The More Welcoming Side of the DMZ

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Last week, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said "we're within an inch of war almost every day" he was talking about the narrow strip of land that divides North and South Korea. Turns out, that swath of ground is actually a merry little tourist trap. 

In all seriousness, The Associated Press' Foster Klug toured the strip that divides the two mortal enemies and found it an absolute pleasure. "The often-smiling pair of soliders," who guided him through the North's DMZ tour, "didn't appear the slightest bit worried," he says. The North Korean tour offers "See  you in Pyongyang" T-shirts for 12 euros and the South Korean tour features an amusement park, a Popeyes Chicken outlet and blueberry-flavored North Korean liquor. This was all despite the scary paper work you sign acknowledging "a hostile area (with the) possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."

Take a look at these photos: Do these people look very scared?

Above is a souvenir shop just outside the border village of Panmunjon, in the thick of the DMZ that has separated the two countries since the Korean War. Below, a roving pack of tourists in ponchos wait their turn into the Military Armistice Committee meeting room. All snapshot taken by AP photographer Lee Jin-man.
Like any respectable tourist haunt, there are also coin-operated binoculars for tourists to view the other side (pictured below). Entrance into the North's tour will cost you $20, a heavy fee for a county that's per capita income is under $2,000 per year. The South is even worse, with a price tag of $75, however, it features the Lotte Hotel, one of the country's fanciest inns. 
There are a couple reasons the merry nature of this tour is surprising.  First, it was just this week that the North vowed to incinerate the South "to ashes in three or four minutes." If you were on guard in this zone, would you be outwardly cheery and smiling? Second, the images we typically get from the DMZ are usually somber photographs of barbed wire outposts and binocular-equipped guards. Like in late March when President Obama visited (images via Reuters).
We suppose that after you've officially been at war for over half a century, the excitement of conflict starts to wear off and even the most militarily sensitive areas fall prey to the tourism industry. Still, from Obama's visit in March, it looks like he missed out on all the tourist hot spots. Blueberry liquor, next time?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.