Under the unflinching eyes of five armed soldiers I was led toward the world’s most hostile room. The room straddled the unmistakable physical boundary, the Military Demarkation Line, the border that separates North and South Korea. The tension between the enemy soldiers was palpable. Each avoided eye contact and stood at full attention, fingers on triggers. My better sense told me to turn back. Instead, I took a deep slow breath and irreversibly stepped over the line.
Earlier this week I boarded a flight to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. I had no agenda, contacts or prior knowledge of the country. It was to be an Airdrop Day, a day where I drop myself into a foreign country with virtually no prior planning and see what I can learn from the experience. My first impression of South Korea was that it was cold. I mentally rummaged through my small carry-on suitcase, all solid colored t-shirts.
I booked a random apartment via Airbnb and sloppily navigated the foreign train system. Without speaking to another person, I found the apartment, entered the key code and laid down on my temporary bed. Secure and with Internet access, I was ready.
My first night in Seoul was fantastic. The bustling city was lively, young and full of high-tech gadgetry. As I walked down empty hallways, the lights just in front of me turned on while the lights behind me automatically turned off. My apartment key code was synced with my phone number and the floors, apartment-wide, were heated. The Internet was fast and there was two bars on every corner of the neighborhood I was temporarily living in. I quickly learned that many restaurants will only serve pairs of people (not solo eaters) but managed to find a local chicken and beer place that was willing to make an exception. I spent my first couple days eating and exploring the LED filled city.
On day three, I noticed that I had an appointment on my calendar. Visiting Seoul was a Life List item so a mischievous version of a younger self (from months ago) had locked down a special event. (For Life List items I book the airfare and occasionally the lodging well before the trip. In this case I had booked the airfare and a mystery event long before I had come to Asia.) The only note I had left myself was to show up at a specific subway exit at a specific time with both my passport and camera. I had no idea what to expect but trusted the earlier version of me to secure something amazing.
I woke up early the next morning and navigated the subway to a part of the city that I had not yet visited. 15 minutes later a bus pulled up with an LED sign, “DMZ”. It appeared that sometime in the past I had booked myself a DMZ tour and then promptly forgotten about it. Sweet!
I hadn’t done any research on the DMZ but knew that it stood for Demilitarized Zone and marked the border between South and North Korea.
The first part of the tour was like nothing I had ever experienced. The DMZ is far from demilitarized. Instead, it is the most heavily militarized region on the planet. At the same time, it is unmistakably touristy. There was literally theme park rides in-between functional tank traps and land mines. Tour buses full of fanny-pack touting tourists have to drive in zig-zag patterns in order to obey wartime traffic barriers and military checkpoints. Tours are scheduled down to the minute and strict dress, timing and identification rules are enforced by armed military personnel. It was as if someone had built Disneyland within a prison.
While Korea has an signed ceasefire (The Korean Armistice Agreement of July 27, 1953), tensions are high and both sides are prepared for all-out war at any moment. This important detail is apparently not deterring tourism.
It was the strangest amalgamation of capitalism and war that I have every seen.
The highlight of the first part of the tour was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel (or the Third Tunnel of Aggression as it known my locals.) According to signage at the tunnel, in October 1978, South Korean troops, tipped off by a defector from North Korea, discovered an invasion tunnel 240 ft (73m) below the surface of the ground. The tunnel was dug in order to surprise attack South Koreans on their side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). After breaching and sealing off the tunnel, South Koreans opened it to the public 10 days later. Four such tunnels under the DMZ have been found by South Koreans but it is estimated that there are more than 20 such tunnels of differing sizes.
I was shocked and delighted by the tunnel. It was incredibly deep below the surface (almost 23 stories! That is freaking crazy!), small (about 5 ft/1.5m) in diameter and carved through solid granite. It started in Communist North Korea, continued at a slight angle for 1.1 miles (1.7 km) and went right under the DMZ. It was so deep that the dynamite explosions used to carve it could not be heard by the South Koreans at the surface. The tunnel itself was wet, jagged and incredibly exciting to explore.
If that would have been all I had seen, I would have gone home happy.
As we re-boarded the bus, the tour guide separated about ten of us into a special section of the bus. The rest of the tourists were going to return to Seoul. Those that remained (myself included) were to continue the tour into an even higher security zone.
