Nowhere is the tension between North and South Korea more palpable than in the no-man’s-land known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. As a divided nation, only 2.5 miles separate the North from the South in what is the most heavily armed border on earth. The 150-mile zone has served as a buffer since the 1953 cease-fire agreement between the United Nations and North Korea that put the Korean War on hold.
Only 27 miles from Seoul, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), is one of the last relics of the Cold War. As the most heavily armed border in the world, it’s often said that the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is the most dangerous place on Earth. This distinction is probably technically true - the mountains and hillsides on both sides of the 4km strip of land separating the two Koreas bristles with troops, guard posts, tanks, missile, bunkers, gun emplacements and land mines. A one-hole golf course at a military base in Panmunjeom, the truce village, warns not to retrieve balls from a fairway lined by land mines. Yet the DMZ is perhaps the supreme irony in a land of ironies. As you gaze out upon the DMZ your attention is drawn not only to the rare opportunity to peek into mysterious North Korea, the North Korean soldiers perched on the watchtower nearby, but also, you’re captivated by the supreme tranquility - the quiet, the lush green hillsides, the rare birds swooping into untouched marshlands. Here, at the most militarized border on the planet.
The DMZ can only be visited as part of an organized, guided tour, during which you get the chance to see the Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as Panmunjom, where the North and South met for peace talks during the war. Here you can see both North Korean and South Korean soldiers each guarding their respective sides of the DMZ. Sadly, Secretary Tillerson chose the exact day and time we were scheduled to be at the JSA for his photo opp which precluded our visiting the JSA. With a few last minute emails, we were able to switch to a tour that included everything BUT the JSA.
- Imjingak Park - walk to the Freedom Bridge where 13,000 POWs crossed on their path to freedom in South Korea.
- hike down the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (see below for more info)
- DMZ Exhibition Hall which shows the Korean War, old weapons, and a brief film about Korea's history.
- Mt Dora to see North Korea from the Observatory. There are many telescopes to look at North Korea’s propaganda village and the sound of music played over loud speakers is eerily present.
- Dorasan Station, the last station that once connected North and South Korea.
Our first indication that this would not be an ordinary tour was when we were required to send a color photo copy of our passport ASAP. What followed brought home that 'we wouldn't be in Kansas anymore':
- When you arrive at Conference room, do not touch any equipment such as microphones or flags belonging to the communist side.
- Do not speak with, make any gesture toward or in any way, approach or respond to personnel from the other side.
- Sometimes military or other official considerations prevent entry into the joint security area.
- No shorts - for the skirt / dresses they need to cover knee.
- No sandals, flip-flop or slippers. Shoe must cover whole feet.
- No t-shirts; must be collared shirts
- Shaggy or unkempt hair is not allowed either.
- The cameras with over 90mm zooming lens are not allowed.
- Children under 11 years are not allowed.
- You must carry your passport on the tour day.
Dressed appropriately, our bus filled with tourists from around the world, we drove toward the DMZ. A few miles out, we stopped at a military check point where a uniformed soldier boarded the bus, went row by row checking passports against the list on his clipboard, scrutinizing each face. A bit more somber, we drove the last few miles to the Freedom Bridge. There was a powerful feeling of sadness, of loss, as we walked by thousands of brightly colored unification prayer messages tied to the barb wire.