The DMZ + JSA: The time I exchanged glances with a North Korean soldier

Merriam -Webster Definition 
          stare: to look fixedly, often with eyes wide open. to be undeniably and forcefully evident or apparent.

My Definition
          stare: the moment when his gaze meets yours. The North Korean soldier’s eyes lock onto yours and your blood freezes as your life flashes before your eyes. You can barely breath as you think to yourself, “am I allowed to look away, will I be shot for moving?”  (ok, admitting to being a little melodramatic).

        The JSA & DMZ tour has been by far the most interesting thing I have done in Korea. It was a memorable day in more ways than one.  We had booked weeks in advance because the tours kept filling up, and when the day finally dawned the excitement was palpable. 

         We awoke (too early), to be ready and waiting for the tour van to pick us up. After indulging in some much needed coffee we climbed into the little vehicle. 

          Little did we know that our amazing experience would begin way before we even reached the DMZ. Our van-mates clambered in and promptly introduced themselves as hockey players from California. The next fifty minutes consisted of them cracking all kinds of inappropriate jokes as Hayley and I tried not to die of laughter. Our favorite, Chester, is by far the most amazing human being on the planet. 

         Sadly, we learned we were in the wrong van (of course). Our guide was checking passports and asking for the tour fee for the half day tour. Hayley and I looked at each other, ours eyes wide with disbelief. I raised my hand,” excuse me, we booked the full day tour!” 
        Apparently Chester didn’t know that there was a difference between the DMZ half-day tour and the JSA+DMZ full-day tour. 

        The next twenty minutes while our poor tour guide was trying to figure when and where we were supposed to be, Chester tried desperately to bribe her into letting them do the full-day tour. She tried so hard to explain that its illegal to do the full-day tour without booking 72 hours in advance. 

       We eventually made it to the correct bus, after making a run for it right before the first passport checkpoint. Yes, we were THOSE people. The ones that awkwardly jump on the bus forty minutes after everyone else (who were in the right place).

        We were sad to leave our new friends, but we ran into to them a few more times at the various stops. We will always remember Chester with fondness. 

Our amazing friends, with Chester (top left) completely embracing his Asian self with an epic Korean pose.

Chester forced this soldier to take a picture with us. The poor guy couldn’t understand anything that Chester was saying, but after a few gestures he willingly stood for the photo. 

         Our first stop, Dorasan train station. The northern most station in South Korea. The station is empty, but it is ready for use if relations between the South and the North ever improve. One day it might be possible to take South Korea’s KTX all the way to Russia and connect with the Trans-Siberian Railway. (which would be awesome).

            Our next stop, the third tunnel. 

The Third Tunnel: 1,635m in length, 2m in width, and 2m in height. 

       To date, South Korea has discovered four tunnels that begin in North Korea and are angled towards Seoul. Our Tour guide informed us that if all four tunnels had been completed undiscovered, the North could have had  ___(many)____ soldiers near Seoul within ____(short time)____. 

( I can’t remember the exact numbers our guide told us, and I don’t want to just write anything. I do however remember it being a large amount of soldiers in a short amount of time. This is what I get for not writing it down when she was speaking.) 

       The third tunnel is the only one open to tourists. Before entering the long walkway to the tunnel, each person must don a hard hat. At first I thought this was a bit excessive, and let’s be truthful, what girl wants to mess up her hair by putting a bright orange or purple plastic thing on her head? 

       As the tunnel narrowed and I kept hearing “clunk, clunk” every few seconds, the hard hats made sense. This tunnel was most certainly not constructed with tall foreigners in mind. All of us were bent over uncomfortably, as many little Koreans walked by us smiling at our hunched forms and symphony of clinking hard hats. 

Hanging out with our friends after traversing the third tunnel.

A view of the DMZ from the observation area.

Unification Bridge

The hopes and wishes of thousands. Hoping for reunification and wishing to see lost family members.
During Chuseok, a kind of fall harvest holiday, is a time when families get together to honor their ancestors. The elders in each family are visited and then the graves of those gone before are visited. For many families, it is impossible to physically get to the places where their families come from. This monument and altar was built for those people that wish to honor their ancestors in the North. Until reunification, this is as far as they can come. 

Unification Bridge

The Joint Security Area

           We boarded the bus once again to make our way to the J.S.A for a glimpse into North Korea. 

          We were instructed by our tour guide not to speak loudly, and not to make any hand gestures or strange movements. The North Koreans watch the entire time and take pictures of people visiting the JSA for propaganda. This is also why there is a dress code, if you fail to meet it you are not allowed past the checkpoint. A soldier actually boards the bus to not only check passports, but to check clothing as well. 

          By the time we actually reached the blue room, the place where all the meetings take place, we were both mildly nervous. I had lost track of how many times we had been warned against inappropriate behavior. I guess one man waved or did something stupid and the whole place went into lock down for the whole weekend. 

Nervously posing with the South Korean soldier. We knew he was South Korean, and therefore safe, but  we were still strongly cautioned not to stand too close, not to walk in front of him, not to touch him, not to walk behind him, and not to talk to him. In other words, we were only allowed to stand awkwardly. 

“I’m nervous!!!!” 

“This is awkward!!!” 

Side note: This is where the story gets good.

          Hayley and I are calmly standing by the window at the back of the blue room listening to the tour guide explain the history of it and how it is currently utilized.  Hayley freezes, then grabs my arm and whispers, “I think I just saw some North Koreans out the window. They are walking this way.” 

             We wait nervously for a minute, wondering if they will appear in the windows near us or simply return to their main building. 

         After a deep breath, we look at each other and then slowly turn to the windows that stand just a few feet away from us. 

         As we turn we lock gazes with two curious North Korean soldiers peering into the windows at us. Time seemed to freeze, we stared with only a glass window separating us. I don’t know if soldiers receive training in staring, but I felt chilled to the bone at the coldness of that gaze. I don’t think any of us blinked for what felt like an eternity. 

         All of a sudden our tour guide noticed the visitors and she started jabbering, “Quick!! Take a picture! This is very rare, they almost never come this close.” 

         Hayley and I looked blankly at each other, neither daring to make a move. After being warned to not even make hand gestures we thought the guide must be joking about taking a PICTURE of the North Koreans!  The soldiers left, finally bored with us, and Hayley was able to recover enough to snap a quick photo of their retreating forms with her phone.

           I never experienced anything like this before. Nor is it likely I will again. Sometimes I am not even sure it actually happened, its felt so surreal. While the soldiers (rudely) neglected to formerly introduce themselves, I am still going to say that I have “met” a North Korean. 

Our North Korean visitors walking away, thinking to themselves, “That was weird, what do they think they were staring at? They think we look scary, they should look in the mirror!”

Me standing with one foot on the South Korean side and one foot on the North Korean side.


This North Korean soldier was watching us through his binoculars the entire time.

We looked at him, he looked at us…… was a magical moment.

         I would rank the DMZ & JSA tour as one of the most interesting and incredible things I have seen in Korea thus far. (Along with hiking in Seoraksan National Park).

Information:  We did the full day D.M.Z. & J.S.A. tour through  Sunburst Tour.  Click here to explore their tour options.

Side note: You can purchase souvenirs, including North Korean alcohol. For your information, it was terrible! I’m not sure if the North Koreans actually like that stuff, or if they produce an especially nasty kind just for westerners. 

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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