Sunday, May 15, 2011


There was one thing I had to do during our visit to South Korea. Michelle called me crazy, and I made sure not to mention it beforehand to my family, but I had to visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. I don't know what I was expecting when I actually went, but the experience turned out to be one of the most interesting and bizarre (and slightly terrifying) that I have ever had on a trip. "Demilitarized" is probably the most inaccurate word you could use to describe the border between North and South Korea. Sure, most people and weapons can't enter the 4km zone (extending from the border 2km into each country), but one wouldn't want to anyway as the area is infested with landmines and barbed wire fences. Step outside of the 4km zone and you will find yourself among one of the biggest military buildups along any border in the world.

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.

South Korean guards at the JSA. The concrete line near the middle of the picture is the actual border with North Korea. The two blue buildings belong to the UN and is where any talks take place. The gray concrete structure past the border belongs to North Korea. You can't see them in this picture, but North Korean guards were at the entrance and on the roof.

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.

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