BLOG: Michelle Li’s #TBT to the DMZ

Ever been to the scariest place on earth?
BLOG: Michelle Li’s #TBT to the DMZ
PHOTO: Michelle Li

The DMZ is where South Korea and North Korea meet.  I have been there three times in my life, and I would agree with President Clinton when he called it the scariest place on earth.  Granted, I haven’t been to a lot of scary places, but I’ll take his word for it.

First of all, the DMZ can be overwhelming.  I’ve gone there enough times to know that I really don’t know that much.  It used to be that Korean citizens could not visit the area or that we had to hire a foreign company to take us.  But, now I’m not really sure about the status of the tours.  I think Koreans may have been able to visit certain aspects of the Joint Security Area, but truthfully, I don’t know the truth anymore.  Sorry for that, but a Google search didn’t provide me with the answers either.

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When I first went in 1998, it was actually creepy, for lack of a better word.  We had to go for an 8-hour tour.  We signed our lives away on this waiver that said if we got shot or maimed, we couldn’t hold the US government accountable.  We ate lunch with American soldiers who then took us around the border and told us horror stories of South Koreans and Americans getting ambushed by North Korean soldiers.  We literally crawled to the bottom of an infiltration tunnel, which are hidden tunnels North Koreans dug to one day invade the South.  When we got to the bottom, we were met by a North Korean guard standing at the other side of a steel-looking door.  We also saw “Hollywood” type signs in Korean all through the DMZ, urging people to come to the North Star.  We were blasted with eery North Korean propaganda music, intended to entice Americans and South Koreans to hop the border.

The actual border, by the way, is a field of untouched land that has been known to house rare species of flowers and small animals, likely because it has been left to grow wild for decades.

Armed North Korean, South Korean and American soldiers were everywhere–often facing one another for hours in silence.

Fast forward to my last trip in 2009.  We still had to hire a Chinese tourism company to take us to the DMZ, we still had to sign that ominous waiver, but overall, we had a much lighter experience.

We got to take a tram down the tunnel, for example.  It was more like an amusement ride.  There was no North Korean guard at the end.  In fact, we only saw one North Korean guard.  It seemed less intense, though it still fascinated and slightly frightened my husband.  

I have no idea what it’s like today with Kim Jong-un in charge.  I am really curious about North Korea.  I hope it wasn’t offensive to use the word creepy, but it really was like visiting a new world.  It is the best way I know how to describe it.

If you’re interested in North Korean culture, I have two favorite documentaries to share.  One is about an American defector who became a North Korean celebrity in the 1960s.  Here is his story on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

His documentary is here.

Another great documentary is called A State of Mind, which shows us how North Korean’s Mass Games work.  It is an incredible display of synchronized gymnastics to please the nation’s Great Leader.  It is one of the most beautiful and curious things I’ve seen.