In 2006 I visited South Korea and visited the DMZ from their side. On the South Korean side, things are much more serious and ominous. If I remember correctly, photography wasn’t allowed for the most part. You can see the formal separation between the two countries, and journey underground to see the tunnels North Korea dug into the south as well. South Korea has built a train station on the DMZ that it hopes will connect to Pyongyang in the future.
In North Korea, the DMZ is a much more relaxed affair. There is a small museum that explains how the armistice was signed, where it was signed, and there are saved relics from that day in 1953.
Contrary to popular belief, the demilitarized zone does not fully run across the 38th parallel. From what I understand, the 38th parallel served as the initial border between North and South Korea in the post-WW2 era as the US and Soviet Union figured out how to divide the spoils from Japan’s loss. The 38th parallel was chosen by junior military officers by looking at a National Geographic map. Today’s DMZ kind of follows along the 38th parallel, but not exactly as you can see below.
I don’t have any pictures of them, but both sides have flagpoles. Each side kept one-upping the other with taller and taller flagpoles until North Korea built the world’s tallest flagpole. The flagpole is 160m/525ft tall and the flag weighs 270kg/595lbs! Today the flagpole is the 4th largest in the world.
At the DMZ you can see the blue buildings where negotiations take place between the two countries. The bulk of North Korea’s massive, 4th-largest military, is stationed near the DMZ though we saw very few soldiers at the DMZ itself. And on the South Korean side we saw no soldiers.
Unfortunately, the day we went there we could not go inside the UN buildings. It is in those buildings you can see tables with the line passing through them, and get a picture with the soldiers. I got a picture with our North Korean military guide though, and his grip on my hand was, by far, the hardest anyone has ever squeezed my hand. He was very nice and I hope in the future more Americans can shake the hands of North Korean soldiers under better circumstances.
Off in the distance you can see the Kaesong Industrial Zone. This cooperation between the two countries saw South Korean companies set up shop able to utilize very inexpensive labor from the north. I read that they were paying an average wage of $75/month, later increased to $160 per month – significantly less than the minimum wage in South Korea or China. Of course, all of those wages probably went to the North Korean government with the workers benefiting very little directly. That said, pretty much all of North Korea works like this and North Korean’s businesses around the world (usually restaurants) operate in a similar fashion.
Sadly, this unique project came to an end over political and military issues. At its peak, 123 companies employing over 53,000 North Koreans (and 800 South Koreans) worked in the industrial zone. Upon closure, these 123 companies wrote down losses of nearly $1bn and North Korea lost a significant source of foreign currency.