at the height of tensions, a step into north korea


“The visit to the Joint security Area at Pammunjom will entail into a hostile area and possibly injury or death as a direct result of enemy action. The Joint Security Area is a neutral but divided area guarded by United Nations Command military personnel on the one side [south], and the Korean People’s Army personnel on the other [North].”

The above quote is part of the Visitor Declaration [UNC REG 551-1] that any visitor to the Joint Security Area [JSA] between North and South Korea must sign. It is a disclaimer that goes on to state that neither the U.N., the U.S. nor South Korea can be held accountable in the event of a “hostile enemy attack.” In other words, enter at your own risk. And enter I did.

While I will be writing other posts about the DMZ itself, there is one moment that stood out among the rest. After navigating the many checkpoints and passport checks to get through U.N. Camp Bonifas in the Demilitarized Zone [DMZ], I was guided by uniformed U.S. military personnel to the point within the JSA where north really meets south by means of a military transport vehicle. I was given a U.N. visitor pass to wear. Passing through an official building we [other visitors and me] were asked to walk in two lines single file through the building. Due to the current tensions between the North and South, a strict photography ban was in place, unless otherwise instructed by military personnel.

As we passed through the building we ended up on the top of a set of stairs and were asked to queue up one row behind each other. In front of us were two blue buildings with guards in the center and behind that a larger building. The larger building was in North Korea and North Korean military guards could be seen watching us along with the many CC cameras.

We were allowed to take photos here, but only facing the North. We were forbidden to take any photographs facing the South. In addition we were instructed not to wave or make any other gestures that could be construed as hostile lest we put ourselves at risk of being shot and spark another Korean war. This was no joke.

The blue buildings were built directly over the border and thus we would be able to cross into North Korea within the JSA. Unfortunately, protocol dictates that if any North Korean guard or citizen was in one of the buildings, no visitor from the South or South Korean military could enter. When we arrived, the North Koreans were in fact in there.

About ten minutes later we got word from the U.S. military that we would be able to enter the building to the left. We filed in single file. Inside were two stoic South Korean soldiers, one on each side of the border, both standing at the ready in position one of Taekwondo. At that moment, I set foot in North Korea.

Despite the outward appearance of calm within the JSA, tensions were indeed high. A week prior to my visit the North Korean government declared that it would not abide by the terms of the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean conflict. This followed another nuclear test in the North. The week of my visit the U.S. and South Korean militaries were engaged in joint exercises. In fact entrance to the JSA was delayed due to heavily armored military choppers bringing in visiting military brass. The day after my visit, many South Korean banks and media outlets were victims of a coordinated cyber attack.

This scenario of a split nation aiming weapons at each other has played itself out time and again in history – most recently in Germany and Vietnam, among others. It still exists in Cyprus and Korea. Visiting these divided nations always reminds me how much we learn – and do not learn – from history, and how ideologies that drive divisions are forgotten once a nation reunifies. Still, the stark reality of what is happening in Korea is at the moment quite serious indeed.