On one side is the world’s most strategically dangerous frontier, all coiled razor wire, minefields, death strips, and blank-faced North Koreans. On the other side is… a theme park.
The clash of civilizations was never better dramatized than at Peace Land, in Imjingak, on the 38th Parallel. Here, the starving people of the world’s nastiest dictatorship can look across the border at capitalism quite literally putting on a funfair. For the Southerners, of course, the North Koreans are the principal attraction.
Right alongside the Pirate Ship, the Wriggly Worm and all the other fantasy rides run the perfectly real electrified fences and watchtowers of the border. The organizers of the theme park provide special viewing platforms and free telescopes for visitors. A key attraction is a bombed-out steam locomotive, still standing on its original tracks in front of a blown-up railway bridge across the River Imjin marking the frontier.
Peace Land has remained open throughout the latest outbreak of hostilities – but on Sunday, with the peace between the two Koreas at its most fragile since the 1950s, the Sunday crowds were understandably thinner than normal.
A drive along part of the hundred-mile border yesterday revealed significantly heightened levels of tension. Away from the theme park, large buffer zones adjoining the frontier line have been closed, with military roadblocks and checkpoints turning back all but local residents.
For miles south of the frontier, the banks of the Imjin are fenced off, and nets draped beneath bridges, to thwart infiltration by North Korean swimmers or canoeists. The military watchtowers on these fences, normally manned only during the hours of darkness, are now manned continuously.
South Koreans’ fear of the North is underlined by the outlaw state’s sheer proximity to their capital city. Seoul is less than 45 minutes’ drive from the frontier and the Peace Land theme park is accessible via the city’s metro system. Seoul’s 19 million people are within easy range of the same artillery which last week shelled Yeongpyeong island.
Concrete blocks and tank traps are kept by the sides of the road to block any North Korean advance. But South Koreans know that if it ever did come to war and invasion, there is little they could immediately do to stop it.