I re-read the final sentence.
“The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom involves the entrance to a hostile area and the possibility of death as a direct result of enemy action … The Republic of South Korea cannot guarantee the safety of visitors.”
I looked at the nervous tourists sitting in the briefing room. We were in the “Demilitarized Zone” or “DMZ”. It’s the world’s most fortified stretch of land. To get here we’d passed military checkpoints, minefields and miles of barbed wire. An American soldier had even inspected my passport.
And to top it all off, North Korea was only a kilometre away. I was about to enter a real war zone.
The JSA and DMZ tour
But this story doesn’t start in the DMZ. It begins in bustling Seoul, a metropolis in the sights of North Korea’s artillery. The delicate relations between the two Koreas means that the Joint Security Area (JSA) is only visitable by an organised tour. I applied three days in advance for this DMZ tour, so that the military could check my background.
The reasons for this are clear. The JSA is a tiny block of land shared by North and South Korea. It sits inside the DMZ, the 4 km wide buffer between the countries’ borders. When the Korean War ended in 1953, no peace treaty was signed, so the two Koreas are still at war. Today, one million soldiers guard the DMZ. It’s a tense place, and the JSA is the epicentre.
Security is taken very seriously, right down to the clothes you wear. The dress code prohibits torn jeans, as North Korea has used this to make its citizens believe the West is poor. Jandals are banned because it’s dangerous to run from gunfire in them. There’s a risk you’ll trip.
The JSA’s sensitivity meant that our entry wasn’t guaranteed. The situation was volatile. The month before, JSA visits stopped when South Korean soldiers were severely wounded by a landmine. Tension was therefore high, both inside and outside the DMZ tour bus.
A stop at Odusan Observatory
We drove the Freedom Road to the DMZ. This 12-lane highway is designed to speed tanks to the border. It follows the Imjin River, which flows into the south from North Korea.
The Imjin is known as the “River of the Dead” due to the bodies that have floated down throughout history. Most recently was during the 1990s North Korean famine. Today, barbed-wire fences and guard towers line the riverbanks to stop spies entering the South. It’s a tragic place.
Along the highway we stopped at Odusan Observatory. This looks over the river at North Korea, which is 400 metres away at the closest point.
From Odusan I saw a village where black-clothed people worked the fields. The communal wheat building dominated. The difference between the North and South was obvious, even at a distance. The South Korean side was covered in forest, while the North had no trees – all had been chopped down for winter warmth. It said a lot about the North’s living standards.
Entering the DMZ
After Odusan, we took the empty highway to the DMZ’s edge. We passed through three military checkpoints to enter the DMZ. At the final checkpoint, two American soldiers entered the bus and checked our passports. They would accompany us into the JSA for our “protection”.
I was impressed by the DMZ’s beauty. The fields were golden yellow and the forests old and wild. No development meant that nature had flourished, unlike in the rest of South Korea. It’s ironic that the ground is sown with landmines.
My DMZ tour group got off the bus at Camp Boniface and entered the main hall. This was where I signed the form waiving liability if I died. Camp Boniface has the dubious honour of being “In front of them all.” It’s the first line of defence if an attack happens.
After this, we were whisked into a glittering building built by Hyundai. It’s designed to be a place where families from both Koreas can meet. However, it’s never been used for this purpose, as North Korea fears defection. The soldiers ordered us into a line, told us to be silent, and most importantly, not to run.
A moment later we walked into the JSA, allegedly “the most dangerous place on Earth.”
Inside the JSA
This was the moment I’d waited for. I was inside the JSA, and what an eyesore it was. No architectural marvel, the JSA’s a collection of bleak grey buildings, with three blue halls in the centre. These are the conference rooms, and they sit on the demarcation line between the North and South sides of the JSA.
A limited number of soldiers are allowed inside the JSA. The South Koreans wore black sunglasses and tried to look menacingly towards the North. Not allowed rifles, they are trained in taekwondo and carry pistols. They stood with half their bodies behind the conference rooms, to protect themselves should bullets start flying.
A lone North Korean soldier was visible on the other side. He wore a green uniform, and shuffled behind a pillar every minute. Nobody knew why he did this. Sinisterly, the other North Korean guards were hidden from view. But we were assured that they were watching us. They waited in ambush, ready to capture anyone dumb enough to cross the demarcation line.
And this was no joke. In 1984 a defector jumped the line and soldiers on both sides died in the battle that followed. Nerves were in the air then as we entered the conference room straddling the line.
Inside this room, it’s possible to stand in North Korean territory. There’s a table in the centre with microphones that follow the line dividing the JSA. From the windows you can see the concrete mark affecting the lives of millions. I crossed the room, and stood in North Korea. It felt surreal. At the room’s rear was a door to the North. We were told we could walk through it but never return.
Back to Seoul
Happily, my DMZ tour was drama-free. But we were reminded that the JSA wasn’t always like this. As we left, we passed the Bridge of No Return. This was where prisoners of war chose whether to leave or stay in their captor’s country. An excruciating decision. It was near here that two American soldiers were killed by ax-wielding North Koreans in 1976.
We drove past huge signs facing the North saying “Freedom” and “Democracy” on the road back to Seoul. South Korea spent $33 billion on military defence in 2015. If you are a South Korean male, you must give up two years of your life in compulsory military service. Meanwhile, North Korea has the world’s fourth largest standing army. It’s a crazy situation and a problem that shouldn’t exist. It wastes so much time, money, and lives.
As I contemplated this, the sunset made the mountains glow and poured gold on the barbed wire and machine guns that lined the highway. Nature was protesting against our evil ways. The message was clear. Despite humanity’s best efforts, the DMZ remained a painfully beautiful part of the world.