The U.S. and South Korea may be holding joint naval exercises in the East Sea, and North Korea may be threatening nuclear retaliation in habitual, heavy-handed response, but it's really just the latest in the familiar, decades-long drama playing out on the Korean peninsula.
In fact, visitors to Korea who are interested in the push and pull of Asian geopolitics and life in the only territory in the world still divided into capitalist and communist halves should avail themselves of a day trip to the notorious demilitarized zone, or DMZ, about 30 miles from Seoul, South Korea's capital city.
It's a once-in-a-lifetime must-do for anyone interested in the area. And as recently as July 21, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton braved the chill winds blowing from the north to visit the DMZ. But you don't have to be a diplomat to pay a visit to this historically important area.
Although state-guided visits north of the 38th Parallel, the pre-Korean War boundary between North Korea and South Korea, are possible, the DMZ is the closest the average U.S. leisure traveler will ever get to North Korea.
The 155-mile buffer zone, riddled with infiltration tunnels dug by North Korea and leftover land mines, has straddled South Korea's coast-to-coast frontier with the communist north since the 1953 cease fire that ended the Korean War.
The Korea Tourism Organization recommends more than a dozen local tour operators that run trips to the DMZ. The itineraries offered may differ in details but most will take clients to Paju City for sightseeing and to catch an official DMZ bus; a hilltop observatory for views over the zone into North Korea; and an infiltration tunnel dug under and into southern territory by the north (and later discovered and blocked off). Longer tours also take in Panmunjeon, the so-called Joint Security Area in the middle of the DMZ that Clinton just visited, where negotiations are still held between the sides.
U.S.-based operators that offer DMZ tours include Asia Pacific Travel, Pacific Holidays and United Vacations.
The guided DMZ and Panmunjeon tours offered by Seoul-based operator Grace Travel are typical. The firm offers a range of six DMZ tour options -- from a $38-per-person, half-day tour to a full-day, $99-per-person tour with lunch -- as well as full-day tours to Panmunjeon ($64) only or Panmun-jeon combined with the DMZ ($112).
The half-day tour takes in only the closest accessible part of the DMZ from Seoul (including the Third Infiltration Tunnel near Paju City, one of five dug under the DMZ over the decades by North Korea to facilitate a surprise attack). After hotel pickup, Grace Travel drives clients north to the DMZ, passing midriver guardhouses, barbed-wire barriers and distant mountains in North Korea along the way.
The van stops in Paju City to switch to an official DMZ tour bus. Before boarding, clients are welcome to stroll to the attractions located there: the Peace Bridge, the Wall of Peace and the Peace Bell.
The official bus, shared with clients of other tour operators, takes travelers to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. Prior to descending into the tunnel, visitors are required to view a semipropagandistic South Korean film about the DMZ. The tunnel itself was discovered in 1978 after a North Korean defector told of its construction.
Today, hardhat-wearing visitors descend 250 feet, either on foot or by monorail, to walk its length of some 1,000 feet, up to the third and nearest of three iron barriers erected by South Korea and the U.S. Next on tap is the Dora Lookout, a mountaintop viewing platform. A visit to the gleaming, high-tech -- and unused -- rail station at Dorasan, which South Korea built in hopes of increased trade northward in the late 1990s, follows.
There, visitors can avail themselves of souvenir "Pyongyang-Seoul" visa stamps in their passports or travel journals. Before returning to Seoul, tour participants pass by South Korea's so-called Unification Village farming area en route to a ginseng farm or amethyst factory for a little capitalist retail therapy.
For more information on tours to the DMZ, visit the Korea Tourism Organization site at http://asiaenglish.visitkorea.or.kr and click on the Sightseeing, Themed Tours and DMZ Tours tabs, in that order.
This report appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of Travel Weekly.