in front of them all

Early one Tuesday in 2017 I was woken by an emergency announcement on my phone. I live in Japan, a country regularly clobbered by earthquakes, typhoons and tsunamis. I squinted at the kanji, trying to figure out what was coming my way this time, but I could only read two words: “North Korea” and “missile”.

So, I thought. This is how it ends for me.

In fact the missile landed in the Sea of Japan, and so did the one that followed a month later, but the warning shots shook me up. Like many, I have long had a morbid interest in North Korea —  I’d read a few of those memoirs by defectors and escapees — but my relationship with the country had suddenly become personal.

“Japan’s rackets inciting the tension of the Korean peninsula is a suicidal deed that will bring nuclear clouds to the Japanese archipelago,” announced North Korea. “No one knows when the touch-and-go situation will lead to a nuclear war, but if so, the Japanese archipelago will be engulfed in flames in a moment.”

Japan has lots of things the North Koreans might want to nuke. The US has a major military base in Yokota, west of Tokyo, and keeps most its navy in the region in Yokosuka, to the south-west. The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University reckons that one nuke over Tokyo would kill 700,000 people immediately and render another 2.5 million considerably knackered.

All this information buoyed around my head like a naval mine. I scrolled through reams of online speculation about what was going to happen next and who would be the first to die when it did. When the cafe where I was reading began rattling and rumbling, it took me a moment to realise it was a train passing overhead, and not imminent atomic obliteration. So this is what it was like to live in a touch-and-go situation.

I wondered if I ought to pack up my synthesisers and go back to the UK. But my friends in Tokyo were unconcerned. North Korea had been making wild threats for decades, they said, and besides Kim Jong-un wasn’t going to start a war he would immediately lose.

I was less convinced. How many of the angry young men who shoot up schools and shopping malls expect to survive the police response? Who was to say Kim was any different? Who was to say Trump would talk him down?

A year later, I visited South Korea as part of a visa dodge that is boring to explain. What was famous about Korea, I wondered? K-pop? Kimchi? StarCraft? I realised, sheepishly, that I knew far more about North Korea than the South.

I asked a Korean friend for suggestions. “Well,” he said, “I guess you could go to the DMZ.”

The Demilitarised Zone is the heavily fortified and misleadingly named 160-mile sausage of fence, watchtower, and landmine that divides Korea. There are tours, it turns out. You have to book via insecure credit card payment and submit passport information to be cleared by the UN. It sounded just dangerous enough to be exciting. Perhaps I could be the one to negotiate a truce.

On the train from Incheon Airport to Seoul television screens loop a five-minute video about a group of tiny islands between Korea and Japan. The Koreans call them the Dokdo islands, the Japanese call them the Takeshima islands, and both countries insist the islands belong to them. The argument rests on maps and documents dating back centuries.

“HISTORY KNOWS THE TRUTH,” said the television screens. Japanese maps and documents screwed themselves up and tossed themselves away. “We call on Japan to stand humbly before the truth of history. Dokdo will forever remain a peaceful island of Korea in the East Sea.”

I wondered who this was supposed to be for. Then I thought of the Last Psychiatrist adage about advertising: “If you’re seeing it, it’s for you.”

In the entrance to the Korean War Museum, where I went the day before my trip to the DMZ, a display showcases “Dokdo, Korea’s Beautiful Island”. A model of the islands sits in a perspex box; the English text describes them as “biologically important and military strategic pint” (sic).  There is no mention of Japan.

Next to the display is a “Photozone” inviting visitors to pose by a pair of large plastic rocks before the Korean flag. A brown-skinned couple wandered into the museum, posed grinning for a photo, and proceed to the main exhibition. It seemed plausible that they had no idea what they had just photographed.

The propaganda proved to be most interesting thing about the museum. The Southern fighters were brave and heroic; the North savage, duplicitous, insect-like. Why? No visitor to the war museum in Seoul is likely to be sitting on the electric fence about which Korea they support.

