Driving northeast from seoul, I follow the course of the sinuous Han River, past harvested rice fields, up into steep, forested hills. Forty minutes outside the thriving South Korean capital, the Seoul Studio Complex looms like a fortress. Its vast screening and postproduction facilities are burrowed into a mountainside, seemingly impregnable to any bombardment from North Korean positions not far away. Atourist mecca, the complex advertises itself as the largest film-studio center in Asia, with sets familiar to South Korean movie audiences.
First stop for the busloads of visitors is usually the Panmunjom set, a near-perfect replica of the real Panmunjom, the village on the border of North and South Korea where officials of the two nations have met periodically for largely sterile discussions ever since the armistice ending the Korean War was signed there on July 27, 1953. Tourists, crowding into a barracks-like structure, press their faces against the windows of a mock conference room, staring at the dark line that bisects the replica negotiating table. The line, if extended, would run the full 151-mile length of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean peninsula. “As kids, we were taught that each side would push its little flag an inch or two over the line that divides the real conference table and the country,” says Jean Noh, 27, the government film commission executive who is guiding me around the Panmunjom set. “Here, people can cross back and forth over the line.” As if on cue, a middle-aged couple request that Noh photograph them standing in “North Korea.” Then they ask her to aim the camera at them in front of the pagoda-shaped gateway to “South Korea,” a portal festooned with a sign reading “House of Freedom.”
It’s not surprising that many South Koreans prefer to contemplate their relationship with the North through the virtual reality of a movie set. The actuality is too complex and terrifying. Fifty years after the war, some 700,000 North Korean soldiers with thousands of artillery pieces are arrayed along the DMZ, capable of devastating Seoul, only 25 miles away.
“The scariest place on earth,” President Bill Clinton called the fenced and heavily guarded DMZ even before he toured it in 1993. Standing at this same border in February 2002, President George Bush called for a Korea “one day united in commerce and cooperation, instead of divided by barbed wire and fear.” Today, tensions have escalated ominously as North Korea asserts it has already processed 8,000 spent nuclear rods from a power plant into material that could be used in a nuclear bomb.
Even a scenario some South Koreans and Westerners would welcome—the political and economic collapse of the North (already suffering from severe food and fuel shortages) followed by a reuniting of the two Koreas—presents a sobering prospect. One global investment bank recently estimated that a sudden reunification would cost the South up to three trillion dollars over the first decade. “This would be far more expensive than the reunification of Germany,” says Sunghyun Henry Kim, a South Korean economist at TuftsUniversity. “Our economy could not possibly afford it.”