Exploring the DMZ

Exploring the DMZ

A Story by LizLadyNinja

I took a little trip to South Korea in 2014. I wrote this essay for a class shortly after returning.


I shouldn’t be here. Exhausted and dripping with sweat, I made the arduous march from the bowels of the Earth back to the surface. The hastily constructed tunnel stretched for miles below the surface. The bulky, yellow construction helmet weighed heavily on my head. I had been glad to have it. Standing only five foot five, the tunnel roof hung low enough that I would have easily smashed my head open. I stopped on the sharp incline and nursed a stitch in my side. I wiped some soot from my hands on to my disheveled jeans. The purpose of the tunnels had been to invade the South, but the North Koreans were thwarted and had tried to cover the walls with soot to pass it off as digging for coal. At that moment I questioned what I was doing, and why I was there.

The surface appeared to be several hundred feet up. My legs screamed as I forced them to move. Every step was a chore. My lungs protested and my back ached. I pushed on, realizing that I could be out on the town buying facemasks and lotions instead of trudging up a sharply inclined cement ramp. With each step my legs grew heavier and I scowled at the folks headed down. So young, so innocent, they had no idea how tiresome their return would be.

I tried sprinting up the tunnel. Everything hurt. Places I didn’t know existed ached and begged for me to rest. But I persisted-- "pushing myself. As I reached the lobby of the tunnel entrance, stars exploded in my field of vision. The floor flattened out under me, throwing my balance off. It was the most welcome sensation. I had ascended from 240 feet below ground.

The stars faded away, but my vision didn’t clear quickly. For a few excruciating moments my sight seemed metallic. I handed my yellow helmet back to the tour guide and shuffled to the bus.

The tunnels were our first stop. We would also be going to Panmunjom, a lookout on the border where we would be able to observe the propaganda village, the bridge of no return, and the ax murder tree.  The ax murder tree. What was I doing here? Why was I hanging out on the border of the Koreas? I should be buying cosmetics in Seoul. And why was I going to an ax murder tree?

As I squeezed down the tiny row to my isle, I glanced at my watch. It was only ten in the morning, but I felt like I had been up for hours. Fetching the square water bottle out of the mesh in front of me, I flopped heavily down and melted into my seat. Why did I think this was going to be a good idea?

I flipped through the itinerary. Our next stop would be Panmunjom. This is where we would be allowed to cross the border in to North Korea-- "the only safe place within the Demilitarized Zone. After the Korean War, the entire area had been abandoned except for a few area natives. Because of that, the land had been ripe for littering with landmines. The tour guide had explained that when the rains were hard enough, the landmine would sometimes wash up onto the road and would have to be disposed of. It was not a comforting detail.

Tucking the bottle in the mesh on the back of the seat, I thought back to the countless books I had read that had brought me to this point. I thought of the defectors who had escaped and how I was voluntarily coming to this place. They were escaping to find freedom, and I was freely entering this place in pursuit of knowledge.

As our bus lumbered nearer to the border, our tour guide stood up and began pointing out places of interest.

            “If you look out the right side, you will see a tree that looks cut up. That is the ax murder tree. In 1976, the United States military ordered this tree to be taken down because it obscured the view of UN observers. But the North Korean army liked the tree. So when the US soldiers began cutting it down, the North Koreans assaulted them. They picked up the axes being used by the soldiers trimming the tree and killed them.”

            An anonymous hand popped up from the sea of seats. “Why did the North Koreans like the tree so much?”

            The guide confessed that she did not know. This answer seemed to satisfy the anonymous hand as no follow up questions were asked. I was not satisfied with this answer though and made a note on my phone to look up the attack when I next had access to the internet. 

The bus came to a stop, sighing loudly.

            “We are now going to be entering the JSA. You will be debriefed first, and then allowed to visit Panmunjom. We will be here for a very short time. Please take your camera and nothing else,” Our tour guide announced over the loudspeaker.

            She scooped up her little blue flag and led the way into the imposing concrete building called the Freedom House. As we passed by, I saw the iconic blue huts. They were the reason I was here. This was the only place where the North and the South would meet. The buildings were built right over the border. The line demarcating the boundaries visibly drawn in the ground. Inside those huts, the North would sit on the North side, and the South would sit on the South side. A large wooden table would be placed between them and neither would cross the border. But today I would. I would cross the border from South Korea into North Korea.

We followed our tour guide into the debriefing room. Miss Kim, a sternly dressed woman sat at the front of the room. As we filled in and filled the seats she dimmed the lights. A projector clicked on and a brief film describing the area began to play. It added little to my existing knowledge. As it ended, Miss Kim stood up and took several questions.

Then, very sternly she said, “There are snipers outside. When you leave this room they will be pointing their rifles at you. Do not do anything strange with your hands. Do not make any sudden moves. We have people coming around to pass out a document. This document says you understand that we cannot guarantee your safety while visiting Panmunjom.”

I hadn’t expected this type of danger. I had expected some danger, but not landmines or snipers. I knew from reading memoirs that the people living in North Korea were punished for owning a cellphone, or watching a Hollywood film. These crimes were punishable by hours of re-education in North Korean ideology-- "Juche"-- at best and years in a work camp at worst.

I realized that in my hands I held a piece of paper that could very well be the last paper I ever signed. Fishing a pen from my pocket I scratched my name into the paper. Carpe Diem!

            Our group solemnly followed the tour guide outside. Standing in the frigid shadow of the Freedom Building she directed us to examine our surroundings and take a few pictures. I zoomed in on the North Korean soldiers standing only feet away. The soldier I had captured in my frame seemed to be aware I was hunting him because he slid back behind a concrete poll on his side. But he wasn’t quick enough. I had immortalized him and he was my souvenir.

            Seconds later our tour guide ushered us quickly forward and into the blue huts. As people filled into the room, I broke from the group. Walking close enough that I could see the physical border out the window, I crossed from the South into the North.

The irony of this border crossing was not lost on me. Most border crossings were done illegally with great risk to those defecting. Crossing the border at the DMZ was suicide because of the landmines; so most crossings happened on the Chinese end, much farther north. But the danger was in actually getting across without being shot by the North Korean border patrol. And once you were on the other side, not getting caught by the Chinese immigration police was paramount. If you were caught, you’d be sent back. You’d spend several years in a political labor camp, torture would be routine and perhaps up to three generations of your family would be punished as well for your crimes. No, the enormous irony of this crossing was not lost on me.  

I stood there for a moment, breathing deeply and feeling fully alive. I was legally standing in North Korea. I thought back to all the books and documentaries that had lead me to this point. I looked out the window and thought of the people I had met through memoirs and how I was truly standing on the same soil. I was humbled. At the end of this day I would return to the safety of my youth hostel. I would leave this place. The same could not be said for the thousands of defectors who fled the country every year; people who didn’t have the privilege of leaving their country without the threat of death. The enormity of visiting this place impressed on my heart for eternity. I shouldn’t be here; but I’m glad I am.

© 2020 LizLadyNinja

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Added on April 24, 2020
Last Updated on April 24, 2020
Tags: North Korea, Travel, Korea, DMZ, KimJongIll, KimIllSung, Kimjungun



Denver, CO

I joined Writerscafe almost 10 years ago, when it was in its infancy. I dealt with the breakdown when it lost our writing and many of my pieces were unrecoverable. Which, as you can imagine was pretty.. more..