I took a taxi to the tour office. I didn’t fancy my chances finding it without Google Maps, which doesn’t work in Korea due to security concerns. Presumably if Kim ever gets directions to Seoul the game is up.

The tour company had given us explicit instructions about dress code. Tourists in ripped jeans or baggy clothes or short skirts end up in North Korean propaganda, proof that foreigners are all poor gangster whores. I had brought a change of clothes in case my shorts were too gauche, but the guide, a cheery young woman in rainbow trousers, waved me onto the bus without objection. The other people on the bus were mainly young white western couples, the sort that looked like they went on hikes together.

The DMZ is an hour’s drive from Seoul, which is convenient for tourists and will be convenient for the North when the invasion begins. We travelled a flat landscape of rice paddies, vegetable patches, greenhouses, concrete buildings. The guide indicated the barbed-wire chainlink fence that separates the highway from the river: it is dotted with unmanned watchtowers, and flows all the way to the North.

The highway ended and we crossed a bridge over the river, steering around a series of barricades, into the DMZ. The air on the bus thinned. There were car parks and huts and barriers and military vehicles and fences with signs that said “LAND MINE”, which, really, is the crux of the argument.

To my surprise, there were nine or ten other tour buses in the car park. As we alighted our guide was accosted by a pair of middle-aged American women who said they had got on the wrong bus and didn’t understand Korean and didn’t know how to go home. They asked to join our tour, waving wallets, but they hadn’t been pre-approved by the UN. The guide directed them to the tourist information centre on the other side of the car park. I hope they made it.

The first stop was what the South Koreans call the Third Tunnel of Aggression. This is the sort of name that things have in Asia. The tunnel is one of several the North dug into southern territory decades prior, planning to use them to send thousands of troops into the South when the time came. Now, in a triumph of capitalism, the mouth of the Third Tunnel of Aggression is the site of a gift shop, where you can buy brooches and bags and T-shirts and North Korean wine. I bought some DMZ chocolate for my girlfriend.

We donned hardhats and descended 10 minutes through an access shaft to the tunnel proper. It was dark and wet and cold and echoed with the sound of people banging their hats on the ceiling. I had to stoop for most of the trek. The North, the guide explained, claimed the tunnels were for mining coal, and had painted the tunnel walls black to support the story. After five minutes we reached a barricade, beyond which was the underneath of North Korea. One by one we peered into the darkness, hoping to spot a secret chemical weapons plant or something, but there was nothing, and so one by one we turned around and trooped back outside.

In an auditorium on the other side of the car park we watched a short video presentation about the history of the DMZ. It was bewildering and explosive, with the production values of World’s Wildest Police Videos. The soundtrack began with something similar to the Metal Gear Solid theme, then became Enya-like, and the video reframed the DMZ as a haven for wildlife. Presumably the deer aren’t heavy enough to trigger the landmines. The narrator concluded paradoxically: “Until the day of reunification, the DMZ will be here forever.”

The next stop was the Dora Observatory, an observation deck overlooking the border. The tour guide explained that, usually, both Koreas blast propaganda at each other via enormous loudspeakers, which must have created one hell of a mashup, but things had fallen quiet since the Korean summit a few months earlier.

We disembarked and climbed the steps to the observation deck. Before us lay the mysterious land of North Korea. It was green and flat and not obviously evil in appearance. I dropped 500 won into a pair of binoculars and scanned the landscape, hoping to spot a farmer or guard or an ICBM hidden behind a bush or something, but it was all communist bushes and communist trees and beyond them forbidding communist mountains hiding who knows what.

The only point of interest was a cluster of multi-storey concrete buildings in the near distance. The North Koreans call this the Peace Village, but everyone else calls the Propaganda Village. According to the North, the village is a collective farm run by 200 families, with two schools and a hospital: a model of communist prosperity. In reality, the guide told us, the village literally is a model: no one lives there, and the buildings are empty windowless shells.

