World’s Most Dangerous Border
The bitter wind tore through my parka, as I stood less than 25 feet away from an armed North Korean soldier. I shivered again, but this time in reflection of where I stood. Sharply uniformed North and South Korean soldiers were patrolling with weapons by their side. I was in the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that bisects North and South Korea. Former President Bill Clinton, described it as the “the scariest place on Earth” with over 1,000,000 hostile soldiers facing off. Ironically, despite the name, the demilitarized zone is one of the most militarized places on earth.
WWII ended in a stalemate on the Korean peninsula, birthing both a North and South Korea at the 38th parallel. In 1950, 135,000 North Korean soldiers stormed into South Korea commencing the Korean War. The war ended three years later with an armistice in 1953. The warring parties, retreated from the battle front creating the DMZ. Both countries are technically still at war in 2015.
The DMZ is a 2 ½ mile wide ribbon that lazily traces the 38th parallel across the Korean peninsula for over 151 miles. Within the DMZ is the Joint Security Area, a complex of buildings, where North and South Korean soldiers stand within feet of each other. This area is used for diplomatic negotiations between the two Koreas. And today, you may visit as a tourist.
Visiting the DMZ from South Korea
“Although incidents are not anticipated, the United Nations Command, the United States of America, and the Republic of Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors and may not be held accountable in the event of a hostile enemy act.” My hands sweated as I signed the hold harmless agreement. As with my previous visit to Chernobyl, I was second guessing my desire to travel to these non-traditional tourist sites. I had left Seoul that morning and now was nearing the Joint Security Area for a day tour. JSA is a series of buildings located within the DMZ. It is manned by soldiers from both the North and the South Korean armies. Seven of the conference buildings are actually built directly on the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The MDL is the line dividing the north and south within the DMZ.
I was briefed on the rules within the DMZ. I was a bit surprised with the strict dress code. There was a long list of do-nots: ripped or torn clothing, t-shirts, short skirts, sweat pants, sheer clothing, and the list went on. In brief, dress like you are off to church on a Sunday. I was told that North Koreans would be photographing our visit for potential propaganda use. I was also warned not to wave, point, or gesture. Again, any gesticulations could be construed incorrectly. The hypothetical North Korean newspaper article might read: “Look at that poor American in ripped jeans pointing to North Korea in hopes of moving there.”
The bus came to a stop, and I found myself pacing around the South Korean side of the JSA, cautiously surveying North Korea. My group was directed into one of the conference rooms, and I immediately made a bee line to the far end of the room. Since I had just crossed the MDL I was technically standing in North Korea. My nose pressed against a window, and I was staring at several North Korean soldiers posing for photos as if they were standing in Time Square. A stone-faced, South Korean soldier stared at the photo-happy, North Korean soldiers. I marveled at the surreal theater of the JSA.
Visiting the DMZ from North Korea
After my day trip to the DMZ via Seoul; I set my sites on traveling to North Korea. I wanted to witness the Joint Security Area from both sides of the Korean border. While researching travel to North Korea, I received a very sober warning from the U.S. State Department, “Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea, even accidentally, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention”. Tourist, Otto Warmbier, who visited in January of 2016, was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Despite the DMZ being an atypical tourist destination, over 100,000 tourists make the trip annually from Seoul. But a truly unique experience is visiting the DMZ from the North Korean side. Only several thousand westerners visit North Korea each year. Contrast that with France which welcomes 83 million annual visitors.
I needed to fulfill my mission to behold the DMZ from the Orwellian North Korea. After scouring the internet, I settled on a Beijing based tour provider. After some successful visa wrangling, my flights were scheduled, and I was on my way to Pyongyang. I had joined a group tour for a multi-day primer of the Hermit Kingdom, which also included a visit to DMZ.
After several days of incessant bowing to statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (the former North Korean leaders), my group was herded into a bus with our three omnipresent, government minders. We were to visit the Joint Security Area. From North Korea.
The bus rumbled up to the JSA, and we were met by our stern North Korean soldier-tour guide. We were promptly led to the government gift shop, where I purchased a cold, imperialistic Coca-Cola. Our guide over viewed the large map outside of the gift shop that detailed the JSA.
My anticipation was growing, but first we were to dine in the grey-colored, Panmungak Pavilion, a stately building that overlooks the JSA. The group munched on kimchi and other Korean delicacies. It seemed bizarre to be leisurely eating in such a dangerous place.
After lunch ended, we were led out to a viewing platform. My eyes scanned the JSA. I recalled how I had taken in the same view previously from South Korea. I studied the motionless North Korean soldiers standing in front of the robin-egg blue huts. I searched for any South Korean soldiers, yet none were visible. The JSA was quiet, sedate; almost peaceful. As I was departing, I snapped a close-up picture of a nearby North Korean soldier. His modest smile peeked out. This was the same soldier whose leader, Kim Jong-un, stated ‘If the war breaks out again in this land, it will bring about a massive nuclear disaster and the US will never be safe.”
Sometimes lost in the debate is the true meaning of the DMZ and what it represents to the 75 million people who reside on the Korean peninsula. The threat is real for those in South Korea. A belligerent, unpredictable, nuclear armed foe has a million plus troops ready to march the 35 miles to Seoul. The North Koreans live in the most isolated, police state in the world. Throughout the years, North Koreans have been subject to everything from starvation to multi-generational prison camps. The DMZ separates husbands from wives and children from parents who were separated during the Korean War. They have been unable to see each other since 1953. Occasionally, brief reunions are allowed. This incredibly heart-wrenching video of a recent reunion depicts how this effects everyday people of this perpetual conflict.
So between posing for selfies and buying a DMZ postcard, reflect on how the DMZ has effected millions of people for over 60 years.
How To Visit
The process of visiting the DMZ from both North and South Korea is as different as the countries themselves.
From the South
Visiting from the South Korea is a straight forward process. Several companies organize day trips from Seoul. To witness the area referenced in this article, make sure your day tour includes the JSA/Panmunjeom Village. Prices start as low as $65. Make sure you book at least 48 hours in advance to your departure. Don’t forget to bring your passport and dress in a professional manner. And please note, the tours do not run every day. Check out VIP Travel for day trips.
From the North
Visiting the DMZ from North Korea is a much more complicated and expensive undertaking. There is no such thing as a day trip to the DMZ in North Korea. You will have to be part of a multi-day group tour. Several tour companies are able to bring western tourists into North Korea. Some of these set tours include a trip to the DMZ from the North Korean side. This trips must be arranged weeks or months in advance. Check out these companies that will bring you to North Korea and the DMZ. Koryo Tours has a four night trip that includes the North Korean DMZ that starts at $1,050. You may also check out Young Pioneer Tours who also have a wide selection of North Korean tours.
World’s Most Dangerous Border