam Dong Ho during a visit by several foreign visitors to his side of the frontier early this week.

The location of the DMZ. (The Washington Times)

Enlarge Photo

The location of the DMZ. (The Washington Times) more >

The usual tensions were augmented by this week’s unusually specific vow by the North to turn the South’s government into ashes “in three to four minutes,” along with speculation Pyongyang might hold its third nuclear test.

Col. Nam reassured his guests that two North Korean soldiers would accompany them during the tour of the tense front line. But the often-smiling pair of soldiers didn’t appear the slightest bit worried.

Touring Panmunjom

Col. Nam began his tour pointing out highlights on a hand-painted map of the DMZ, the 2.5-mile-wide space that divides the two armies, and Panmunjom, the once-obscure farming village that now hosts the “Joint Security Area” overseen by both sides.

It was in Panmunjom where U.S. and North Korean forces negotiated and eventually signed the 1953 truce that ended fighting in the Korean War.

The two sides technically remain at war, and their frontier is a deeply dangerous place with hundreds of thousands of soldiers stationed nearby, backed by artillery batteries and vast fields of land mines. U.S. war planners worry that incidents along the frontier could spark a major conflict.

But Panmunjom is where the two sides come into contact, and few soldiers are seen during the tours here. There are buildings on both the North and South Korean sides of the front line, with a smattering of simple structures straddling the concrete strip that marks the exact cease-fire line.

Today, the buildings are used infrequently, said Col. Nam, such as when North Korea hands over remains of Westerners killed during the Korean War.

So who does come here?

Tellingly, Col. Nam’s initial briefing was right next to the gift shop, where visitors can pick up North Korean T-shirts or small flags for about $2.50 apiece. Don’t even think of spending North Korea’s currency, the won: Foreigners can only use hard currencies here.

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