In the centre of the Propaganda Village stands a 160-meter flagpole that was until 2010 the tallest in the world. It was erected after the South built a 100-meter flagpole in the 1980s, which the North was not going to take lying down. The North’s enormous flag weighs 270kg and is therefore too heavy to flap much. For most of the time it hangs limp, like a towel. This is the sort of basic engineering error that no one involved in the construction could have failed to anticipate. I can only imagine they would have been swiftly relieved of duty had they pointed it out. They must have been praying for a typhoon.

Next stop was Dorasan Station, the northernmost train station in South Korea. The station was opened in 2003 in an expensive gesture of optimism. The railroad goes all the way to Pyongyang,  but so far it has only been used to shuffle freight and occasionally industrial contractors between the Koreas. The tour guide told us that it might one day carry passengers to Pyongyang and beyond — Ulan Bator, Paris, Edinburgh.

The floor of the station shines; the seats look brand new; an electronic ticker has nothing to report but the time. From the clerk we bought one-way tickets to Pyongyang, then went through the turnstiles out to the platform. There were no trains. We got back on the bus.

Over a canteen lunch of bibimbap and kimchi I struck up conversation with a tourist from Singapore named Natasha. “Don’t you think,” she said, “there’s something kind of spiritual about this place?”

As a matter of fact I did. Everything is so carefully observed and maintained, attended to by quiet, serious people in the service of a division between worlds that is purely imaginary. The men and women who patrol the chainlink fences and sweep the train platform and clear leaves from the gutters of the security huts work with the conviction that eventually, one way or another, some event will settle things once and for all.

There are 250-ish civilians living in the DMZ, all of them farmers. You can only live there if you were born there, or marry into it. The soldiers steer them around the landmines to their crops each day.

At the first security check before the JSA, our rainbow-trousered tour guide hopped off the bus, strolled to the barrier, chatted to the officer in the hut, and then just sort of hung around, checking her phone and kicking at a bollard absently, like a teenager waiting for her boyfriend to show up.

Eventually an American soldier emerged. He was enormous; even his face looked like it pumped iron. He introduced himself as Private Richards, instructed us not to take photos without express permission, and examined our passports. We boarded a second, UN-sanctioned bus and took a stop-start route punctuated with more checkpoints and passport checks. Then we shuffled into another auditorium, where Private Richards briefed us on a history of the area we were about to enter.

The JSA, he explained, was the only area of the DMZ where soldiers from the North and South stand face to face: hence the South’s curious motto, “In Front of Them All”. Decades ago, soldiers from both sides had been free to wander the 800-meter bubble like rival gangs in a schoolyard. Both sides would annoy each other by spitting and shoving and pulling faces and playing hopscotch on the Bridge of No Return where prisoners were exchanged.

This curious cauldron simmered until 1976, when the South decided to trim a tree that was creating a blind spot between two watchtowers. According to the North, the tree had been planted by Kim Il-Sung, and so they murdered two American officers with axes. The South, led by the US, responded by sending hundreds of troops, a convoy of vehicles, heavy artillery, helicopters, and nuclear-equipped tactical bombers to supervise while a team of military engineers cut down the tree with chainsaws. After that a line was drawn down the middle of the playground, and peace has balanced on it ever since.

Private Richards gave us documents to sign acknowledging that we understood that the visit would “entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action”, and that the United Nations Command could not “guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of an enemy act”. This was exciting and lent authenticity to the excursion.

“In the unlikely event that you see a North Korean,” said Private Richards, “do not attempt to speak to them, gesture at them, or interact with them in any way. They sometimes spit or make cutthroat gestures. Do not respond.”

The North photographed people waving and used them to make propaganda suggesting they wanted to be rescued, he said. The document warned that “making expressions like scoffing” could be used as evidence of Americans being dickheads. I am a naturally smirkative person. I felt a bit worried.

We followed Private Richards in single file into a high-ceilinged building, where he arranged us in two lines on a flight of stairs. He reminded us not to make sudden moves, take photographs without permission, or otherwise muck about, and that under no circumstances were we to defect to North Korea. We followed him upstairs through a large glass-fronted lobby and out into the Joint Security Area.

