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Postcard

Tacky Tourist Items You Can Buy at the North Korean Border

It's hard to imagine the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, the world's most heavily armed border, as anything other than a long, dreary stretch of dangerous terrain. Just last month, a man was killed by South Korean soldiers while attempting to swim into North Korea. It's just the most recent fatal incident along the 150-mile-long DMZ, in place since 1953. 

It's a different story in the border city of Paju, South Korea. There, life looks more similar to Niagara Falls than a place of half-century-long political tension.


The tourist-friendly Unification Observator in Paju, South Korea. View Larger Map

Tourists here are more likely to find souvenir stands selling hats and t-shirts emblazoned with "DMZ," or even barbed wire mounted on ceramic tile as a keepsake. Visitors can check out the Unification Observatory, which offers a viewing deck with built-in binoculars and also a mock North Korean classroom. From there, you're just minutes away from amusement rides and go-karts.

Reuters photographer Kim Hong-Ji recently visited the South Korean border city to explore the campier side of a famously tense border:


A tourist poses for photographs with portraits of the late North Korean founder Kim Il-sung (L) and his son and former leader Kim Jong-il hanging on the wall of a mock North Korean classroom at the Unification Observation Platform, near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji) 


A tour guide poses for photographs with a stamp for tourists at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


A woman looks towards North Korea's propaganda village Kaepoong through a pair of binoculars at the Unification Observation Platform, near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


A man looks towards the north through a pair of binoculars at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


A visitor poses for photographs taken by her friends (not pictured) in front of military fences decorated with ribbons, on which people have written their hopes for peace and reunification of the divided Korean peninsula, at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


A visitor takes photographs in front of military fences decorated with South Korean national flags at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


A shopkeeper uses her mobile phone at her souvenir shop at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


Military uniforms for children are displayed at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


South Korean high school students look at the Super Viking ride at an amusement park in the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


A man looks towards North Korea's propaganda village Kaepoong through a pair of binoculars at the Unification Observation Platform, near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


Japanese students pose for a photo with a statue of a South Korean military policeman at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


Japanese tourists look at a travel brochure marked by stamps from various tourist sites near the DMZ at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


Tourists look over the Bridge of Freedom which was destroyed during the Korean War, at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)


South Korean primary school students walk past a restaurant at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul October 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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