I can hear my heart pounding in my ears as I board the plane, and I think “I must be crazy!” I had always thought that I had done a fair amount of traveling in my 20 years, but the adventure I was about to embark upon wasn’t just visiting a few states during my summer vacation. I had never been west of the Mississippi, yet here I was, on a plane that would fly for 14 hours and arrive in a country that is still technically at war. At the airport, I cannot read any of the signs, so instead I follow the select few Americans that were on my flight as we make our way through customs at Incheon International Airport in the Republic of Korea.
My reason for traveling to Korea was simple: I wanted to be with my husband, a US Soldier who three months after our wedding, was given orders to serve his country from 7,500 miles away. I was scared out of my mind, but eventually decided to join him in his travel overseas. I figured I could learn a foreign language, maybe teach an English class, and explore the relatively young country. While my Korean is a little rough (I can read Hanguel but can’t speak it), I was able to fulfill my other two goals. In the nearly two years that I have been in South Korea, I have learned more than I ever expected to. My favorite experience, and by far the most educational, was my trip to the most heavily fortified border in the world, the Demilitarized Zone.
The Demilitarized Zone spans ten kilometers, five above and five below of the North/South Korean border. This territory stretches the entire width of the peninsula, and is filled with some of the most skilled soldiers in the world. On the southern side, all people entering the area must have prior authorization to do so. No South Korean citizens are able to enter the DMZ unless they are members of the Armed Forces. Needless to say, security is tight.
After passing through the security gate, my tour group is ushered into a small theater, where we view a short video on the etiquette that is expected of us during our trip. Two rules stick out in my mind: no pointing and no pictures unless given permission. The seriousness that fills the room is somewhat scary.
The group proceeds to the Freedom House, a building constructed for the purpose of reuniting families that were separated during the Korean War in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, because the North and South are still not on good terms, the Freedom House has never been used for this purpose. Walking through the building, it is easy to image all the happiness that could occur within these walls when families see each other for the first time in sixty years. One can only hope that glorious day is right around the corner.
Through the back exit of the Freedom House, we are finally at our destination: bright blue conference buildings in which the Military Demarcation Line passes through. We enter one of the middle “blue houses” and spot what can best be described as Korean Beefeaters (although their uniforms aren’t nearly as entertaining). There are two of these soldiers in the room, one straddling the line and another guarding the back exit that leads through to the North Korean administrative headquarters. The group spends a few minutes walking around, taking pictures, and enjoying the fact that they are standing in a room that many will never have the privilege to enter.
Following the excitement of stepping foot in another country, we travel back to our bus. It carries us to the somber Bridge of No Return. This bridge was used during the Korean War to exchange prisoners of war, as well as in 1953 when the war ended and Koreans could choose the country in which they would like to live. However, I am sure not everyone had the option of choosing their own fate. Imagining all the heartache that occurred in this place makes me feel a greater appreciation for the freedom that I have as an American. I may have spent two years away from my family, but that was by choice. I hope that I will never be forced apart from my loved ones like so many Koreans were during and shortly after the War.
We pass a few small monuments, and our tour has ended. As I reflect on my trip to the Demilitarized Zone, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to travel there. Korea is not typically seen as a destination spot, and I think it is generally overlooked in comparison to other Asian countries such as Japan or China. However, Korea has much to offer foreigners, and for those who do travel to the country, the DMZ should top the list of places to visit. If for no other reason, visitors can get an inside look at the communist country that much of the world still has conflicts with today.
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