Tourists to North Korea border unfazed

Panmunjom - Undeterred by North Korea's apocalyptic threats of nuclear war, a daily convoy of tour coaches still happily wends its way to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which separates the two Koreas.

For some foreign visitors, the hot rhetoric has even become a white-knuckle incentive to travel to the heavily fortified border, a major tourist attraction and a vestige of the 1950-53 Korean War.

"It's getting a lot of attention around the world, and it's really exciting to be a part of that and see it first hand," said Shan Shan Loh, a tourist from Malaysia.

Luis Andrade, an engineer from Venezuela, was equally enthusiastic.

"This is the closest I've been to a Cold War situation," Andrade said.

"I've been to Berlin but long after the wall fell. This is like a live Berlin Wall."

When foreign tourists visit Panmunjom on the South-North Korean border they are subject to a host of rules on how they must behave, one of which clearly states: "No scoffing".

As North Korea's propaganda machine has entered near-absurdist overdrive in recent weeks, the temptation to have a little scoff -- and risk the ire of the North's poker-faced guards -- may be hard to resist.

Ten days ago, the North declared it had entered a "state of war" with the South, and on Tuesday it warned of "thermo-nuclear war" and advised foreign tourists to consider fleeing the country.

But experts say it is nowhere near developing an advanced nuclear device and both citizens and foreigners in South Koreas have shrugged off the threat.

"The North Koreans are just trying to scare people and make them nervous," said one tour operator, who added that visitor numbers had shown little deviation from seasonal norms.

"Out of an original group of 43, we had two cancel today, but that's rare," the operator said.

"We don't do what (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-Un tells us. We stay calm and steady.

"If there was any real safety fear, the UN would cancel the tours. We follow their lead," she said.

A long queue stretched out from the entrance of one of the tour highlights -- a secret invasion tunnel dug by North Korea and discovered by the South in 1978.

The tunnel is a reminder of a time when North-South tensions were more about action than rhetoric and is an impressive feat of engineering, dug at a depth of about 75 metres (250 feet).

Apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul, an estimated 30,000 men with light weaponry could move through the tunnel in an hour.

The main draw of the tour is Panmunjom, the abandoned border village where the armistice that ended the Korean War was signed and where guards from North and South now eyeball each other at close proximity.

A month ago, Pyongyang announced it was unilaterally ripping up the armistice, but the guards have continued to exchange nothing more physical than cold stares.

Prior to touring Panmunjom, tourists must sign a "visitor declaration" which, as well as ruling out scoffing, prohibits pointing and gesturing.

"If any incidents should occur, remain calm," reads the declaration which also requires the signatory to waive any right to compensation for any "damage of body" resulting from the visit.

Most tourists sign after just a cursory glance.

Guide duties at Panmunjom are mainly performed by a designated UN Security Escort Specialist, one of whom said the heightened tensions had a limited impact on those serving at the border.

"Or on us, at least. If the North did something to the UN its like declaring war on the world. The South Korean forces probably feel the tension more," he said.

- Sapa-AFP

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