Intrepid traveler Angela Sun uncovers Korea’s DMZ zone─the most heavily fortified border in the world, filled with barbed wire, land mines, and where nearly two million soldiers prepared for battle.
Situated along the 39th Parallel lies one of the strangest places in the world. One kilometer north sits the world’s most isolated nation, North Korea, quietly and plainly in view. One kilometer south, the hustle and bustle of modern life pulses to the metropolis beat of South Korea. The very spot I am standing is considered the Joint Security Area, otherwise known as the JSA inside the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone. When visiting Seoul, this is a must see.
While only 55km north of Seoul, it feels like I am a million miles away from life as I know it. It is easy to forget the freedoms I have living in the United States, especially the freedom of choice, until I am reminded during the highly regulated tour of the world’s most heavily fortified border. Even before I can sign up for the day tour to Panmunjom (the village where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed), there are many rules and regulations we have to adhere to. We must bring our passport and follow a strict dress code: no flip-flops, no torn or faded jeans, no leather pants, no short pants, no sleeveless tops, no training pants, no slippers and no military style attire. Ladies shoulders need to be covered. No cameras with lenses longer than 105mm are allowed as well. While in the DMZ, we are not allowed to gesture or point at anything; no taking photos unless Mr. Kim, our very colorful tour guide, allows us to at certain times. We walk in two single file lines when outside of the bus. The day I decide to take the tour there is decidedly more tension; late last year a South Korean Navy ship was sunk in a torpedo attack, killing 46, and more recently Pyongyang bombed the South Korean Island of Yeonpyeong. On our way up to the DMZ, Mr. Kim informs us that at any given moment the atmosphere in the joint security area can change and become unsafe, which is why there are so many precautions.
North and South Korea are technically still at war, since they only signed an Armistice Agreement on July 27th 1953. It was then that the DMZ was created, a 2.5 mile-wide zone stretching 151 miles across the Korean peninsula. With one foot in North Korea, and one in South Korea, I feel lucky not to be shot at, because I am safely in the confines of the Conference Room. This is the only place where the North Koreans and the United Nations Command have come together for face-to-face talks throughout the years of its tumultuous political relationship. I am under the watchful eye of our tour leader and two armed South Korean Joint Security Area officers as I peer out the window of the bright blue building at the Military Demarcation Line, the physical line made of concrete that separates the two Koreas.
Everywhere we visit in the Joint Security Area, the air is thick with an uneasy tension that you could cut with a knife and this building is no exception. We are told the conference room is most likely bugged with hidden microphones, and the North Korean soldiers are watching our every move. After a few minutes of snapping photos, our guide, Mr. Kim, tells us to quickly put our cameras away and we line up in two single file lines to walk out quietly. It is an unsettling feeling indeed, to have the invisible hand of Big Brother, or in this case, their Dear Leader, brushing up against my back. For the most part, I feel safe throughout our trip. Even with all the rules one must abide by, the experience of capturing a glimpse of the mysterious Hermit Kingdom is well worth the visit and a definite highlight to any travel in this intriguing part of the world.
GETTING TO AND FROM THE DMZ
For the intrepid traveler, there are different bus tours that run from this central hotel. This tour includes lunch and is very informative as well. If you have a limited amount of time this is the one to go on.
This tour is run by the US military. To set up a tour through the USO you must book in advance.