From A to DMZ
We woke up earlier than we had in a while, our guide was picking us up at 7am and we had to be ready before then. I wanted to look nice, too, so for the first time in a long while I dug my makeup bag out from the bottom of my backpack. I know it was overkill, but they told us to dress well - no ripped jeans, no short skirts, absolutely no sandals - and to make sure our hair was neat; basically to look good enough that we couldn’t be used as fodder for any anti-American propaganda. We met our guide, Scott, and hopped in his car for the drive north from Seoul - we were headed towards the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the heavily fortified strip of land separating North and South Korea. The DMZ was created in 1953 by the Korean Armistice Agreement, which brought a cessation to the hostilities of the Korean War. It’s 160 miles long, about 2.5 miles wide, and one of the most protected borders in the world. We were excited to check it out.
We chatted with Scott during the drive, discussing the DMZ and the political climate in Korea. He, like all South Korean males, had participated in the mandatory conscription and served as a ROK (Republic of Korea) soldier for twenty-one months. He was stationed in Seoul, his job was to blow up a bridge in case of a North Korean invasion, to prevent tanks from passing into the city. He’s now in the army reserves, and once a year he drags dynamite out onto the bridge and goes through the motions. He nonchalantly gestured at blockades arching over the highways, covered in billboards but rigged with explosives, so they can seal off the way into the city.
Our first stop was at a lookout called Odusan Unification Observatory. The building was originally created to console families that were separated after the Armistice Agreement, and to educate visitors about unification. We could see North Korea with our naked eye, green mountains, yellow fields, a few run-down looking buildings. Scott said that the people living in those homes are forced to move every two years - living so close to the border and the highway, they see what life could be like living in the south and become more likely to defect. We climbed to the observatory where there was a row of binoculars set up. Looking through, we saw North Korean citizens, walking around their fields, threshing their crops, just across the river - in that moment, we really felt the reality of the division.
We got back in the car and continued north, as we approached the border, we drove into a South Korean military base where some ROK soldiers took our passports and we were issued a military escort to accompany us to the DMZ fence. We climbed past a few now-defunct bunkers, up a couple concrete steps, and “well, here we are - the DMZ”, Scott said.
In a strange way, it was really one of the most peaceful places I have been, strolling idly alongside a barbed-wire, electrified fence, which housed a strip of land that’s been isolated from human interference for decades. The cicadas were the only noise besides our shoes treading lightly on the overgrown pavement, grass and ferns bursting through the cracks muffling the trudge of our escort’s combat boots behind us. It felt like the calm before the storm - not that I’m saying there’ll be a storm - but looking at the soldiers in watchtowers, seeing machine gun turrets, and hearing Scott’s stories of all the incidents and deaths that have occurred in this very spot, we were acutely aware that while it may be quiet now, it’s constantly teetering on the edge of war. The lack of human inhabitants inside the DMZ has allowed the land to become a natural wildlife refuge, home to many endangered species like the red-crowned crane, Siberian tiger, Asiatic black bear. Looking out into the lush green trees and tranquil fauna, it’s easy to forget the area is riddled with almost a million plastic land mines. I wish we could have taken pictures of the DMZ, but it’s illegal, a matter of national security - they don’t want to leak sensitive information about their defensive positions and military landscape.
We stopped for lunch at a barbecue restaurant, known for their duck, a North Korean specialty as well. Halfway through the meal Scott takes a phone call, we didn’t think anything of it until he returned several minutes later and announced to us that President Moon and Kim Jong-Un had released statements regarding their three-day peace summit (currently, it was Day 2). Among others, they promised to reconnect railway lines, have Kim Jong-Un visit Seoul (a North Korean leader has not visited Seoul since the ceasefire in the ‘50s), jointly host the Olympics, and seek denuclearization by 2021. While Peter and I could definitely appreciate the global implications of the summit, there was something really special about being in South Korea, with a South Korean native, while we heard this news - the excitement in his voice as he read the provisions to us and expressed the ramifications they might have for himself and for his home country. “An era of no war”, President Moon had said, and all of it happening just miles away from where we were eating lunch. The duck sizzled and burnt on the grill.
Our next stop was the Joint Security Area (JSA), an area straddling the border of North and South Korea, where the nations convene for political meetings and where their forces stand face-to-face. We met some American GIs, received a short briefing, had our passports checked about fifteen more times, and finally, were escorted in. There was a very set amount of time we were allowed to take pictures, and only facing north, too - security is high there, and the GIs made sure we knew it. Scott told us this beforehand, and since they only gave us around two minutes to roam freely inside the building, he said we better make sure we don’t freeze up - you’re allowed to take pictures, but tension is so high inside the building, surrounded and surveyed by ROK soldiers and American GIs, it’s so intimidating that some people just don’t. First and foremost it’s not a tourist attraction, it’s a highly militarized area used for diplomatic engagements.
We stood in a small, powder-blue building, bisected by the demarcation line; we took a few steps forward and (making sure to stay an arm’s length away from the soldiers stationed in front of the door), we were technically inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea - aka North Korea.
While this chance to see the DMZ was memorable and exciting, I think we all hope for a day when maybe there won’t be a DMZ to visit. The recent summit was just a step on a long staircase leading to inter-Korean resolution, but it was landmark, and brings us all a little closer to peace.