I posted recently about one of the most peaceful and serenely beautiful places I’ve ever been. To continue the superlatives trend, here is the most interesting and seriously thought provoking place I have ever visited: the Joint Security Area (JSA) at the very heart of the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. My grandmother told me recently to be sure to write down all my travel stories so I can always look back on them years later, and this is one I’ve never written down yet.
When we Americans think of North Korea, we think of a brainwashed people, a stream of brash nuclear threats, a dictator whose hawkish craziness is the stuff that memes are made of, a college student sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign from a hotel… It almost feels unreal, right? When we think of the Korean War, we think of monuments and old war movies and history books. But to South Koreans, the war never really ended. The threat is constant and extremely close to home, not something that can be laughed off in memes and left up to the politicians to figure out. And going to the JSA forces us foreigners to confront the realness of all of this.
Driving through the demilitarized zone feels like a scene from a postapocalyptic novel. Barbed wire, a tank here and there, and an eerie stillness accompanied by the feeling that everything is a little on edge. You can only go to the JSA with certain group tours, and you’ll have a military escort. You’ll need your passport and you will have to sign a waiver saying that you recognize that you are entering a hostile area and if anything happens to you no one will be held responsible but yourself. (But most likely nothing will happen to you. Just don’t steal any signs, ok?)
Below, the “Bridge of No Return” traverses the border between North and South Korea. Prisoner exchanges happened here at the end of the Korean War.
At the JSA, two large, stately white buildings face each other, not far apart at all, guarded 24/7, always on alert. From the front steps of these buildings, North and South Korean soldiers watch each other through binoculars. Exactly between them, several small blue shelters serve as meeting spaces for the two sides of the border. As you walk into one of these shelters (and you usually can) and toward its back wall, you cross from South Korean territory into North Korea. Of course, a soldier will have his eye on you the whole time.
Zooming in on a North Korean guard watching our group through binoculars: