My Trip to the DMZ

This article was first published in The Huffington Post on June 13, 2013

Everyone line up single file in two lines. Good. Now turn to your left. You're facing north. Are you ready? You only have a few minutes. Set? Good. Now take your pictures.

I, along with 30 other tourists, was just meters away from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the official boundary inside the DMZ which divides North and South Korea. We were lined up on a platform looking directly at the North Korean military station. We were exposed, an audacious firing line of amateur photographers. At any moment, the North Koreans could have opened fire on us, since we were standing there, right in front of them all.

"In Front of Them All" is the slogan emblazoned around the south side of the Joint Security Area (JSA). For 60 years, the JSA has served as the site for diplomatic negotiations between North and South Korea. It's the only place on the 248 kilometer border where the heavy concentration of military from both sides is stationed within speaking distance of each other.

Given the implicit tension of the JSA's construct, one might have imagined a more peaceful, a more disarming collection of words to serve as a motto for the military personnel. There had to be a reason to select such a provocative phrase. And as I sat in the military bus driving around the JSA, I wondered if maybe I was part of that reason.

Parenting 101 tells us that prohibition may serve as the best motivator to drive a child to action. Tell your son not to touch a painting in a museum, and he'll touch it. Tell your daughter that her curfew is at 11, and she'll be home at midnight. Not every child, not all the time. But it's human nature to wonder why rules exist, and to weigh the rewards and penalties for breaking them.

We've been told that the DMZ is one of the most dangerous places on earth. Kim Jong-un has his 30-year-old finger on nuclear WMDs while overseeing the mental enslavement of another generation of North Koreans with his suppressive Communist ideology. There are appalling stories of physical torture, starvation and even cannibalism which have come to light through defectors from the DPRK. And South Koreans are regularly snatched from their rice fields by North Korean soldiers, never to be heard from again.

When I told my mother than I was taking a trip to Korea, she made me promise not to go to the DMZ. She still doesn't know that I went there.

Since the Korean War, there has been a continuous stream of skirmishes along the border of the territories. In the JSA specifically, the majority of activity occurred prior to the 1990's. The most notable event was the gruesome axe-murder of an American soldier (and the death of another) over the pruning of a poplar tree in 1976. In 1984, gunfire was exchanged when a Soviet tourist tried to defect. Deaths were sustained by both sides. Yet over the past few decades, no life-threatening confrontations have been recorded. Statistically speaking, the JSA might be safer than Times Square.

Standing with my camera, boldly clicking away at North Korea, I have to admit that I had a flutter in my stomach. We were told not to make any sudden gestures. We were told not to point. But we were allowed to pose with soldiers at designated intervals during the tour. Was our time at the JSA so regimented to secure our well-being? Or was it to ensure that the other 500 to 1,000 daily visitors got their shot at touring the grounds too?

The sheer volume of tourists at not only the JSA, but also at notable points in and around the DMZ was astounding. One of the women in my group had been on a similar tour just two years prior, and she was struck by the significant uptick in visitors. What's happened over the course of two years? Kim Jong-un became the Supreme Leader of North Korea.

Kim Jong-un is a global curiosity, and the composition of my tour group is a testament to his appeal. I traveled with citizens from Japan, China, Malaysia, Australia, Great Britain and the United States. We all wanted a glimpse into his secretive, bizarre world.

Back in the safety of my hotel room, I should feel relieved to have survived what I had expected to be a brave and risky adventure. But I feel humbled. I let my vanity get the best of me. As a result, I unwittingly participated in what feels like a fantastically engineered public relations scheme to make a global mockery of Kim Jong-un. Perhaps someone at the C.I.A. is the mastermind behind all of this. Or maybe the fascination with touring the DMZ has grown organically as a result of Kim Jong-un's child-like ranting. Either way, the activity is definitely being facilitated by the cooperative US/South Korean forces at the JSA.

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