On the Border: A visit to the DMZ

Two days ago I went with a group of students to Cheorwon County. One of the northernmost counties in South Korea, this agricultural area touches up against the DMZ. If you don’t already know, the DMZ (demilitarized zone) is a 2.5 mile wide strip of land that runs along the entire border between the two Koreas. It is heavily patrolled on both sides.

We were not able to go to the JSA for various reason, but we went to the observatory and also did a tour of the infiltratn tunnel that was discovered beneath the DMZ.

During our tour, I couldn’t shake the thought that Cheorwon sounds like “Charon,” the name of the boatman on the River Styx who would ferry the dead across. From the platform at the observatory we could see all the lush green around us. The area has been left to biologically flourish, but it is hard to forget that the ground is soaked in blood. Thousands of men from both sides died on that strip of land. They were ferried into the land of the dead right there, right below me.

It was eerie knowing that as we were looking across at North Korea and they were looking straight back at us from their observation posts. For the South Korean students, probably more so. As a US citizen, I can arrange to cross the border into North Korea and tour Pyongyang. South Korean citizens cannot legally go into North Korea.

When we entered the infiltration tunnel it was about twenty degrees colder than the outside air. Everything was damp and as someone pushed past me on their way out, I touched my hand to the wall. It came away slimy with fungus that I discreetly wiped off on my pants.

Following the the path down we came to a metal cage that divided North and South Korea underground. We were standing inches away from the North. I thought about the miners who spent over three years digging through solid rock to make that tunnel. I wondered at what had been done to them after they were found. As we turned to journey back out of the tunnel I began to feel sick. I still have a lingering cold, but this felt different. I’m not claustrophobic, so I’m not sure why I felt so badly. I thought I might throw up or pass out. Climbing the stairs back up to the surface, I leaned back against the railing and let people pass me while I cradled my head in my hands and tried to steady my breathing. My friend Sara was behind me and kept gently urging me on from behind.

After surfacing, I went into the bathroom and looked at my face in the mirror. It was a deathly shade of white. I’m not sure what made me react so strongly, if it was emotional or physical, or both. I’m sure I’m not the first person to have an extremely negative reaction to the tunnel. I felt incredibly stupid and wondered if I should have waited outside, not feeling 100% healthy to begin with. I am glad I saw it, however. When will I get another chance to do something like that?

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