Visiting the DMZ: North Korea, South Korea Joint Security Area

Last weekend I had the privilege of going to the demilitarized zone and Joint Security Area between North and South Korea. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had. It took a while for me to process what I saw there –I’m not sure that I still fully understand how I feel about it. It’s really hard for me to put what I saw and felt there into words, but nonetheless I will try.

I left Seoul early in the morning heading towards the DMZ on a tour bus. On the way our tour guide pointed out the protective measures that each country has taken into account in case of an invasion. Such as that Korean billboards are made of concrete so that, they could be blown up and serve as barriers for tanks if North Korea invaded. He also taught my group about the tunnels that North Korea has dug to try and infiltrate Seoul and the fact that South Korea doesn’t know if there are any invasion tunnels that North Korea is currently digging. Before reaching the DMZ our tour group stopped at a small restaurant to eat bulgogi. I remember thinking to myself as I was eating the rice with my meal that the rice was the tastiest rice I had ever eaten. Only later did I find out that that very rice was grown in the DMZ.

I didn’t expect the DMZ to be farmland. There were rice paddies everywhere and beautiful birds dotting the area surrounding the woods. I’ve never seen vultures and eagles as big as the ones I saw in the DMZ in my entire life. After passing all of the checkpoints to enter the Joint Security Area, we were able to drive past two villages, one South Korean village and one North Korean village each bearing their country’s flag on a gigantic flag post. We were informed that the flag posts kept getting built higher and higher as each country wanted to have the tallest flag post. As we drove by, our tour guide told us about how the people who live in the South Korean village get paid a lot of money by the government to live there and I remember wondering to myself what would happen to the inhabitants if North Korea invaded South Korea. Our tour guide also informed us that the farmers who work in the rice paddies have to be escorted by soldiers when they go out to work. Hidden among the hills and mountains surrounding the rice paddies, you could see towers and bunkers scattered about, a constant reminder of where we were and of the impact of the Korean War.

In the DMZ you could see the struggle between the two nations so easily. You could see how North Korea and South Korea both use propaganda and their near childish struggles where if one side built something, the other side had to build the same thing but bigger (as was the case with the flagpoles in the two villages). If one nation did something in the Joint Security Area (JSA) without the other’s consent, fighting could break out. This is what happened with the 1976 axe murders.

My first impression of the Joint Security Area was that it was eerily quiet. Walking up to the UN meeting house, we had to pass through South Korea’s “welcoming center,” or Home of Freedom, a large building with stairs leading to the border. After stepping out of the building we could see North Korea in front of us. It was breathtakingly quiet and you could feel the tension in the air. Soldiers were positioned strategically around the area and cameras were everywhere. The soldiers were watching our every move and we were given strict instructions not to gesture towards North Korea lest the North thought we were drawing guns on them. A lone North Korean guard was standing watch at North Korea’s “welcoming center,” or Panmon Hall, which we were informed by our tour guide isn’t as tall as the South Korean building. As we were standing staring into North Korea our tour guide joked about Kim Jong-un saying, “If he didn’t take so much money from the North Koreans, maybe he wouldn’t be so fat.” I remember thinking, “How can you insult the leader of North Korea this close to the border?!?! What if you get shot?!?!”

We were ushered into the United Nations meeting house and here we were able to cross the border to North Korea. I was expecting to feel something different after crossing the border. I don’t know how to explain it, somehow enlightened or something along those lines. But after actually stepping into North Korea, I really just felt empty. I don’t really know how to explain it…  The whole experience was just petrifying. Being that close to and staring into North Korea was honestly one of the scariest moments of my life. Just seeing North Korea looming in front of you, feeling the tension in the air, being surrounded by guns and cameras, and hearing absolutely NOTHING made me shiver.

The whole experience was so overwhelming and that took me a while to process everything I saw. I couldn’t believe that we were able to go to the JSA and “tour” it. I’ve seen documentaries about people that have gone to the JSA from the North Korean side and the guards are much nicer and less strict. This made me feel even worse when I thought about how much propaganda each side is using in order to appear “better” in some way. People are obviously making money off of these tours and thinking about this sickened me and made me uncomfortable. I don’t think that the JSA should be a tourist destination. The entire time I was in the DMZ I felt like I shouldn’t have been there, that I was wandering into something that shouldn’t be disturbed.  Just thinking about how many people have died there and the struggle between the two nations… It just isn’t something to gawk about. The whole experience was honestly too much to process, and I’m still not sure how I feel about what I saw. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely glad that I was able to go there and see what I saw! I learned a lot and was astonished by everything. But at the same time, all that I feel when I think of the DMZ/JSA/struggle between North and South Korea is… empty.

Below are some of the pictures I took:

Freedom Bridge: Prisoners of War were once exchanged here on this old railroad bridge. Messages for separated loved ones and for Korean re-unification are posted here.

Freedom Bridge

You’re looking into North Korea. It begins past that dark line in the concrete.

The conference table in the UN building. The guard in the background is a South Korean JSA soldier.

The Bridge of No Return: North Korean prisoners of war who wished to be returned to North Korea would cross this bridge, the Bridge of No Return.


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