Visiting the World’s Most Militarized Border

I lived in Seoul, South Korea, from 2009-2010. It’s not a terribly long time to stay in one place, but my experiences there changed my life for the better. For the rest of my days, South Korea, and Seoul in particular, will be a special place for me. I had been hopeful that I might get to share a little bit of that with others, and that process began in Summer 2012. I received a Site Visit Grant from West Texas A&M University to begin preparing to lead a Study Abroad course to Seoul and Tokyo in Summer 2013. So, in late May of last year, I headed back to the Land of the Morning Calm.

IMG_0523As you can see here, there was a significant difference this time around. I broke my left leg playing racquetball just six weeks before departure. I had been off of my crutches only a few days before making the trip. So, I was hobbling around a bit more than usual. The other major difference was that I recruited my sister to take the trip with me. It was her first trip to Asia, and among the many things to see and do in Seoul, there was one thing I definitely wanted my sister to experience: a trip to the Demilitarized Zone. I won’t use this space to provide a history lesson of the Korean War and the creation of the DMZ, but I’ll certainly recommend Khan Academy’s lesson about it.

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I’ll skip ahead to the good stuff. You can see a North Korean soldier standing in front of the left doorway in the above photo. He’s looking at us through binoculars. This area is known as the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is inside the DMZ, and it is controlled by North Korean soldiers on one side and South Korean and American soldiers on the other.

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Now that the picture has been zoomed out, you can see South Korean soldiers in the foreground standing guard and patrolling. They are standing in South Korea; the gray building in the background is in North Korea. If you look between the two blue buildings you will see a line of raised concrete. That is the international border between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea). The blue buildings straddle the border and, once inside, you are actually able to cross into North Korea. Just don’t open the back door or you’ll create an international incident.

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Here I am with one of the ROK soldiers who stand in the building to protect tourists while we’re in there. We are standing across the border, so I’m officially inside North Korea. The door behind me leads outside to the DPRK’s side. North Korean soldiers are also allowed in that building, by the way, and it’s possible they could enter it during a tour. If that had happened, we were warned to ignore them.

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The tour took us to see other interesting sights, as well. In the distance is Kijong-dong, a village just across the North Korean border. It’s known in South Korea as “Propaganda Village” because it’s essentially empty and the buildings are mostly facades. It’s there strictly for show. The flagpole in the distance is one of the world’s largest and holds a North Korean flag that is so huge it ways several hundred pounds.

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The DMZ has a tragic history on multiple levels. The United Nations Command military post here is named Camp Bonifas in memory of U.S. Army Captain Arthur Bonifas. He was killed in 1976 during what is now known as “The Axe Murder Incident.” While he and others were trying to cut down a tree that blocked visibility for American and South Korean soldiers, North Korean soldiers attacked. The unassuming memorial in the picture above is where the tree was located.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut even inside the DMZ, there’s room for some positive international relations. The two soldiers above invited my sister and me to take a photo with them while they asked how we were enjoying Korea. The DMZ is like no other place on earth, and you have to go there to begin to understand it. That’s why I’m taking my Study Abroad students there this summer.

Note: If you’re planning to visit South Korea and would like to tour the DMZ, I recommend KORIDOOR‘s “DMZ/JSA & Third Tunnel” tour. It’s coordinated with the USO and departs from Camp Kim in Seoul.

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