Hey, I'm Lauren and recently I was in South Korea. While there, I decided to go on a tour to the DMZ and the JSA, AKA the border of South Korea and North Korea. North Korea is a pretty hot topic right now, and even though my mom would have preferred I didn't, I figured this might be my only opportunity to actually step a foot *inside* North Korea. So, here is what it's like to do just that.
First though, here's some background info: Since 1953, North Korea has basically been completely secluded from the rest of the world.
There's still technically a war going on between North and South Korea, and the countries are divided by a border called the Demilitarized Zone, aka the DMZ. If you've ever watched a documentary about North Korea (or a thousand like I have) you might recognize this area with the blue buildings. It's called the Joint Security Area (The JSA) and people say it's the world's most hostile border.
It's quite literally where North Korea and South Korea meet, and if you visit there, you can actually step ~inside~ North Korea. Butttt, South Koreans aren't allowed to visit the JSA unless they've made special arrangements months in advance, and numerous other countries have to go through a thorough application process to visit.
However, as a citizen of the United States, all you have to do is submit your passport a couple of days in advance and book a tour. So I did one leaving from Seoul, about an hour south of the DMZ. We were told to dress respectably — no sweatpants, ripped jeans or flip flops — sooo I tried my best to not look like my usual disheveled self and then it was time. The day had arrived.
Once on the bus, we met our tour guide. On the way to the DMZ she told us about the history Of North and South Korea and how her father was from North Korea and escaped to South Korea during the war, never seeing most of his family members again.
The story was heartbreaking, but she was amazing and also really funny. I loved her.
The first stop of the tour was a place called Imjingak Park, which is a village and tourist site that serves as a memorial and promotes peace (it also has souvenir shops that sell DMZ swag. I regretfully did not buy any).
But more importantly, it's where Freedom Bridge is, which used to serve as a passage over the Imjin River. It's where over 12,000 South Koreans and UN soldiers were freed after being captured as POWs during the war.
Now it's unused and at the end of it where it's closed off, literally tons of Korean flags and little notes are left to pay tribute to those who died in the war, and to send messages of peace.
After Imjingak Park, we went to lunch at a restaurant in Paju, the city closest to the JSA. While there, we were served a very nice Korean meal, including DMZ rice.
By the way, DMZ rice is farmed by South Koreans who live in a settlement called Freedom Village. It literally lies within the DMZ area and is under UN administration. There are less than 250 residents who live there, and they have a curfew because of its risky location.
After lunch the journey to North Korea started to get reallll. They gave everyone a badge, and we were told they were "no bully badges" or "no shoot badges." Basically this badge was to signal that we came in peace and... UMMM, TO PLEASE NOT SHOOT US??!?!??!
Even though it may seem dramatic to have us wear these badges, safety is obviously a number one priority and no joke. Since 1996, 16 Americans have been detained in North Korea. Whether for illegally crossing the border, or for "hostile acts" committed while actually visiting the country. One of the most recent and notable detainments was when American Otto Warmbier was arrested while visiting North Korea. He was detained for over a year and then released to the U.S. while in a comatose state. He died only a week after being returned home.
Back on the bus, as we headed north, we went through two passport checkpoints where DMZ soldiers came on, checked our passports, and also did a shoe check. Literally they checked everyone's shoes to make sure they were up to par. Everyone seemed to have followed directions and did not wear flip flops. Also, if you plan on going and want to know what shoes are acceptable, I was wearing these and I passed.
Also, at this point we were instructed that we absolutely could not take any photos or videos unless we were explicitly told it was okay. If we were caught then the entire tour would end immediately, and we'd be sent home. So yeah, I didn't take any photos for a bit. Instead here's a pic of some puppies that I saw along the way.
OK, MOVING ON!
Next we arrived at Camp Bonifas, where we all filed into an auditorium and were handed these pieces of paper that we had to sign.
Let me zoom in for you. The first line literally says, "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjeom will entail the entrance into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."
And then there's also a part that says, "Visitors will not point, make gestures, or expressions like scoffing, abnormal action which could be used by the North Korean side as propoganda material against the United Nations Command."
It was at this point I got actually kind of nervous and wondered if I should have listened to my mom. But, it was too late for that. I signed and we got back on the bus and actually made our way to North Korea. AND THEN WE ARRIVED.
Our entire tour was now standing in a single file line facing North Korea. We were then finally given permission to take photos — for exactly three minutes.
Sidenote: the blue houses are occupied by South Korea/The UN and the tan buildings are occupied by North Korea. The borderline runs directly through the middle of all the houses.
Back to the three minutes of pictures that we were allowed to take: when they first said we could take photos no one really moved. I basically became a robot and didn't even want to risk blinking wrong. But then when the soldier accompanying us said, "ONE MORE MINUTE OF PHOTOS" everyone started taking a lot of pics and selfies. This is me. I'm not scoffing or smiling or doing anything.
This is other people smiling, but me still being being too scared to move a muscle in my face so instead I look somewhat constipated.
And this is one of the South Korean soldiers facing North Korea, basically standing with his head almost up against the wall of the house. I never found out why this was happening, but a post is a post!
After the three minutes of photos were over, we had to put our phones away again while we walked across the road to this building (where the red arrow is pointing). It's called the Military Armistice Conference Room, and it's the only building that visitors are allowed in, and where once inside, you can actually walk across the room into North Korea.
When we got into the room our soldier made a joke about how the people standing on the south side of the table were safe, and those on the north side of the table were in North Korea and that sucks for them! Ha Ha... good one? Anyway, then we were allowed to take photos inside this room for a few minutes.
Sidenote again: the microphones on the table are monitored and recorded 24/7, and mark the literal border between North Korea and South Korea. We were allowed to freely walk around the room, except for crossing in front of the guard in this photo...
...and going behind the guard in this photo. Btw, that door behind him leads to North Korea. Also I was still in semi-robot mode.
But now I was a robot casually standing a foot away from North Korea. The sandy part is North Korea, and the pebbles are South Korea.
And then, for about 30 seconds of my life, I was actually *in* North Korea. This was the moment that I had been waiting for and also something I'll probably/hopefully never experience again in my life. I was standing a few feet inside North Korea..even if it was just inside a building.