Dare to Travel the North Korea Border

One traveller dared to visit the North Korean border. She shares her life-altering experiences with The Weekly Wanderer.

Traveling the only separated nation in the world


As our tour bus pulled up to the toll both of a military post, everyone went still. All around our bus were spiked sheets of steel, laying face-down on the road ready to pop up with a push of a button. The doors were opened and two armed soldiers came charging down the isle of the bus with rifles drawn, shouting for passports to be ready for inspection. We were about to enter a heavily guarded tour through the Demilitarized Zone where a nation divided meets.

DMZ seen from the north (Wikipedia)
DMZ seen from the north (Wikipedia)

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a four kilometer-wide strip of land outlining the 151-mile military demarcation line (MDL) that divides Korea. The July 27, 1953 Armistice Agreement allotted this strip of land to be the dividing line between the two parties, giving the communist totalitarian government their own piece of land and bringing the Korean War to a halt.

“The DMZ extends just over one mile on either side of the MDL. Both the North and South Korean Governments hold that the MDL is only a temporary administrative line, not a permanent border,” says GlobalSecurity.org.

Under the Armistice Agreement, both sides agreed not to enter the other’s territory: air space or water. They would basically ignore each other and go on with their lives. North Korea has violated this agreement many times at sea and in the air, but the South has kept their cool–so far.

One of our first stops was to see the “House of Peace” which was built as a safe meeting place for talks of resolution. Clearly, this building was rarely used.

We were told to walk in pairs with arms at our sides upon exiting the bus. We were not to talk or make any facial or hand gestures until safely inside the House of Peace. Walking from the bus to the entrance, I could see huts jutting out from the surrounding mountains with little tiny men who looked like Lego standing at the windows with binoculars. Those men we were told were North Korean soldiers, waiting with guns locked and loaded for an excuse to start firing.

At a later stop at the observation deck, the North Korean village of Kichong-dong or “Peace Village” (as it is called by the North) could be seen. The troops call it “Propaganda Village” as the North has been known to broadcast its government propaganda from speakers in that village. North Koreans work in the fields during the day but they all leave before dark–only a small custodial staff actually live in Kichong-dong.

On our bus tour through the joint security areas , we drove by the Bridge of No Return, which was dilapidated and haunting to see first-hand. The joint security areas are safe to travel through and guarded by both South Korean and U.N. soldiers .

Legend has it that in 1953, the Bridge of No Return was used to return prisoners of war (POWs) from both sides of the border, who were allowed to make a one-time choice on whether they wanted to return from where they came (the North or South) or stay put.

Three ROK soldiers watching the border at Panmunjeom in the DMZ between North and South Korea (Henrik Ishihara, Wikipedia)
Three ROK soldiers watching the border at Panmunjeom in the DMZ between North and South Korea (Henrik Ishihara, Wikipedia)

For the North Korean POWs held by the United Nations Command, this meant choosing between living in the South or reclaiming citizenship in the North. Thousands chose not to return to their communist roots and only a few being held in the south returned north.

Near the Bridge of No Return was another legendary site that became so on the morning of August 18, 1976. On that day, a group of U.N. soldiers tried to trim the branches of a poplar tree in the DMZ that was blocking the view from a U.N. guard post.  Northern communist leader Kim Jong Il said that this tree belonged to part of his ancestry (he’s known for making up truths–one famous tale is that he invented the light bulb), so the North Korean soldiers tried to stop the trimming, leading to an attack on the U.N. soldiers with axes.

Two U.N. personnel and four Korean soldiers were killed, with some US soldiers wounded as well. The South side launched “Operation Paul Bunyan” in retaliation and cut the offending poplar tree down to a stump three days later. Since then, guards of either side have not been allowed to cross over the line that divides Korea.

The tour was a solemn, comprehensive lesson in Korean history that drove home the severity of war. Although tense and slightly alarming, it was a thrilling jaunt through a past that left its mark all over a nation. IT!

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