South Korea

A South-East Asian country, the westernized, turbo-capitalist counterpart to the northern half of the Korean peninsula, which is the DPRK – that is: North Korea, which in most of the world is typically regarded as an uber-communist "rogue state" and is much more difficult to visit ... though it is quite possible to get in as a tourist (though only on organized tours with guides). South Korea, however, is much easier to travel to as a tourist.
Visiting Panmunjom on the border between the two opposing halves of Korea is the closest you can get to visiting the Iron Curtain – this border is generally regarded as the very last bastion of the Cold War, a living relic, as it were, of times that are long gone elsewhere. Mind you, this is no museum. It's quite real.
The so-called "DMZ" (for 'demilitarized zone') between the two parts of Korea is in actual fact the most militarized zone in the world. No exact figures are known, but it is presumed that several hundred thousand North Korean troops are stationed along the border, together with amassed heavy artillery, which, when called into action, could potentially depopulate the whole area ca. 30 miles (50 km) deep south of the border.
Opposing this last ur-Stalinist totalitarian state on the south of the border South Korean troops stand guard, heavily supported by the USA – or in North Korean terminology: "the troops of the South's puppet regime propped up by the Yankee imperialist aggressors". This stand-off confrontation is concentrated and most palpable at Panmunjom. It was here that the armistice negotiations took place towards the end of the Korean War, the outcome of which basically still holds today. In other words, technically speaking the war's still on, but there's a truce, the occasional skirmish notwithstanding.
The psychological warfare of having stacks of speakers blearing out propaganda across the border from both sides has been suspended, but still, the place oozes a sinister and menacing atmosphere. Symbolically, the two Koreas own balance of terror is conveyed by two competing giant flagpoles: the North has the highest such pole, but to balance it out the South has the biggest flag hanging from their slightly shorter one.
In terms of architecture, it is clearly the South that trumps the North at Panmunjom – ever since the Americans built an over-the-top representational pile of glass and concrete here which blots out the North's older socialist counterpart edifice. The former can be visited by tourists in South Korea who want to cast a glance across to the "evil empire" of North Korea.
In some ways it may be even darker to visit this historic spot from the North side, which is possible and usually included in longer organized tours within the DPRK – see North Korea. But that can't be done independently and on an individual basis, of course, and is much more restricted, and not possible for everyone (in particular not for citizens of South Korea, who are excluded wholesale).
Thus the excursion to Panmunjom from the South is the logistically easier alternative. I know of people who have done both – but that's not something that should be mentioned at the actual border, whether on the North or the South side.
Usually, a visit includes a few moments in one of those blue huts right on the borderline in which some of the armistice talks were held. The building in which the agreements were finally signed in 1953 lies further north on the DPRK side and can only be visited from the North. A line right across the table in the centre of the hut marks the precise border. Nowhere else can you step across the Iron Curtain border so easily – but of course only inside the hut on organized visits – outside it would be potentially deadly!
Day trips are offered from Seoul, which is only some 40 miles / 65 km south of the DMZ. These are also available in English – but some restrictions apply here too. (Citizens of the usual suspect countries such as Syria, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, and of course North Korea itself, are excluded altogether, others may have to apply further ahead of time than the usual 24 hours.)
In general a sensible dress code is in place – the usual: no shorts, faded jeans, or such like.
Visits by tourist groups to Panmunjom are (understandably) co-ordinated in such a way that groups from the North and the South are never there at the same time. In the South, a few other places in addition to Panmunjom can be visited along the border, including some border fortifications on the southern side of the DMZ. The company based in Seoul offers a range of different day excursion packages.

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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