No more tourist days at the DMZ

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s blustering threats to launch a missile attack on the United States and South Korea appear to be an attempt by the young leader to demonstrate his toughness to his people and his military. In fact, South Koreans seem more worried about potential cyber attacks like those on its banking system and TV broadcasters three weeks ago than they are about being bombed.

But the bizarre threats reminded me of a time, in the mid 1980s, when I attended a yearly meeting of the U.N.’s mixed armistice commission in Korea’s demilitarized zone which occurred in a small building whose courtyard straddled the boundary line between North and South Korea. That meeting day used to be the one day that South Korean or western media could walked across the boundary into a small area, paved with cement and surrounded by armed North Korean guards, that was technically inside the Hermit Kingdom.

As the gaggle of press stepped across the line from south to north, the “journalists” from North Korea, all wearing badges with photos of their great leader, started screaming in unison at the visitors. A group of diplomats and foreign press, mostly from then-communist countries, who had been bussed down from Pyongyang, stood by glumly watching the show. One of them, a Russian representing the then Soviet news agency Tass, whispered to me, “These people are impossible. They never let you out of their sight.”

Last time I visited the DMZ, in 2005, it had become a virtual tourist site, with busloads of middle-aged South Korean tourists coming buy souvenirs and ogle the demarcation line (but unable to cross it). It didn’t seem nearly as fearful as two decades previously.

Those easy-going days at the DMZ have probably vanished for some time to come.