Crossing Borders: A Visit to Korea’s Demilitarized Zone
What better way to start a honeymoon than to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)?
As adventure junkies, my husband and I skipped the romantic getaway by the beach and headed straight for our Asian adventure. Starting in Seoul, we began with a tour one of the most dangerous borders in the world: the Korean DMZ.
A visit to the DMZ requires planning in advance, as you must have your passport cleared days before your tour. Certain nationalities are also prohibited from entering the zone, including South Koreans. On top of all this, the tour can be cancelled at any time if the border situation becomes unsafe. We decided to do a tour of the Joint Security Area (JSA), the area deep inside the DMZ where both South Korean and North Korean soldiers stand face-to-face. The tour is led by an American soldier and begins in a briefing room where we were taught about the history of the Korean war. We were then required to sign a waiver stating that we understood the hostility of the area and risk of injury or death as a result of enemy action – definitely not your typical honeymoon!
Walk the line
A little tense after signing the waiver, we were then taken through and told to stand in single file before going outside. Walking in single file, we exited the building and were ordered to stand in a single file row facing the border. Suddenly, we were face-to-face with North Korea: staring directly into the mysterious Hermit Kingdom, looking straight at North Korean soldiers. The air was quiet and thick with tension, as South Korean and American guards stood in a face-off with the North Korean guards. Nobody in our group dared to move. We were told not to wave, gesture, or make any sudden movements; if even one person does, the entire tour would be taken back to the bus. We were also told that absolutely no photo-taking was allowed until our guide gave permission. When this finally happened, we snapped as many photos as our fingers would allow.
Then the unthinkable happened… a North Korean tour walked out directly across from us! Our American soldier guide was in shock; in all his years at the JSA, he had never once seen a tour on the North Korean side. We stared at them and they stared at us. Who were these people, where did they come from, why were they there, what were they being told? We continued to stare in silence until we were taken into one of the blue houses, which act as a conference room for negotiations between the North and the South.
Across the border
What appeared to be a simple meeting room turned out to be one of the most interesting rooms I’ve ever entered. There is an invisible border in the middle of the room, going right through the meeting table. On the north side of the room, two North Korean soldiers guard the doors to the North. We were allowed to cross over the invisible border to take a photo in front of them; we crossed the line and suddenly, we were standing in North Korea.
After exiting the conference room we were given time to walk around the Freedom House, a building where South and North Koreans were originally supposed to reunite with their families. We also visited the museum, where we learned of all the many incidents at the JSA in the past and were able to see a copy of the Korean Armistice Agreement. We were then taken to an area where could see the Bridge of No Return, the place where prisoners of war (POWs) from the Korean war could cross the bridge to the side of their choice, with no possibility of return.
Return to safety
Our day at the DMZ was an eye opener. Everything we saw and learned gave us insight into the history and current situation in Korea. Everyone hears the stories and watches the news, but there is nothing like seeing it for yourself, staring at soldiers in a stand-off, ready to attack at any given moment. It was an intense experience that left us feeling both overwhelmed and relieved to cross the border back into safety.
Have you visited a conflict zone? Share your experience with us in the comments section.
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