Did you know that North and South Korea are still technically at war? The Korea Armistice Agreement, signed in 1953, was only supposed to be a temporary ceasefire until a proper treaty came along. Over sixty years later and there is still no treaty.
Instead, we have two nations locked in a standoff.
It’s one of the tensest military situations in the world, where it all comes to a head at the Demilitarized Zone or as it’s better known, the DMZ. It's a place you can actually visit and see for yourself.
The DMZ stretches from the west to east coast along the North and South Korean border. This 2 and a half-mile-wide strip of land acts as a buffer zone between the two countries.
The 160-mile-long border is littered with landmines and trip-wires. On either side are watch towers with highly trained guards, and barbed wire fencing to prevent anyone from coming in or out.
Within the DMZ is a place called the Joint Security Area. This part of the border is probably the most contentious.
The Joint Security Area is a surreal place. Three blue buildings, the site of peace and hostage negotiations, rest halfway in the North and in the South.
Members of the South Korean military armed with pistols, stand guard next to the buildings, only a few feet away from North Korean soldiers. In between these buildings there is no fence or barrier.
The South has a thorough vetting process for choosing who can stand guard here. Along with passing psychological screenings, these elite soldiers are required to be at least 5 feet six inches tall and have a black belt in Judo or Taekwondo.
These strict standards began after North Korean soldiers grabbed the arm of a South Korean soldier from the inside of one of the blue buildings. They pulled him to the other side, where there was nothing the South could do.
Ever since Soldiers from the south are required to grasp hands when nearing any of the border doors within the buildings.
Due to the highly restrictive nature of this place, travelers can only visit the DMZ on a guided tour. This small tour is lead by a US Soldier and you can even enter one of the blue buildings where you can briefly step over onto the North side.
You’re required to book a tour here at least 2 to 5 days in advance, and in some cases, you might even need to apply for a clearance. If all of that clears and you have your ticket to go, you’ll then have to sign a waiver agreeing that the tour operator can’t be held responsible in case of accident, injury or death. The drive from South Korea’s capital Seoul is about 35 minutes away, but tours here can take at least half a day.
On occasion, you might see tourists visiting the DMZ from the North side. They’re closely watched by soldiers to prevent them from defecting to the South. Like what happened 1984, during a North Korean led tour, when a Soviet citizen ran across the border to the south. 30 soldiers from the North ran after him, firing their machine guns in the process. The south captured 8 of them and killed three in the ensuing battle. The citizen ran for his life and somehow was unharmed.
The man sought asylum and soon settled in the US.
From the DMZ you can see a massive North Korean flagpole on the other side. Both sides once engaged in what’s called a flagpole war. It started when the North erected a flag just outside the borderline. The South then erected their own flag but stood it taller than the North’s flag. In response, the North built theirs even taller and now it’s the fourth tallest in the world.
If you’re planning a visit to the DMZ, modest dress is mandatory. No flip-flops, ripped jeans, or clothes with profanity are allowed. Don’t take photos of anything you’re not supposed to, or risk the military confiscating your camera or phone.
on’t try to run across to the other side. South Korean soldiers won’t run after you. But if you do, and you’re not caught, watch out for mines. And don’t take any of the bridges either in the DMZ, they’re rigged with explosives.