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The border between North and South Korea is an area of extremes. Extreme security: checkpoints, electric fences and minefields which stretch for miles. Extreme history, too: the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) is a reminder that the war which began between the two countries in 1950 never really ended. The zone splits the peninsula in half, thus creating the two countries. Stretching 160 miles long and two and a half miles wide, it is the most militarised border in the world. I had to go see it for myself.
While I’m not one for getting sucked into a tourist vortex of selfie sticks, bum bags and bucket hats, having your hand held by guides and security at the world’s most dangerous border is unavoidable.
My day began with an hour-long bus ride from Seoul to Panmunjom, the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the DMZ and the place where, in 1953, the Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean war was signed. During the journey, it struck me that a city as populated and energetic as Seoul can lie so close to somewhere Bill Clinton once described as “the scariest place on earth”.
After various passport inspections, three security checkpoints and being told (and retold) where picture taking was forbidden, I found myself standing in a government office surrounded by South Korean and U.S. military officials, signing my life away – quite literally.
“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom,” the document read, “will entail the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action… 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.”
Hands shaking, I signed. My signature looked somehow unfamiliar. As the tour guide took the paper from me, in broken English they said: “If you come back, I will give you this paper as a souvenir to keep.”
Escorted by a South Korean military vehicle, a second bus then took the tour group down dirt roads lined with tall barbed wire fences, North Korean flags and past the so-called “bridge of no return”.
We exited the bus single file and stood in silence, just… waiting. Though they barely moved their stony faces, I noticed the South Korean guards whispering to one another. After a very long ten minutes, we were led to the South Korean side of the JSA. My stomach dropped. Guards stood either side of a clear demarcation line, staring face-to-face. Others circling the area meanwhile, expressionless, weapons ready to defend.
We were taken into the Military Armistice Commission Conference Room which straddles the border and was the site of military peace agreements after the ceasefire of 1953. Here, in this room, I crossed the border and stood inside North Korea. Two guards stood by the door that exited northwards, their fists permanently clenched, their faces hidden by helmets and sunglasses. It was a tense, serious atmosphere.
Climbing aboard the return bus to Seoul, the tour guide handed me my signed visitor declaration paper to keep as a souvenir. Looking down, my eyes landed on “possibility of injury or death”.
I wasn’t killed at the border, but it did change me. For weeks I couldn’t shake the experience. I wanted to know more about North Korea beyond the newsreel images we’ve all become accustomed to. It also made me feel privileged as a free American. Today, I volunteer as an English tutor to North Korean refugees south of the border. I didn’t think anything could move me so much as that day at the DMZ – that is, until I heard their stories.
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