Last Friday I had the honor of attending a tour to a very small and particular area of South Korea called the JSA. The word ‘honor’ feels awkward. It’s not like I was invited, or that it was some special tour only for American mommy bloggers in Korea. (On the contrary, anyone with a passport can sign up for a tour on any given Friday or Saturday.) However, I did feel honored to be there, and moved, and emotional because the place is decidedly unique, steeped in powerful history, and it was an experience I won’t soon forget.
I went to the JSA, or Joint Security Area, located within the DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, which is on the border between South and North Korea. The DMZ runs the width of the border, 4 kilometers wide, from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. In the middle of it lies the border, or Military Demarcation Line, which is also called (you guessed it) the MDL.
Because of the early start to the tour, I had to take a 1:30 a.m. bus from Daegu to Seoul. Upon arriving in Seoul at 5 a.m., I made my way to the Dragon Hill Lodge, a hotel on the Yongsan Army Garrison. There, after some breakfast and a few cups of coffee, I met my tour bus, fellow tourists, and our guide.
As we took the 1 hour bus ride from Seoul to the DMZ, our tour guide, a Korean National with an obvious interest in history, gave us a brief background on the Korean War and pointed out some interesting sights along the way. For example, he pointed out Gangnam, made famous (infamous?) by rapper Psy. Gangnam means “south of the river” and it is the “new” section of Seoul built south of the Han Gang (Han River).
As we got further out of Seoul, he pointed out the barbed wire fences that line the river, and the security posts, which despite their dilapidated appearances, are still manned by ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers. This precaution is taken because North Korean spies have been known to travel up the river during the rainy season and infiltrate Seoul and its surrounding towns.
After about 50 minutes of driving, we approached the Civilian Control Area of the DMZ. All travelers must submit their names here. Our tour guide gave a list of passengers to a ROK soldier and our bus moved on, over Cow Bridge, otherwise known as Unification Bridge.
The story goes, according to the guide, that the founder of Hyundai Motor Company was born and raised in North Korea. Before the war, he moved south and built his successful business. Afterwards he wanted to donate livestock to the village where he grew up. The DPRK (North Korean) government was happy to receive his donation, but there was only one problem. There was no bridge big enough to send the herd of cows over. So, Mr. Hyundai (not his actual name), ever the resourceful businessman, built a bridge and donated the cattle.
As we moved into the DMZ, time began to take on a very surreal quality. I imagined the war and violence that had taken place here, the division of families and the utter despair caused by it all. Young men lost in battle, people cowering silently in marshes as bullets fired around them, children ripped from their mothers’ arms by war, and later by tyrants. Sound dramatic? My imagination surely was. I have no idea if the images I pictured were historically accurate. I can tell you though, that there is something completely different about this place. It’s like no other place I’ve been in my life. I had been praying my rosary in the silences between the guides anecdotes, but at this time I ceased to have any real thought except, “Please God. Heal this place. Free these people.”
I’ll be back with part 2… as soon as I can. This weekend is The Big Move, and I really hope to post it before then, but no promises.