There is one small area along the DMZ called the Joint Security Area (JSA) that is open to troops from both sides, and, rather surprisingly, to tourists. One can't even get on the highway approaching the DMZ unless you are with one of the tour groups registered with the military - luckily Michelle and I found one that had openings. As soon as we left Seoul on our bus (the DMZ is only one hour north of Seoul by car), we were confronted by an endless stream of barbed wire fences, watch towers manned with machine guns and soldiers, and attack helicopters flying in every which direction overhead. I secretly started to wonder if coming to visit was a good idea... On the way to the DMZ we stopped at the memorial dedicated to the soldiers who have died protecting the border, and to the "Freedom Bridge" - the northernmost point that South Korean citizens are allowed to visit. The bridge was used by thousands of Koreans living in the north to escape to the South before the communist rulers shut down the border. People from the South still come here to pray for their families living in the North.
|A husband at wife at the Freedom Bridge - northernmost point South Korean citizens are allowed to go.|
|Ribbons and other mementos placed on the fence in remembrance of their family members still living in North Korea|
After the "Freedom Bridge" things got serious. South Korean troops boarded the bus and checked identities before we were allowed to drive to Camp Bonifas, a joint UN-South Korean military base on the edge of the DMZ. We entered a UN building where we went over the rules and watched a quick presentation. The tension was palpable. From here we boarded a military bus and were escorted by soldiers in Humvees to the JSA. When we arrived at the JSA we quickly formed lines and were marched up through the entrance where we came face to face with the border with North Korea (defined by a concrete line) and the North Korean troops on the other side. My heart was beating through the roof. We entered the UN building that sat on the border. Half of the building sat on the North side, and the other half sat on the South side. Even during a meeting North and South Koreans aren't allowed to cross the border, even inside a UN building. While inside, everyone took a quick step over into North Korea before the soldiers started yelling that our time was up. We were quickly herded out back the way we came and boarded our bus. It was a surreal experience - it felt like we were there only 3 minutes, but time even seemed to distort itself - we were there for half an hour.
|Guards stand halfway behind one of the UN buildings so they can quickly get to safety in the event of an incident.|
|"Inside" North Korea - Picture was taken from inside one of the UN's conference buildings. South Korea is to the right, North Korea to the left.|
My body didn't start to relax until we were back into Seoul proper. After six hours of constant anxiety, I was exhausted. The DMZ experience reminded me of skydiving: exciting, terrifying and something that I will never do again.