Joint Security Area: A Two-Sided Situation

Friday, December 15, 2017
About two and half year ago, I spent eight days traveling around North Korea or DPRK. Today I set foot in one of the most closed-off countries again. If only for a few minutes.

South Korean soldiers guarding the border at Joint Security Area (JSA), South Korea
When it comes to the Korean border on the 38th parallel, a visit from the south side is not so different compared to a visit from the north. There's absolutely no way you're gonna go there on your own.
We chose a local Seoul travel agency; Koridoor, as our way to the border. A booking in 2-3 days advance is necessary. Price for a full-day tour: 96.000 KRW.

A statue of different generations helping each other to heal the world and reunite Korea outside the Third Tunnel of Aggression, South Korea
Before you reach the highlight of the trip (the Joint Security Area), there's a few interesting stops on the way. First one is the Third Tunnel of Aggression. You're allowed inside the tunnel, but no cameras allowed. Afterwards you can spend some time in a museum or in the gift shop. But prepare yourself for propaganda. The situation on this border is most tense on the entire planet and propaganda from both sides is inevitable.

Dora Observatory overlooking the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), South Korea
Second stop was the Dora Observatory. Where you can watch the Demilitarized Zone through binoculars for 500 KRW. An area of 4 kilometres in total (2 on each side of the border) of no man's land. The most easily recognizable thing to spot is the massive North Korean flagpole of 160 metres located in the "ghost city" Kijong-dong, also nicknamed Peace Village (in the north) and Propaganda Village (in the south). Besides that it is, as the name describes, a demilitarized area under the provisions of the Armistice (cease-fire) Agreement signed on July 27, 1953.

Dorasan Station near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), South Korea
Not too far from the observatory is the last train station on the South Korean side; Dorasan Station. The railway tracks runs to North Korea across the border and is actually connected to the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, the trains do not cross the border anymore. The South Koreans believe and hope, that someday Dorasan Station will again be the pathway to North Korea, only this time under a united Korea. One can only hope.

Unfortunately for us, a soldier had recently deserted from the north side and some shots were fired during his escape. Which meant that the infamous Bridge of No Return was off-limit for tourists during our time of visit. I'm sure I'll be back someday, on some side of the border to see the bridge for myself. Normally it's included in the tour, but I'd recommend to ask around at the agency. Incidents do still occur and when they do, security tightens even more.

Joint Security Area view towards North Korea
Panmunjom (named Panmungak in North Korea) is the place where dialog takes place between the United Nations Command (UNC) and North Korea / China. The place is also named Joint Security Area or JSA for short. You'll see UN soldiers along side South Korean soldiers face north, where North Korean soldiers are posted.
When I went to North Korea, there was no going into the famous blue barracks at Joint Security Area (JSA). But this time around things were different. First of all, during my visit from the north side, there was North Korean soldiers swarming the border area. Today, only a single North Korean soldier stood at their building. This meant, that we got the chance to enter the barracks from the south side and experience the tension these barracks hold.

South Korean soldiers, one (foreground) with a leg in each country. The other (background) in the north.
The border runs right down the middle of the barracks and right through the middle of a table, where negotiations take place. It's the only place where the north and south sides can meet face to face. We were allowed to roam the entire building, which also meant crossing the border. So for a few minutes I was back in North Korea, which was a super strange feeling. I traveled more than half way around the globe to visit the border from the north. And I did the same thing to visit it from the south. But I could never travel across the border. Only inside these small blue barrack and only for a few minutes.

South and North Border border seen from the blue barracks at JSA, North Korea
I can now official state, that I've set foot in North Korea twice. I can also with a bleeding heart express, that freedom is not free. The cost of war is greater than any other. For Korea there's a common goal for both sides; they want Korea reunited. However the conflict sticks as they imagine Korean under different rule. South side (Republic of Korea) wants a democratic Korea, while ironically enough the North side (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) wants a communistic Korea. A dispute, which seems unsolvable as long as the north keeps rearming. Testing nuclear weapons. Showing off military strength. Not to resume the war, but rather as to intimidate the USA and UN from trying to take down the communist rule. As well as to intimidate their own people. Creating fear among the population. An uphold of power which seems.. well, stupid, in the greater picture.
I feel sorry for both sides. I'm ashamed of humanity. Our planet, our world, is falling to pieces and we are still striving for power. We are still pushing down others to reach higher. And for what purpose? To be the one on top, as our world crashes and burns?
Maybe I'm just a dreamer. Hopefully I'm not the only one. Yet all we really can do, is to start with the man in the mirror and hope for a better world.

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