|Used With Permission from Wikimedia Commons - US Soldier 2002|
The cease-fire went into effect six decades ago, but no peace treaty was ever signed, meaning North and South Korea officially
remain at war.
To help maintain the uneasy armistice, diplomats established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 2.5-mile wide buffer, cutting 160 miles across the Korean Peninsula. It's the most heavily militarized border
|Used with Permission from Wikimedia Commons - DMZ 2005|
|Used with Permission from Wikimedia Commons - North Korean Soldier 2005|
in the world.
Fences topped with razor wire physically
the two countries
North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, responded to the exchange of gunfire by declaring he was mobilizing his troops for an all-out war.
Hoping to avert a crisis, Korean leaders held a series of marathon talks inside the DMZ at Panmunjom, also known as "truce village."
Welcome to the Joint Security Area (JSA), the front line of the Korean conflict.
It's the only section of the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face.
Tourists can't just wander into the JSA. It requires prior-authorization and being part of a group. I went with Koridoor.
There's plenty of rules to follow in such a potentially dangerous place – walk in single file lines; no gesturing or attempts to initiate conversations with North Korean soldiers; and no photos, until instructed.
At times, it felt a bit over done, but when one tourist snapped a photo without permission, a US serviceman, who was leading the tour, politely demanded he delete it.
After we received a briefing and signed release forms, soldiers escorted us into one of the negotiating rooms. Our previously talkative group suddenly grew quiet.
This South Korean soldier is straddling one of the world's most deadly borders. To the left of the flag and the microphones is the South and to the right the North. The microphones are on 24 hours a day to record anything that is said or done here.
"When I give you the word, you'll have three minutes for photos, and then we must leave," said one of the guides.
I headed straight around the table and into North Korean territory.
The conference room contains two entrances, one on each side of the border. When tourists visit from South Korea, the door on the North Korean side is locked, thus allowing me to safely visit North Korea.
Just in case someone decided to defect, a South Korean soldier, trained in martial arts, stood guard in front of the door to prevent anyone from leaving and presumably to stop any North Korean soldier from entering. By the way, the dark glasses and taekwondo stance are meant to intimidate the opposition.
The day I visited the JSA no North Koreans approached the border, but it happens routinely.
Here's a 2008 picture taken from North Korea during a South Korean tour group's visit to the conference rooms.
|Used with Permission from Wikimedia Commons - 2008|
The border is the concrete slab in the middle of the photo where the two North Koreans are standing at attention. During periods of unrest, a US soldier told me guards on both sides will sometimes square off at the slab, a mere inches from each other. The soldier told me he's heard of North Koreans feigning drawing their weapons to try to provoke the South.
When dignitaries visit, the tension and drama rise even higher.
This is a 2010 photo from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to the JSA. Notice the North Korean soldier peering through the window.
|Used with Permission from Wikimedia Commons - 2010.|
I'll admit I was a bit nervous at times but mainly thrilled to finally see a place I'd read so much about over the years. If you're thinking of going, I'd highly recommend Koridoor.
Will Korea ever be reunited?
Some of the older people I talked with maintain hope. The war split the families of more than seven million people into two countries – preventing travel, mail, or even phone calls from traversing the divide.
But many younger people say they don't have much interest in reunification, especially because of the potential astronomical cost of developing the infrastructure and economy of the North.
Meanwhile, North and South continue to aim their weapons at each other, and the world continues to hope that no one makes a miscalculation that could trigger a major global war.