The surroundings are leafy and pleasant, with neatly trimmed hedges, and reminded me of a university campus. The conference huts, with their primary colours and simple geometry, resemble Monopoly houses. They’re bisected by the Military Demarcation Line, a flat strip of concrete that divides Korea. Beyond it is North Korea, but there were no North Koreans. It turns out that soldiers only stand guard when they have visitors. It was like visiting the zoo when the polar bear is sleeping.

There were the South Korean guards to study, at least, and they are captivating. Like the Queen’s Guard, they are absolutely still. They hold “taekwondo power stances”: legs apart, hands clenched into fists held away from their waists, as if pushing invisible wheelbarrows. They wear wraparound sunglasses, completing the resemblance to the T-1000, and are uniformly handsome. They are certainly more impressive than their North Korean equivalents, who are smaller and seem to wear uniforms several sizes too big, like Charlie Chaplin.

My Korean friend told me he knew a guy chosen for the JSA gig. Unfortunately, the taekwondo power stance had given him nerve damage that necessitated leg surgery. Perhaps the North was simply playing a waiting game.

Private Richards indicated bullet holes in the wall a few feet away. Less than a year ago a North Korean guard had jumped in a jeep, driven at top speed over the Bridge of No Return, bailed out just short of the Military Demarcation Line, and legged it like few men have ever legged it before into South Korea. He pitched up behind cover riddled with bullet holes. Two South Korean men crawled to reach him and he was rushed to hospital.

After the incident, the South called the North using the special bat phone that links both countries. The South had a policy of calling three times a day, but the North hadn’t picked up since 2013, and so southern soldiers stood at the border and shouted into a megaphone something to the effect of “One of your guys ran over to our side, and he’s pretty shot up, so we took him a hospital, and we’re gonna conduct an investigation.” The North Koreans had conferred for a minute, then signalled that they hadn’t quite caught that and could the South repeat it. “That would have been a good day for them to pick up the phone,” said Private Richards.

Before we filed into the middle Monopoly house, Private Richards had us line up in rows as if posing for a school photo. It occurred to me that I had probably just entered the North Korean photo collection. I wished I had worn trousers after all.

The Monopoly house is sparse and functional, furnished only with symmetrically arranged conference tables where negotiations are held. Once, Private Richards told us, the North had brought pots of coffee and generously attended to the Southern officials, refilling their cups the minute they were empty. The Northern officials didn’t touch theirs. As the meeting dragged on the pressure on the Southerners’ bladders built until they were forced to call time. These are the sorts of minds we are up against. Mandatory bathroom breaks have been enforced since.

On the central table lies a pair of microphones, which, Private Richards explained, record everything, all the time. The wires of the microphones also indicate the position of the Military Demarcation Line.

“So,” said Private Richards, “those of you on the other side of the table are now in North Korean territory.” That included me. I was in North Korea.

One T-1000 stood astride the Demarcation Line, and another guarded a locked door leading to the North. It was the first time I’d seen a door that opened into another country.

Private Richards explained that we were free to photograph or pose with the soldiers, but touching them would result in an immediate defection to hospital. “If you do take photos of the room,” he said, “try to angle them to the northern end, away from the south, if you can.” When I asked why this was, he said: “We have some better technology on our side and we kinda don’t want the other guys to see it.”

These armies had built symmetrical bases directly opposite each other, like a Team Fortress level. What could a photo one of us dumb tourists took of the inside of the shared hut possibly reveal? And if it were such a security risk, why were tourists allowed to visit in the first place? 

“I guess it’s just always been allowed,” said Private Richards.

We trooped back through the high-ceilinged building down the stairs and out into the car park, where our bus driver was playing a game on his phone. While the others explored another gift shop, Natasha and I took the opportunity to debrief Private Richards.

“Do you ever feel like defecting?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.

“What if it’s better?”

