The Joint Security Area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea is permeated with an eerie calm – almost as if the war had never happened. Yet, that calm seems to be hanging by a thread, causing visitors to unconsciously hold in their breath against the fragile tension.I’m lucky that I wasn’t born in a country at war.
Of course, even more, I hope that I will never have the misfortune of seeing war in my lifetime.
So when I arrived at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), I was a bit on edge.
After all, I was standing on the world’s most dangerous border.
Although North and South Korea signed an armistice back in 1953, technically speaking, they are still at war.
The Joint Security Area (JSA) within the DMZ is where the military on both sides are closest to each other.
Within the JSA are several blue buildings located on the borderline of the two nations.
Soldiers of the two nations stand on their respective sides, watching each other all year long.
Between my departure from Seoul in South Korea and my arrival at the JSA, my passport was checked three times.
I was also informed of several rules.
We were not to speak loudly, nor make any hand signals towards North Korea;
We were not allowed to photograph any South Korean buildings or take any photos at all without permission.
I even signed a liability waiver prior to departure.
It seemed that a little carelessness on my part could result in a nuclear war between two nations.
Upon our arrival at the DMZ, a Korean solider took over as our tour guide. He was just a young man completing his mandatory military service.
After his service, he planned to head out to Columbia University in the United States for further schooling.
The young man’s English was very fluent, but he wore sunglasses throughout the entire trip and maintained a stoic expression.
Before going into the blue building,
we were given permission to take some photographs from a specific spot,
although we were not allowed to photograph any of the buildings behind us on the South Korean side.
Our cameras could only face North Korea.
I turned back and looked around. Above our heads were various surveillance cameras I had no names for.
Presumably the ban on photography was done to prevent any intelligence leaks regarding the surveillance equipment or its locations.
None of the solders ever spoke.
If anyone accidentally stepped across the border, they simply blocked that person with their bodies,
and gestured and pointed with their hands to indicate that the visitor had crossed the line.
The only one that spoke was the young man serving as our tour guide,
who admonished tourists who crossed the line in a harsh tone of voice.
There were three soldiers standing between two small buildings facing the North Korean side.
One stood in the center. The other two stood right at the edge of each of the two buildings with only half of their bodies visible to the North Koreans.
After being guided into one of the blue buildings,
we were told we would only have ten minutes to take pictures and look around.
Within the building was a long table.
On top of the table was a microphone attached to a long microphone cable,
which actually serves as the borderline.
If I crossed to the other side of this table, I would be in North Korea.
A small locked door guarded by a soldier faces the northern side.
Opening this door,
would be like opening Pandora’s box –
you would probably be shot down mercilessly.
When several wayward tourists wandered across the line, the soldiers immediately blocked them with their bodies.
Every solider in the building stood in a taekwondo pose.
It is rumored that every soldier there is a black belt in taekwondo.
As long as we didn’t touch them, though, we were still allowed to take photos with them.
Our actual tour was less than ten minutes long.
The entire JSA was permeated with an eerie silence,
almost as if the war had never happened.
A nervous tension, however, hung in the air.
War is indeed present,
just in a different form.
We didn’t see one single North Korean soldier,
because there were no tourists from North Korea that day.
On the way back from the DMZ, our tour guide visibly relaxed.
He spoke more often and even made a few jokes about North Korea.
“North Korean soldiers are different from their South Korean counterparts. They always stand facing each other as a precaution against betrayal.”
“At the JSA, North Korea always insists on making their buildings taller than the ones across the border (in South Korea).”
“North and South Korea each have a village within the DMZ. The North Korean village, however, is just a political prop. No one actually lives there.”
The history of the war between North and South Korea can easily be found on the internet.
It is sad to see how the decision by the leaders of that time to go to war,
has affected the lives of the people on both sides of the border for so many decades since.
Although technically still at war,
South Korea’s flourishing economic growth has erased the signs of war.
The only vague hint of the presence of war comes from
the gas masks and rescue equipment visible everywhere in the metro stations.
I hope I can visit the DMZ – JSA
from the North Korean side.
To visit the DMZ – JSA, you must make reservations in advance.
There are many companies that provide this kind of service.
If one company does not offer a tour on the date you wish to attend,
you can try looking into another company.
Tours start at US$100 and go up from there, depending on the extent of the tour itinerary.
Tours usually include lunch since they take up a large part of the day.
Some trips also work in a visit to the tunnels or the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged in the past.
If you’re unlucky, you might find your trip canceled at the last minute if the current situation intensifies.
Below are some travel agencies that offer trips to the DMZ – JSA.
Victor Tai | Freedom is a Right
- LocationSouth Korea DMZ - JSA
- CameraCanon EOS 3 /
EF 24-70mm f2.8L II USM /
- Other Language繁體中文