Photos by Kyle Haney

Photos by Kyle Haney ()

“Entering this room will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

This statement was just one of the many things I’ll never forget about my recent trip to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Read on as I recount my most surreal experience in South Korea to date.

So, you’re stationed/living in South Korea, and you’ve heard day in and day out that North Korea is off limits. Well, while feasibly correct (if you know what’s good for you), it’s not entirely true. I was extremely fortunate to have stepped foot in North Korea during my tour here and it was, by far, the most unique thing I’ve done in Korea to date.

The goal of this post won’t be to simply write about how I got to the DMZ and what I saw while I was there like some of my other posts. Rather, this post is about the finer details you can only experience if you visit this area yourself.

In other words, these things can’t be found in Google or anywhere else online because they’re the feelings you’ll get only if you come here in person. And they’re not warm and fuzzy to say the least.

Maybe you’re not really into reading about how or what a place can make you feel and that’s ok…

But you can Google “DMZ” and read all about it; you can easily find facts about this place. However, I think this post will capture what you’re really looking to read about with regards to the DMZ: the tension in the air, the paranoia as you scan the rooftops, the eagerness to get off the bus and to get back on the bus. Read on and see if I’m right!

1. The only cars coming out are the same that went in

Remember the first time you went on a road trip with your family? My first road trip was from Colorado to Nebraska. And every time the van got closer and closer to the state line, my family and I would start chanting “Colorado, Colorado, Colorado” until finally: “Nebraska!” But, as I got older, there were times I didn’t want to play that game. In fact, I just wanted to be in any one of the cars going in the opposite direction on the other side of the highway.

That little game I played growing up is something the South Koreans and North Koreans will likely never play in their lifetime while living on this peninsula.

Watching the number of cars on the highway dwindle down to one or two as our tour bus inched closer and closer to the DMZ was eerie to say the least. The massive traffic jam that was Seoul just an hour before we arrived at Camp Bonifas bordering to the DMZ quickly turned into only a handful of cars.

Nobody has ever chanted “North Korea, North Korea, North Korea” and then drove across the border and yelled “South Korea!” Rather, for the few that do defect, it’s more a stress-filled prayer of “Oh God, please don’t let me get killed doing this…”

The brash realization I had was that the cars headed in the opposite direction of our tour bus will always be the same ones that drove up there at some point in the past unless reunification happens.

2. People still live within the DMZ

If you’ve heard anything about the DMZ, I imagine you think of something like the image above, right? Barbed wire, guards standing at the ready, landmines, etc. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I learned of Taesung Freedom Village on our way from Camp Bonifas to the Joint Security Area (JSA).

To be a member of this village, you must have either been born into the community or married into it. No outsiders are allowed in. As such, the ~30 kids in the school have about 20 teachers at the ready to help them exceed, along with some of the latest technology such as 5G and free English classes taught by one of the UNC officers.

But how is it one of the best schools in all of South Korea can reside in the middle such a hostile area? If you kick your soccer ball over the fence, does it set off a landmine? What’s it like hearing the loudspeakers from North Korea play propaganda music throughout the valley?

Maybe it is one of the best schools, but do the pros outweigh the cons?

On the other side of the border is the North Korean village of Kijong, known by the US and the South Koreans as “Propaganda Village.” Built in 1953, this ghost town was constructed to lure South Korean forces over to the North.

However, the buildings at Kijong are all concrete shells with painted on windows that were never inhabited. Maintenance workers sweep the streets for a town whose population is zero and for buildings that don’t even have backs on them.

Ultimately, the only thing this town can successfully boast is a record for the fourth tallest flagpole on Earth at 525 feet. Woohoo.

3. You can visit an infamous axe murder location

If you know anything about the military, every base is named after someone significant.

Camp Bonifas was named after Captain Arthur Bonifas, a Joint Security Force company commander slain while his team was on a mission to trim a tree at the Joint Security Area in 1976. You can read about the harrowing experience here or watch an interview of members who were actually there that day here.

While the memorial stands in the place of where the poplar tree once stood, what’s worth noting is that the concrete circle at the base of the memorial is the same diameter as the tree.

Even more eerie is that you’re not allowed off the bus and you’re not allowed to loiter for longer than maybe a minute. While the tour guide didn’t explain why, my assessment was because of how Capt Bonifas was slain all those years ago: with little to no warning from the North Korean outpost just a few hundred yards away across the Bridge of No Return.

4. You can see bullet holes in the buildings from as recent as 2017

If you’re living in South Korea, you’ve likely heard the word “defector” at some point during your stay. Often, this term is used in reference to someone crossing from the North into South Korea or vice versa.

North Korean defectors are brave souls that are sick and tired of being sick and tired in what are likely the worst living conditions for any human being. So much so that they have to risk their life (and the lives of their family members) if they want to run across the DMZ.

In 2017, a North Korean defector did just that, and had it not been for the bravery of South Korean soldiers pulling him to safety, he almost certainly would have been killed trying to cross the DMZ.

