Walking down the aisle of the bus a Korean solider checked passports and zoom lenses; our conversations fell below a whisper.
We had been warned, explained in detail the nature of our destination: one of the most heavily armed and hostile borders in the world. The rules were pretty simple: don’t do anything.
Our tour guide was a delicate Korean woman. She spoke softly to our group of American and Japanese travelers, summarizing the late history of North and South Korea and the creation of the demilitarized zone. When she spoke of the north and the tyranny over its people, her face took on a quality of maternal concern, her eyes looked past us—discomfort—and something else I couldn’t quite make out through her politely forced smile. We were, after all, paying to participate in this rare excursion.
When the solider had effectively demonstrated his purpose, he walked to the front of the bus where he took a list from our guide. As we drove through the guard posts, she began to recite the rules again. Bracing herself on the seats, she slowly moved down the aisle.
“Please, spit out the gum, please. Keep your gloves on, please. Take off that hat, thank you. Stay seated, please. No photographs unless I clear you.”
The drive through the DMZ was peaceful. Unlike most of Seoul, the landscape was untouched, unsoiled. Large game birds ducked in and out of the openings between gray trees lightly draped in snow. The earth was a blanket of white, absent the shallow hallows of human imprint.
The wild stretched for miles to the east and west of our momentum as we approached the camp sign: Joint Security Area.
We pulled into a roundabout—a large building to the north, two smaller buildings east and west of the circular driveway. I had no idea where we were, no idea what to expect as our guide lined us up in rows of two inside the freezing atrium of the building facing north. We walked up the stairs quietly, no one spoke, and as we approached the top I suddenly became aware of my gaze focusing on the blue buildings in the foreground.
If you ever visit Korea and have the opportunity to take this tour I encourage you to do so. But make sure you are attending a tour that includes the Joint Security Area; otherwise you may be disappointed. Most DMZ tours will take you into the beautiful expanse of wilderness between the north and south, but it’s enormous and does not include the actual demarcation line where the two counties actually come together.
It felt like stepping into a photograph. I had seen it so many times in print: the blue conference rooms, armed sentries, and the demarcation line that separates blood lines by mere inches. And suddenly we were crossing it. Inside the conference room, a heavy table and chairs, to one side was North Korea, and we had crossed over.