"WELCOME TO THE JSA!" It's the exclamation mark combined with the scrolling LED sign that encapsulate the deadly farce. Some 160,000 tourists annually visit the Joint Security Area, the gateway between North and South Korea that almost never opens, one of the most dangerous places on earth and conversely among the safest.
Similarly, the South Koreans Crikey
met on a recent study tour. This is a nation still at war, alert if not alarmed. Everyone wants to talk about the "reunification issue" -- and opinions are sharply divided on a solution -- but it's front of mind like traffic for Sydneysiders and coffee for Melburnians: conversation without urgency.
The bus winds through the landmine-filled countryside of the 4-kilometre-wide Demilitarised Zone, across booby-trapped bridges, from the JSA to the border. In the hills of the North we're pointed to Kijong-dong, a sound-stage of a town built for show with barely any residents that the military tour guide only refers to as "Propaganda Village". But the matching town on the South, Daeseong-dong, is as much of a sham: it's a tax haven for farmers who are allowed to dodge compulsory military service as an incentive to keep them there.
What you quickly learn is there's plenty of propaganda on both sides.
At least the South isn't executing its own citizens. A local newspaper reported this week
that 80 people had been executed by the Kim Jong-un regime -- for watching foreign films. At the border, we're warned against sudden movement and venturing too far from the guards (handsome men with clenched fists in dark sunnies, apparently chosen for their looks). The logistics are risible -- the main negotiation hut straddling the invisible border is locked on the North side and filled with South Korean guards for our visit; it's reversed when tourists visit from the North -- but nobody is laughing.
North Korea is changing -- but not fast enough for its neighbour. Kim Jong-un has banished the seven generals who carried his father's coffin, and a regime that for decades put the military first is now interested in economic development. Tourism has opened up, and more industrial parks are popping up on satellite images.
"[Kim Jong-un] spent two-and-a-half years in Switzerland as a boy in boarding school," Young Hie Kim, the editor-at-large and diplomatic correspondent for South Korean national daily JoongAng Ilbo,
explained to Crikey
. "There, unlike many North Koreans, he has come to realise what democracy is, what a democratic way of life is, and how well-to-do the outside world is, even South Korea. So in his mind, even when his father was still alive, I think he thought that the economy is our way. So as soon as he had a chance he is shifting from military-first to economy-first.
"But he has no money." And that's the key. If the regime wants foreign investment it will have to agree to resume talks. And under centre-Right President Park Geun-hye, the South Korea line is firm: there's no negotiation while nuclear programs remain in place.
The fear of many in South Korea is that the United States is losing interest. Young Hie Kim believes while secretary of state Hillary Clinton was focused on south-east Asia, her replacement, John Kerry, is more interested in the Middle East, while President Barack Obama is distracted by domestic issues. The much-heralded "Asia pivot" has made another deviation, according to Young Hie Kim.