Reston is robust and ruggedly cosseting
The Rexton was barely challenged by some mild off-roading
Tanks very much: murals are all for peace
DMZ souvenirs make ideal stocking fillers
Bremner (right) asks how safe the DMZ is
The morning after President Trump threatened North Korea with ‘fire and fury’, we took a drive to its borders.
That might sound reckless, but no more so than travelling to South Korea in the first place, where Seoul’s 10 million inhabitants live with the implied threat of Kim Jong-un’s pugnacious outpourings and crowings over his nation’s latest missile tests.
Ask an inhabitant how they feel and most seem sanguine – the heightened verbal spat between the US and North Korea “is between them, and not about South Korea”, says Ssangyong’s Kyung Taek Yoon. If the glorious leader does go nuclear at Seoul, there’ll be little time even to know about it, still less think, the capital being just 45 seconds away by missile.
So it’s difficult not to feel a frisson of excitement as we climb aboard a Ssangyong Rexton for the journey north. The Rexton is just the kind of car an Armageddon survivor might need. It’s quite tall, providing an earlier opportunity to see an enemy, it has plenty of room for supplies and its robust body sits on a substantial chassis that accommodates a decently powerful diesel engine and no-nonsense part-time four-wheel drive, complete with low range. You will also be travelling in relative luxury should you survive to greet a post-apocalyptic world.
The cabin’s allure holds good as we break free of traffic-infested Seoul. We pass fields, villages and, for long coastal stretches, spirals of barbed wire punctuated with camouflaged observation posts. See this and you see the reality of a country living under threat, so it’s a surprise to find a funfair next to the car park for visitors to the Demilitarised Zone.
The DMZ is the strip of no man’s land that separates North and South Korea. A mildly propagandist video later tells us that the DMZ is the home of wildlife that flourishes unthreatened by man. Tourism is a major activity along this part of the DMZ. You can joke about being nuked on the Big Dipper, but the possibility is real. We get to within 170 metres of North Korea, in a dank tunnel dynamited from granite. This is Tunnel 3, one of four discovered by South Korea in 1974, 1977, 1978 and 1990, each running beneath the border and capable of allowing 30,000 soldiers to pass through per hour. North Korea reluctantly admitted to digging the tunnels, but smeared them with lies about coal mining, which is a geological impossibility in the area.
The apparent severity of the threat is lessened by the tourist coaches and the souvenir shop selling lengths of DMZ barbed wire and DMZ chocolates, while a museum contains guns and ammo from the Korean war and scale models of border buildings. But the most intriguing display is a huge photograph of North Korea a few hundred metres from us.
Visible is a huge mast jamming South Korean radio and TV signals, stopping North Koreans from seeing what life on the other side is like, and fake villages that look better than the shabby reality for most of Kim Jong-un’s abused citizens. There’s a huge flagpole, too, the result of a ludicrous ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ face-off between the two nations. The North Korean flag allegedly weighs 275kg.
There’s amusing lunacy here, but a visit to Dorasan railway station and a bit of imagination can get your disquiet dialled up again. This modern ghost of a station was built in 2002 in the hope that, one day, it would teem with the trains and travellers of a reunified Korea. You can walk along a platform populated only by knots of tourists, and stare towards the forbidden land beside rails whose top surfaces rust unburnished by rolling stock.
In the nearby countryside, we find a rather tame set of tracks intended to demonstrate the Rexton’s off-road skills. A steepish, rutted hill tests it slightly – without the need for four-wheel drive – and reveals a couple of things. First, that the ride keeps jostling, and second, that this car feels tough. What this little trip also reveals is the Han River, which flows from North Korea. We use it as a photographic backdrop and enjoy its calming quiet. But the reason for the pristine river banks and the lack of people, we’re told, is the threatening proximity of the DMZ.
We leave for Seoul, whose bustling civilisation makes it easier to forget the tunnels and gun emplacements, if not the rhetoric of a pair of world leaders that would be comical were it not so chilling. Mentioning the Rexton seems trite in this context, but let’s hope it isn’t needed for post-apocalypse duties.