The DMZ itself is not a line, it is a buffer. It contains the roughly 2km on either side of the actual border, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). The MDL roughly follows the 38th parallel (it is strategically eschew based on the geography) and divides Korea into rough halves.
To the south, there is another line, the Civilian Control Line (CCL) that further delimitates normal life in South Korea from the warzone. (Sadly, Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, is only 27 mi/45 km from the DMZ which puts it at a strategic disadvantage.) The CCL acts a further buffer between the DMZ (a buffer itself) and the 10 million people living in Seoul. This buffer of the buffer is strictly controlled and is where we spent the majority of the first tour (besides the tunnel).
For the next, more specialized tour, we would be penetrating the CCL, DMZ and going right up to the Military Demarcation Line (the true border) itself. This was something I had not expected and didn’t really understand. (Why were normal civilians able to go right into the heart of the warzone?!)
After having our passports checked multiple times and going through a strict briefing, we were led to the Joint Security Area (a United Nations Command controlled secure area) where we were given yet another briefing and our group was assigned an armed military escort. This point of the experience was very nerve-racking as it was made abundantly clear that this was the turning point of the visit. More often than not, visitors were sent back at this point due to any number of military reasons. Despite having the group before us sent home (due to enemy activity), our group was given clearance to proceed.
Our small group received another briefing, was asked to sign paperwork stating we would not hold the UN, South Korean or American government responsible for injury and then were asked to board a military operated bus.
The rest of the experience was completely surreal. I had an overwhelming feeling that I should not be where I was. It was like every zombie movie I had ever seen. Looking out the window of the military bus, all I could see was barbed wire and warning signs for active land mines. (There was more than 1 million land mines in the area.) There was military personnel, heavy ammunition and artillery in all directions. I felt as if I was the fictitious president you see in movies as he is being taken to the site of an alien body.
After passing several more military checkpoints, our bus left the JSA post and went in the direction of Panmunjom, the highly militarized complex that houses negotiations between North and South Korea. It is the only man-made structure on the DML (actual border) and the only area occupied by soldiers of both North and South Korea. It is also a common location for skirmishes and deaths.
We exited the military bus and were forced into lines of 2×2. After undergoing one more security check, we marched straight to the center of the complex. In the middle was the unmistakable concrete slab that marked the de facto border between North and South Korea.
On one side (my side) stood armed American and South Korean soldiers facing the north. On the other side, stood armed North Korean soldiers facing slightly eschew of south. The enemy soldiers purposefully never directly faced each other as they didn’t want to provoke any unintentional actions.
They were brutal enemies and they were standing less than 5 feet (1.5m) from each other. Both groups stood at absolute attention with blank but somehow fierce expressions on their faces. As instructed, we avoided eye contact and kept our movements predictable and measured.
Our armed escorts led us between the South Korean soldiers and into the very tense Military Armistice Building, the only room that straddles the North and South Korean border. Inside the small room was two additional armed soldiers and the conference table where negations are held. The table is placed strategically on the DML (actual border) itself and the walls are almost entirely windows. It was impossible not to feel uneasy having soldiers from both countries peering in.
As soon as I entered the negotiation room, my first thought was to cross the threshold of the border. I took a deep breath and slowly made my way toward the North end of the room. I made eye confirmation with my armed escort, and took my irreversible step. Looking out the window I could see that I was now on the other side of the concrete Military Demarcation Line. I was in North Korea.
I walked further into the North, took additional photos and soaked in as much as I could. Through the numerous windows I could see the American soldiers looking at me from behind the concrete slab that marked the country border.
I peered out the windows to the Northern soldiers who were peering in at me.
It was both exhilarating and frightening.
I took more photos and and tried my best not to show my excitement.
As quickly as we had entered the negation room, our armed escort told us it was time to leave… NOW. Getting back into formation, we followed his orders.
Back on the south side of the border, we lined up and watched the North Koreans. In a rare moment of mutual curiosity, visiting officials on the North Korean side peered over from an adjacent balcony and eyed us through their binoculars.
It was tourists watching tourists. Completely alien yet at the same time, oddly similar.
When I look back on this experience, I am humbled, exhilarated and befuddled. I am confused but unalterably patriotic. I have absolutely no idea how or why I was given access to this incredibly sensitive military location. I have absolutely no idea who the people were that were peering at me from that balcony. Most of all though, I have no idea why I am lucky enough to be able to fill my life with experiences like these.