The North Korean soldiers fired their rifles at this individual as he made a daring sprint across the DMZ after getting his Jeep stuck in a ditch. As the North Korean soldiers fired at him across the DMZ, some of their rounds missed and struck one of the structures; those bullet holes are still there for viewers to see.

Ever more eerie, the shadow cast by the retaining wall just behind the tree to the right is where that defector laid, bleeding out, before two South Korean soldiers low-crawled up to him and pulled him to safety.

Remember my earlier assumption that “Nobody has ever chanted ‘North Korea, North Korea, North Korea’ and then drove across the border and yelled ‘South Korea!‘?” This guy’s version of that was probably something like “better to die doing this than to keep living here”…

5. You actually can go into North Korea, at your own risk

After our tour passed the grounds where the Freedom House stands, it was finally time to go into the negotiating rooms that straddle the line between North and South Korea. However, doing so is at your own risk.

Clear as day, a sign reading, “Entering this room will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action” is hung right on the wall of the blue houses for all visitors to read and head.

Once inside, a South Korean soldier with sunglasses on and no facial expressions stands firmly, ready to tackle anyone who decides to try and cross into North Korea.

While this might sound like something the North Korean soldiers would do to keep defectors from leaving North Korea, that guard is there for your protection. He knows better than anyone what kind of world you’d be facing if you decided to try and escape, and his sole duty is to keep you from escaping to hell.

6. The “Plant Peace and Prosperity” tree could be a premonition…

As our tour pressed on around the Joint Security Area (JSA), the next stop was at a remarkably lonely pine tree within a well-maintained patch of grass.

The tree was planted in 2018 between the leaders of North and South Korea, together. The symbolic tree planting was dubbed “Plant Peace and Prosperity” and there were many symbolic references during the ceremony.

For example, the pine tree (a national tree in both countries) germinated in 1953, the same year both sides agreed to a ceasefire. Additionally, soil from Mt Hallasan and Paektu (the two highest and most-revered peaks in both countries) was used to help plant the tree.

However, shortly after the tree was planted, it did not fare well. According to our tour guide, the tree started dying almost immediately after it was planted and it took months of special treatment just to keep alive.

Bad omen or just poor gardening? You decide.

FAQs about the DMZ

What is the Korean DMZ? In plain terms, the Korean DMZ is an area of the Korean peninsula that demarcates North from South Korea. It’s established near the 38th parallel of the world where the cease-fire line existed at the end of the Korean War (1950-1953). The DMZ is not meant to be a permanent border between the two countries, rather an armistice line since a formal treaty to end the war has yet to be officially signed.

Can you visit the DMZ in South Korea? Prior to the COVID pandemic, visiting the DMZ was rather straight forward. A few different companies (e.g., GetYourGuide, Viator) offered group tours to the JSA, the Dora Observatory, and even the infiltration tunnels dug by the North Koreans into South Korea. However, due to the pandemic, the JSA is currently closed to group tours. If you are active duty military however, tours are still available but rare. You’ll have to work through this website to arrange a tour and likely have Commander endorsement (but not positive): https://www.panmuntour.go.kr/web/comn/main/main.do

How do you visit the Korean DMZ? Due to the pandemic, the JSA is currently closed to group tours such as GetYourGuide and Viator. However, if you are active duty military, tours are still available but rare. You’ll have to work through this website to arrange a tour and likely have Commander endorsement (but not positive): https://www.panmuntour.go.kr/web/comn/main/main.do

Why is the Korean DMZ forbidden? From a South Korea perspective, the actual area within the DMZ is forbidden for your protection. To this day, the area is still lined with thousands of mines and unexploded ordinance (UXOs) resulting from the Korean War. From a North Korea perspective, South Korea is off-limits and you are not allowed to go to South Korea; that’s why the DMZ is there. As a matter of fact, you will be shot (no questions asked) if you are a North Korean trying to defect to South Korea. For more info on why there even are two “Koreas”, read this History article.

How dangerous is the DMZ in Korea? If you’re walking around the DMZ (which you’re not allowed to do btw but let’s go with it), it’s exceptionally dangerous. The area within the 4km wide DMZ is still lined with thousands of mines and unexploded ordinance (UXOs) resulting from the Korean War. Additionally, if you scroll to the top of this post, you’ll see the quote that was given to my tour before we entered the negotiating rooms that straddle North and South Korea.

How wide is the DMZ between North and South Korea? The DMZ between North and South Korea is 2½ miles wide (1.25 miles into each country) and stretches from the east coast to west coast of the Korean peninsula for 150 miles.

What incidents have occurred at the DMZ? There have been numerous incidents at the DMZ ranging from warning shots to deter action on both sides to the infamous Axe murder incident on August 18, 1976. To read about the most significant of the incidents, click here.

What kind of wildlife and biodiversity are at the DMZ? Since the territory within the DMZ hasn’t been disturbed since the 1950s, the DMZ is considered one of the most exquisite locations in all of Asia for biodiversity and wildlife. Home to over 6,000 species of flora and fauna, this “accidental paradise” consists of white-naped cranes, black-faced spoonbills, mandarin ducks, musk deer, and even the endangered Asiatic black bear.

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