A Trip to the Border: The DMZ

One of the first trips we took outside Seoul after settling in last summer was a visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the border between North and South Korea. It was an experience that helped clarify the reality of the country we are gradually starting to call home and gave us a new perspective, although not in ways you might expect.

First a little background. When the Korean War ended in 1953, the dividing line between North and South Korea was re-established roughly along the 38th parallel. The war never officially ended but rather resulted in a cease-fire with a Military Demarcation Line (MDL) running the 155 mile width of the Korean Peninsula, effectively separating it into the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north. The DMZ is a buffer zone along the border and is about 2.5 miles wide. Of course, it’s not demilitarized at all but instead is the most heavily armed border in the world.

Inside the DMZ, at Panmunjeom, is one of the most unusual places we’ve ever visited, the Joint Security Area (JSA). This is the only place along the MDL where North and South connect and where ROK and DPRK soldiers literally stare at each other across the line. The JSA consists of several buildings on either side of the line and a few of them which actually straddle the border. The building Tanya and I went in is the conference building where representatives of the United Nations Command and the North Koreans periodically meet. Half of the building is on the north side, half on the south with the actual MDL going through the middle of the conference table. So, Tanya and I were technically about 10 feet into North Korea while we were inside the building.
Looking into North Korea across the Line


Our US Military Escort
Inside the conference building on the North Korean side. Out that door: North Korea


So, what were our impressions? Well, definitely this is a serious place. Just getting into the DMZ with its guard posts, fences, fortifications and security tell you this is not Disneyland. And yes, the potential for a military altercation does exist. But there’s a certain level of theatre and posturing that goes on here. The South Korean soldiers with their sunglasses and taikwondo stances, the North Korean soldier peering at us through binoculars from the steps of their building, the cameras, all are designed to convey non-verbal messages of defiance. The very fact that regular visits to the DMZ are scheduled is meant to send a message to those on the north side of the line. There are no such tours for North Korean residents to gaze southward. But, did we get the impression that a renewal of hostilities between the two sides is imminent or at least, inevitable. No.

Finally, the natural question is if and when will the two Koreas reunite? When will the North finally give up its self-imposed isolation and poverty to join its prosperous brothers in the South? That’s a much tougher question to answer because, in a sense, both sides need each other to maintain the status quo. The North Korean leadership and its huge military need to maintain the fiction that the South and the US are ready to invade them at any time in order to keep themselves in power. The South may want reunification from an emotional and historical standpoint, but not on a practical economic level. South Koreans have worked very hard to achieve their material wealth and their place in the world and are not excited about taking on a massive charity case should the North’s system collapse. So, every year the South sends humanitarian aid and assistance northward and officials exchange visits. But, for the foreseeable future, the two sides need everything to stay pretty much the way it is.

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1 Response to A Trip to the Border: The DMZ

  1. Anonymous says:

    Jay & Tanya:Thanks for sending us the link to your website! What adventures you have had and will have–you are brave souls to leap into another culture. I envy you and marvel at the sheer nerve that it would take to do this. I hope to hear soon that Tanya found a pesto source and that you are once more having your favorite fettucini!Katy Qualman


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