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Since we have less than a month left in this lovely country, we decided that the time had come to pack our bags, head past Seoul and say hello to our neighbors in the north.

Well…not say hello exactly, seeing as we weren’t allowed to look, gesture to or converse with soldiers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but you get the picture. Evan and I — along with fellow tourists and hosts from the United Services Organization (USO) — took an amazing and educational journey to the De-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea.

Our journey began early morning in Seoul, where we rolled out of bed and on to a bus at the U.S. Military Base, Camp Kim. After a short, sleepy bus ride, we arrived to our destination, where our tour guide briefed us on the history of the DMZ and the Korean War.

During the tour, we were given explicit instructions as to not draw any negative attention from the North Koran soldiers who were watching us like hawks through the lens of binoculars. Yikes! No bags were allowed off the bus, and there was no holding our coats just in case it looked like we were concealing weapons. Also, as I mentioned above, absolutely no contact, verbal or otherwise, with said military men. Ironically, we were also informed that despite the area’s name, the DMZ is actually one of the most militarized areas in the world.

Here’s the DPRK soldier, staring.

We visited the Joint Security Area (JSA) first, where we toured a conference room in the Military Armistice Commission building. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) runs through the room, separating North and South Korea. ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers guarded the doors as we poked around, standing in Tae Kwon Do ready stance and sporting dark aviators (used to show no emotion). We stepped over the MDL in the room, technically into North Korea! Here’s me with the ROK soldier, on Kim Jong Il’s side of the border.

The outside of the MAC building, showing the concrete slab separating the two countries. The soldiers stood with half of their bodies covered — to make them harder targets if shots were fired, and so that they could give each other hand signals without being seen. ROK soldiers face DRPK soldiers to keep an eye on their enemy, while DRPK soldiers faced each other, so that if one tried to defect to the South, the other could shoot him.

Next, we were able to catch glimpses of the two villages in the DMZ — Taesongdong (Freedom Village) in the South, and Gijungdong (Propaganda Village) in the North. TSD is inhabited by South Korean farmers who abide by a strict set of rules to live in the area — and are well-compensated for their lifestyle by the ROK government. Propaganda Village earned its name by having large loudspeakers set up to blast propaganda glorifying Kim Jung Il at the people of Taesongdong. After a short flagpole-building competition, Propaganda Village, despite being uninhabited, boasts the largest flagpole and flag in the world.

There were lots of observation towers full of people keeping their eyes on us.

We also visited the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged in 1968. The POWs captured by the United States were given a choice of staying in the south or reentering the north, under the rule that they would never be allowed to go back if they crossed the bridge — hence the name.

There was a monument at the scene of the Axe Murder Incident, where the North and South clashed over the trimming of a tree and three soldiers from the South were hacked to death with axes. The circle around the memorial represents where the stump of the tree stood.

An actual piece of the tree trunk remains in a museum at the JSA.

Next, we visited the Third Tunnel, which runs from North Korea to South Korea and was discovered in 1978 with the help of a defector. This is one of four tunnels that have been found to date, that were intended help the North invade the South. N. Korea denied accusations of “aggression” and claimed the tunnel was used to dig up coal, but the UN and South Korea didn’t buy it. We were able to trek down to the actual tunnel (240 ft below ground) and see blockades set up by South Koreans. Pictures were forbidden, but trust — it was super cool and creepy.

After a bulgogi lunch (which was decent) we headed to Dorasan Train Station, the last stop in the South on the tracks that once connected the two Koreas. It was clean (obviously, since it isn’t used) and celebrated the hope for unification in the future.

The thing that resonated with me the most during this amazing journey was that, despite numerous incidents of violence, defectors and continued aggression, the people of Korea hope for and constantly try to work toward unification with the North. At all of these memorial sites, there were monuments that celebrated joining the two countries, broken families and long-lost friends, again. I was really touched by the humanity shown in bits and pieces along the tour.

To Seoul and back in 24 hours is an exhausting mission to say the least, but experiencing one of the most fascinating and memorable tourist visits to date was well worth the trek. Plus, we were able to run by Insa-dong and pick up some souvenirs (in addition to what we bought on the tour) afterward. I highly recommend this tour to anyone and everyone on this peninsula!

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