Life and Lies in the DMZ


Photo by Michael Johnstone

Memorial ribbons placed by those with family on the other side of the DMZ.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

I recently accomplished a quiet dream I’ve had for some time. It’s not a secret that North Korea is one of the most insane nations on the planet and I have found that the more information I glean about the overprotective, isolated nation, the more I am fascinated with it’s insistence to remain tucked away from the rest of the world while Kim Jong-Il fanatically oppresses his people and agitates almost ever other country (in particular, his southern neighbours). I have, for a long time, wished to see North Korea with my own eyes, albiet from the safety of the Southern lookouts which is the only plausible option at this time.

21 months of military service is required of all males in South Korea. Many will find themselves here. Photo by Michael Johnstone

21 months of military service is required of all males in South Korea. Many will find themselves here.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

I have been careful in my thoughts to separate the governing body of this totalitarian state and the people who live under the oppression of the mentally deranged. I have nothing but sympathy for its citizens and truly hope that a day of unification comes between the two Koreas. This hope is shared by many Koreans on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone.

Don’t let the name fool you. Although the two kilometer buffer that spans the length of the peninsula is itself devoid of military forces and weapons, the DMZ runs along the most heavily guarded border on Earth, with both sides cautiously eyeballing each other at every second of every day and night.

On a mildy chilly Saturday morning I hopped onto a bus with a preplanned tour that I had signed up for. We drove for about 45 minutes outside of Seoul and I came face to face with the barbed wire fences that divide two nations. We toured two different tunnels which had been secretly dug by the North Korean military in an attempt to create an infiltration route underneath the heavily guarded border. Shockingly, the most recent of these tunnels was only discovered in the 1990s. I donned a hard-hat and trekked deep underground to see the tunnels chiseled out of the granite by North Korean hands.

A plan that almost worked. Photo by Michael Johnstone

A plan that almost worked.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

From the lookout points at both tunnel sites I was able to get my first glimpses of the mountains of North Korea as well as one of the strangest sights I have ever seen: the propaganda villages. These fake towns had been built by the North Korean government in an attempt to give the impression that development was occurring at a rapid pace north of the border. Empty shells of buildings, standing among the mountains, devoid of moment or purpose. I heard they still light up at night, despite the plain fact that the farce was never believed to begin with. It is a sad, desperate sight to behold.

The mountains of North Korea. Photo by Michael Johnstone

The mountains of North Korea.
Photo by Michael Johnstone

Perhaps someday children will play among the buildings while visiting a museum that shows what North Korea had done before unification had occurred. Perhaps they will stand as a reminder of the lies and deception that were thrown south for decades. The only other option may be that they will be torn apart by artillery fire and tanks should the unthinkable happen if war to return to this beautiful land that has stood on the brink for almost 60 years.

North Korea's uninhabited "Propaganda Village" Photo by Michael Johnstone

North Korea’s uninhabited “Propaganda Village”
Photo by Michael Johnstone

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