After giving us about twenty minutes to take it all in, we were ushered back onto the air-conditioned tour bus. Having had to adhere to a strict dress code that involved wearing pants (no holes, leather, or camo), long sleeves (t-shirts were not allowed), and closed toed shoes in the middle of a humid heat wave, made the bus a welcoming respite from the weather outside.
We drove parallel to high fences topped with barbed wire, watchtowers, and trenches lining the South side of the DMZ border — the most heavily fortified border in the world. I stared out the window at that never-ending line of fortification separating capitalism from communism until we turned and picked up our military escort who, after driving us safely under concrete lined with dynamite, was taking us to our ultimate destination — inside the DMZ.
What exactly is the DMZ?
The DMZ or De-Militarized Zone is the lasting result of the Korean War, which began on June 25, 1950, when troops from the northern part of Korea invaded the south, and continued until a ceasefire was negotiated, splitting the country in half in 1953.
The three years of fighting resulted in the deaths of more than 2.5 million people (!) with many more injured, missing, or taken prisoner.
As a part of the ceasefire negotiations, the DMZ was created as an area of neutral territory that neither side could enter except when it was agreed upon by both governments and supervised by the United Nations. (South Korea has been a member of the United Nations since 1991).
Located only a short 55 km north of Seoul, the DMZ is 4 km wide, stretches 248 km from ocean to ocean and was once deemed to be “the scariest place on earth” by former President of the United States Bill Clinton after he visited the area himself.
Other than a small zone where diplomats and tourists can enter, the DMZ has been almost completely sealed off from all human activity for over half a century. As a result, no other place with a temperate zone climate in the world has been preserved so well. There are even rumors of tigers, thought to be long extinct from the hills of Korea, living there. Environmentalists and scientists have long been campaigning for the area to become a protected nature preserve should unification ever be negotiated.