1) "No sexy clothes. No tank tops or miniskirts," she says. The North Koreans could photograph you for propaganda purposes and run it under the headline, "South Korea infected by American moral corruption!"
2) "No ripped jeans" for a similar reason. “The North will say Americans, South Koreans, and other democratic countries are so poor they can't afford new trousers."
3) "No alcohol and no pointing," because tensions run high here. A little booze and a little misunderstanding "could start World War III."
4) "Finally, no slippers," because in case Armageddon begins, you won't be able to run away fast enough.
“Now sign your life away,” my tour guide says, handing out a liability form relieving them of responsibility in case of “enemy attack.” With a little laugh she adds, “It's worth it.”
Michell's boss and the owner of the tour company, retired South Korean Lieutenant Colonel David Lee pioneered group trips to the Panmunjom "truce village" in the mid 1990s. He's running these tours for political reasons. He hopes they'll convince Americans and Korea's regional allies (South Koreans have to wait six months for clearance before entering Panmunjom so there aren't many of them) to adopt a strong, principled policy toward the North.
I meet Lee in his office at the five-star Lotte Hotel in Seoul. He speaks deliberately, in bullets, like the sharp, dapper businessman he's become.
But two decades ago Lee was one of the stern-faced soldiers staring across the DMZ. Standing in a martial pose, sizing up his enemy twenty feet away, he was always ready for war. He wore his boots at night so he could move quickly in case of a sneak attack.
Gradually, he rose through the ranks of the South Korean Army and soon was spending his days digging boreholes across this 2.5-mile wide, 155-mile long United Nations-secured border looking for North Korean infiltration tunnels. An estimated two dozen of them exist one hundred meters underground. They can convey up to 10,000 North Korean troops per hour across the DMZ.
While hunting for these elusive caverns, Lee grew close to American servicemen, despite the language barrier. U.S. military men provided him satellite images, geological information, high-tech equipment, and actionable intelligence. He was grateful. And he remains convinced that America must remain on the peninsula for the foreseeable future to thwart Northern aggression and check communism's spread (which he believes still threatens the south).
Yet he also understands bubbling resentment toward the United States. While in the service, he claims he always felt that "When it comes to information, if the U.S. government knows something 100%, South Korea knows just 10%. They withhold certain things from us for political reasons." For example, "if Washington wants negotiation with the North while South Korea takes the hard line, they [the United States] might hold back some of its more threatening discoveries from the North."
Lee became ever more convinced of the intelligence imbalance in 1996 when Korean American Robert Kim, a civilian official at the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, passed 50 classified documents to Seoul. This landed Kim in jail for nearly a decade, and showed Lee just how much more America knew about the North than he did.
In February 2007 the six-party-talks achieved a well-publicized breakthrough when North Korea agreed to close its main nuclear reactor for fuel, food and other aid. But Lee remained suspicious. Then the North celebrated New Years 2008 by missing its deadline to disable the Yongbyon nuclear facility, confirming his fears. “Negotiations have to be more more than talk and showmanship," Lee says.
But from behind my camera, his company's tour of Panmunjom looks like showmanship indeed. An angry North Korean guard breathes grey mist into the cold air while an elderly couple whispers, "He looks like a dragon!"
I keep thinking to myself: “This doesn't look like the 'most dangerous place on the planet Bill Clinton famously described, but it's probably the most dangerous tourist trap.”