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Outrage: Zones charting unhappy political realities should not be turned into tasteless tourist spectacles

Separating North and South Korea, the curious no man’s land of the Demilitarised Zone has become a political theme park 

It was difficult to see the view from the panoramic terrace as the fifth coachload of tourists arrived at the Dora Observatory in South Korea, jostling to gawp at the evil empire to the north. A long rank of coin-operated telescopes stood lined up, pointing towards North Korea like a battery of guns poised to fire, while loud-speakers pumped out garish K-Pop tunes at full volume. ‘You’ll notice there are fewer trees in the north’, said one American tourist, as crowds of selfie-stick wielding visitors posed for photos. ‘That’s because people there are so hungry they have to eat them.’

The observatory was just one of many lurid stops on a recent tour of the Demilitarised Zone, or DMZ, the 4km-wide buffer between North and South Korea which has been transformed into something of a militarised theme-park since the armistice at the end of the Korean War in 1953. For $100 a head, visitors are transported from Seoul to the DMZ for an immersive spectacle, complete with dioramas, multi-screen theatres, a miniature underground train ride and gift shops galore. It’s as if the South is trying to provide the most vivid evidence possible to support Kim Jong Un’s tirades against the corrupt consumerist culture inflicted on the peninsula by the ‘American imperialist dogs’.

Project dmz exhibition catalog 1980

Project dmz exhibition catalog 1980

Back and front cover of Storefront for Art and Architecture’ Project DMZ exhibition catalogue, 1980

The tasteless theatrics begin with a surround-sound film, where footage of explosions is accompanied by dramatic music and a gravelly voiceover straight from a Hollywood action movie trailer. The crimes of the North are recounted with relish, before visitors are packed on to a rollercoaster train and shuttled deep underground into the Third Tunnel of Aggression, allegedly dug by the North Koreans to launch a surprise attack on Seoul. A mind-boggling array of merchandise awaits in the gift shops, from military trinkets, t-shirts and badges, to figurines of North and South Korean soldiers – the former modelled like awkward schoolboys, dressed in oversized uniforms, the latter sculpted as brawny fighters, standing in an aggressive Taekwondo pose (and taller than their scrawny counterparts, natch).

The whole experience was all the more unsavoury when compared with what I had found two years earlier, when visiting the same spot from the other side of the razor-wire fences. While the relentless multimedia narrative in the US Army-operated attraction in the South is about the Evil North, the story on the other side is a plaintive tale about how the southern half of the country was invaded by America in the ’50s, and has been ‘under occupation’ ever since.

Belgiojoso alessandro korea an impossible journey? south korean guards on the 38th parallel , dmz, p’anmunjŏm 2006

Belgiojoso alessandro korea an impossible journey? south korean guards on the 38th parallel , dmz, p’anmunjŏm 2006

The view of the demilitarised zone, the 38th Parallel, from the north. Photograph by Alessandro Belgiojoso 

After driving for half a day along a deserted potholed highway from Pyongyang, our creaking bus arrived at a sober granite building, a stripped Classical pavilion that faces off against its metal-clad, jauntily roof-topped counterpart to the south. There was no jazzy interactive presentation and no admission fee, but a series of hand-painted maps and murals, and the well-preserved building where the armistice was signed. In contrast to the ghoulish propaganda peddled by the US military, which revels in seeing no end in sight to the state of permanent warfare, the impression given in the North was of the real tragedy of a divided nation.

The disparity was brought home by a group of smartly dressed North Korean day-trippers, who had family members across the border they had never met, posing sombrely for a picture in front of an image of a hand holding up a single finger in front of a map of the peninsula, beneath the slogan: ‘Korea is One!’ Not if Washington has anything to do with it. At the time of writing, the US is making noisy objections to the fact that the two halves of this fractured peninsula are finally speaking for the first time in years.

Belgiojoso alessandro korea an impossible journey? north korean guards on the 38th parallel , dmz, p’anmunjŏm 2007

Belgiojoso alessandro korea an impossible journey? north korean guards on the 38th parallel , dmz, p’anmunjŏm 2007

The view of the DMZ from South Korea. Photograph by Alessandro Belgiojoso 

The morbid pageantry of the DMZ is not unique in glamourising the theatricality of conflict; a number of politically charged borders have become popular Instagramable destinations with the rise of disaster tourism. While travelling in Lebanon, I was offered a tour to the fabled ‘Blue Line’ border with Israel, promising the chance to ‘see inside an authentic Palestinian refugee camp’. Israel takes militarised tourism one step further, with companies like Caliber 3 offering hands-on ‘shooting adventures’ run by IDF soldiers, aimed at ‘tourists of any age who would like to get a taste of Israeli methods of shooting and combat’, while other outfits run patriotic tours of the 8m-high concrete ‘security fence’ that marches along the border with Palestine.

On a recent visit to Bethlehem, it was heartening to see how it can work the other way around. The wall had been transformed into a visitor attraction of a different kind by enterprising Palestinians, monetising the very piece of military infrastructure that was designed to be used against them. Souvenir stalls have sprouted around the concrete barrier at the sites of Banksy’s murals, selling wall-themed merchandise, including wooden nativity sets complete with the barrier severing the stable in two. The street artist has even opened a hotel right next to the wall, as a kind of habitable protest, ‘boasting floor-to-ceiling views of graffiti-strewn concrete from almost every room’, as the brochure trumpets. ‘And for the exhibitionists among you, many are within range of the army watchtower.’