I was sitting in a mountaintop café sipping coffee, shaking off my jetlag, and chatting with my family about post-graduation plans. It was early morning in mid-April, so the first traces of spring were emerging. Sounds of children's laughter from the nearby amusement park filled the air while the sun beamed down on the river and mountains in the backdrop. If it weren't for the military outposts that dotted the mountain range, no one could have guessed where we were. We were at the 38th parallel. The mountains on the other side of the river belonged to North Korea and Pyongyang was 120 miles away.
On the day itself, April 14, North Korea had hinted that it was going to launch a ballistic missile test. When I returned to Seoul in one piece, my friend was shocked that I had gone, asking me if I saw any missiles. There were no missiles, but there was an amusement park, a museum showcasing assault rifles, and a film screening about the Korean War. I even got to climb inside a tunnel dug by North Korean soldiers in the 1970s and have my picture taken in front of a big sign that said "DMZ." This is not to deny the hostilities between the two Koreas, but the conversion of the DMZ into a tourist attraction shows how even in the saddest place on earth, it's possible to find happiness.
The North-South Korea situation is far from peaceful. In September, South Korean border guards shot and killed a man for crossing the border into North Korea. In spite of incidents like these, tourism in the DMZ is still booming. A few days ago, Reuters reported that more South Korean soldiers had been placed out on patrol since there were too many tourists. Tourists at the DMZ always seem to have a good time. In a video clip from Vision Media, a 17-year-old South Korean student described how she could "hear the music blaring and see all the rides." School trips to the DMZ are common. Foster Klug from the AP noted the presence of Japanese students in red blazers, giggling and flashing the peace sign towards the barren hills that made up the North Korean landscape. The atmosphere was surreal, he described, "part tourist trap, part war zone."
However, the DMZ is a tourist attraction with a powerful message. There are military fences decorated with colorful ribbons where people have scribbled notes for hopes of peace and reunification, along with messages for family members in North Korea. The words on the lookout tower overlooking North Korea read, "End of Separation, Beginning of Reunification," and the empty train station with the sign "To Pyongyang" are manifestations of that hope. In fact, the atmosphere is so calm and pristine that it seems "similar to Niagara Falls," Mark Byrnes wrote in The Atlantic Cities.
The most out-of-place attraction at the DMZ is the amusement park, Pyeong Hwa Land. While the other attractions serve educational purposes, it's harder to figure out the purpose of the amusement park, besides boosting tourism. Pyeong Hwa Land is complete with bumper cars and teacups, and a giant ship-like pendulum called the Super Viking. When I told another friend about the existence of the amusement park, he said it was like celebrating with death and famine in the background.
Some visitors felt that the presence of the amusement park was inappropriate. The Huffington Post described how tourists were disturbed by the "strong element of theater." Others, however, didn't see a problem with being happy in the DMZ. A nearby resident, Lee Sang-hoon, mentioned that by bringing his children to the amusement park, "they will one day ask about what's around," and he'd be able to "talk to them about the division." In other words, by means of location, the amusement park served as a way to expose children to the painful history of the Korean War, as well as introducing them to the current political tensions.
The tiny strip of land dividing the two Koreas defies all the preconceptions that we have of North Korea's relationship with South Korea and its allies. Standing there, you can't help but feel happy and sad at the same time. On one hand, you're glad to see children playing in the amusement park because it shows that life goes on. On the other hand, you know that you're so close to death and destruction but can't do anything to change it. This is probably what makes the DMZ amusement park the happiest saddest place on earth.