“No way. I’ve seen those guys. They’re malnourished. I feel sorry for them. They’re pretty good at marching, though.”

Natasha asked: “How many landmines are there in the DMZ?”

“That’s classified.”

“You should say there’s a billion,” I said.

“There’s a trillion,” said Private Richards.

“Why did you join the army?” asked Natasha.

“It’s in my blood. My dad was in the military, so was his dad, all my brothers.”

“What do you think about President Trump’s handling of the situation?” I asked.

“I think progress has come on leaps and bounds in the last year,” said Private Richards.

On the bus, Private Richards had pointed out a memorial to two soldiers from the South who had been ambushed and killed by a pair of northern soldiers. I asked him what, from a strategic perspective, the point of this had been. It was hard to imagine the North Korean generals had believed it would win the war. Private Richards shrugged. “Who knows? Why do they do half the crazy crap they do? They’re just…”

“Arseholes?” I said.

“Well, yeah. It’s like how they added an extra storey to their JSA building just so it would be taller than ours. When we expanded ours a few years ago we had to make sure it was slightly shorter so we wouldn’t escalate into a skyscraper battle. It’s dumb.”

“What’s the hardest thing about the job?” I asked.

“Staying hydrated. In summer I sweat like a motherfucker.” Private Richards paused. “I guess the other downside is that it’s high-risk. If North Korea decides today’s the day to pick a fight, we’re toast. We’re the first line of defence.”

On my final day in Korea I took the bullet train to Busan, the beautiful port city on the opposite end of the country. I had arranged to meet a Korean friend-of-a-friend, who until that point I had only spoken to online; his Japanese ex-girlfriend had asked me to help with his English studies. He asked me to call him H, because, he wrote, “H connotes hentai, sex, hahahaha”. I thought that was fair enough.

On Facebook, H appeared as radiant and flawless as a K-pop idol. In Busan Station he looked a little more ordinary. But when he raised his phone to take a selfie of us together, there on the screen was the shining H I recognised, and beside him a thinner, smoother-skinned, rosier-cheeked version of myself.

“Every Korean has this app,” said H.

H estimated that half of all young Korean women had had some sort of cosmetic surgery, mostly to add an extra eyelid fold, a feature all white people have but not all Asians. He preferred women with the fold, he said. Appearances were important.

He showed me his designer watch and wallet. At a department store, he helped me pick a new bag; the zip had broken on mine. He took the opportunity to try on a backpack he’d been thinking about himself, but decided it was too girly. While he spoke to a shop worker I translated the price tag. It came to about three thousand dollars.

As all South Korean men are required to, H had spent years in the army. He had been posted at an airfield and taught about radar. He was glad to be out; it was boring, he said, like high school. As we ate fried chicken downtown, I asked him whether he thought Korean reunification was likely in our lifetimes.

“I hope not,” he said.

This surprised me. I’d assumed, naively, it was something people just generally wanted.

“We will have to look after all of the North Koreans,” said H. “They’re not good people. Even thousands of years ago, the people who lived there were kind of the same. They were violent and always fighting.”

Ah. So it was just in the blood.

“I know it’s kind of a myth,” he said, half-laughing, “but somehow I believe it. I think the North Koreans will always be like that.”

There are people alive today who remember when Korea was a single country. It is impossible that H has no cousins north of the border.

“So do you vote for the rightwing government or the left?” I asked. “They have very different opinions about how to handle the North, right?”

“I usually vote for the right,” he said. “Because, for example, I don’t want to help homeless people.”

“You don’t?”

“If a person is homeless, they made some mistake,” he said. “They could have got a job but they didn’t get a job.”

The North Korean propagandists would make a fine example of H.

“What do you think about those islands Japan and Korea fight over?” I asked H.

“Dokdo?” said H. “I think they are Korea’s.”

When I got back to Tokyo I asked my girlfriend the same question.

“Takeshima?” she said. “I think they are Japan’s.”

Apparently the islands are quickly eroding. Perhaps this will settle the matter.