SEOUL, South Korea - Entering the most heavily armed border in the world can make anyone a little tense.
During my first week in Korea, my study abroad program visited the Demilitarized Zone the border between North and South Korea.
On July 27, 1953, the military commanders of the North Korean People’s Army, the Chinese People’s Volunteers and the United Nations Command signed an armistice agreement ending the Korean War.
They agreed to move their troops back two kilometers on each side of the border, creating a 4-kilometer buffer zone.
Both have soldiers who patrol their side of the DMZ, but they are not allowed to cross the border, the Military Demarcation Line.
On the western end of the DMZ is an area created for the two sides to meet called the Joint Security Area. Here they can have conferences in buildings that are actually built right over the border.
Tourists can visit this area as well as the tunnels discovered during the 1970s, where North Korean troops tried to dig underground routes into South Korea.
As our bus drove carefully up the hill to the DMZ outlook post, we noticed signs posted about a meter from the road that warned us not to cross for we would put ourselves at the will of land mines.
This made me feel very aware of how well-armed this area was and reminded me of the paper we all had to sign stating we were entering a war zone, and the military was not responsible for our deaths.
At the outlook post one can look into North Korea. One of the towns visible from the border contains multi-story buildings and apartments that seem quite luxurious.
It turns out nobody lives in them, and they are just there as propaganda.
In this town, there is also the tallest flagpole – 525 ft – in North Korea. It was built in response to a South Korean flagpole – 328 ft – that was built visible from North Korea.
Next, we made our way to the third infiltration tunnel. It was quite a steep walk down (and up) the tunnel, but the experience of being in a place where North Korean military troops were digging to secretly enter South Korea gives you a perspective you cannot find in America.
As an American I found a new appreciation for the security I feel in the United States, especially after I found out that it is very likely that there are several more unknown tunnels along the border.
Our last visit was to the Joint Security Area. Here we were able to go through South Korea’s Freedom Building, which faces a North Korean building equally as large.
After passing through the Freedom Building, we entered Conference Row, where a series of single-floor buildings stand as the setting for conferences between the two nations.
Outside we could clearly see the North Korean building facing us, as well as North Korean soldiers watching our every move through binoculars. There were also many watchtowers with tinted windows from which more North Korean soldiers monitored us.
We were told not to make any contact whatsoever with the North Koreans – no pointing or waving.
Our group was allowed into one of the conference buildings, where we could technically step over the Military Demarcation Line into North Korea.
As we stepped across the line we were guarded by a South Korean military police officer who stood on guard completely still with his hands in fists at his side, ready for combat if necessary.
Although the DMZ is now a very secure area, I must admit I could not help feeling uneasy.
The tension is there despite the improving foreign relations South Korea has with the North.
The DMZ is a place to be in awe, to learn, to experience a different environment and to feel insecure at the same time that you are probably the most secure.