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Today, we headed to North Korea… to be more specific, the Joint Security Area overseen by the United Nations. The day started out with our guide giving us a rundown of the history between N. and S. Korea which was a unified country before the Korean War. Although unified, Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 until the end of WWII, when Russia declared war on Japan and reached an agreement with the United States to occupy half of the Korean Peninsula. After WWII, two separate governments were set up; one in the north and one in the south. Both claimed to be the legitimate government of Korea as a whole. Both sides saw the divide as temporary. In 1950, Communist led, North Korea, with the support of China and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied over 75% of the entire Korean Peninsula before the United Nations intervened and fought the Soviet led army back to North of the 38th Parallel. An armistice was signed in 1953 at Panmunjom where both sides agreed to a ceasefire. Prisoners of War were exchanged across the Bridge of No Return, a bridge, that when crossed, could not be crossed again; meaning that whatever friends and family you left behind would be lost to you forever. Over time, a two km buffer zone was set up on either side of the border (the 38th Parallel), called the Demilitarized Zone. The DMZ is 4 km wide in total; 2 belongs to North Korea and 2 belongs to South Korea. It is the most heavily militarized border in the entire world. The United Nations Joint Security Area, which is mainly overseen by the United States and S. Korea, are stationed along this border.

Our tour began with a trip to the Reunification Centre, a place built by S. Korea to be the reunification site for families once the two Koreas became one. As history has not yet seen this event, the Centre serves as a museum and memorial to family members whose fate remains unknown. To this day, there is no email, phone or mail communication between the two Koreas. Many families have no idea what became of their relatives on the other side of the border. There were binoculars at this hilltop complex that allowed us to peer onto N. Korean farms. If I had a better throwing arm, I would have been able to throw a rock and have it land on North Korean soil. That is how close we were. We could see people milling about on the other side and it was incredibly sad to imagine what their lives might be like, knowing they lacked the basic freedoms we take for granted: food, decent education, health care, technology and career opportunities. Professions in North Korea aren’t chosen by interest, they are a birthright. The only way for you to be a doctor is if your family were doctors before you. Education is based on inheritance, not merit.

The tour, at times, felt a little biased and it was hard to believe that N. Korea was as abysmally terrible as it was made out to sound. It quite possibly could be that bad. We also stopped at a shrine just south of the DMZ, which was a place for families in S. Korea to honour, mourn, pray and think about the fate of lost family members in the North. Thousands of ribbons with thoughts and wishes written on them were pinned on fences in the area. Craig and I added our love and best wishes on a ribbon and shed a tear for the families on both sides of the border. It is heartbreaking to imagine never being able to speak to a loved one, and even worse, not knowing what happened to them. Wives without husbands, dads who were never able to meet their own children and countless other tragic combinations.

Our tour continued into the DMZ and it started to feel real and a bit scary. We were directed not to take pictures except at the designated locations. When we arrived at the JSA, our bus was boarded by an armed U.N. Soldier, who checked our passports and escorted us to a military transport vehicle. We were transferred to the famous blue bunker buildings that straddled the border between North and South Korea. When we arrived, we had to line up in two orderly rows, take no pictures and make no gestures towards the North. We were warned that our cameras would be confiscated and factory reset if we disobeyed. We were led into the building that was used by both sides to meet – the only time when representatives from both sides were able to be in the same room. A new building is used for this purpose now, but to this day, that building belongs to neither country. The actual border cuts right through the centre, bisecting the boardroom table – the microphones on the table, itself, reflected the actual physical border. In this building, we were able to walk into North Korea – to the North Korean side of the room. In fact, we could wander from side to side or be in both countries at the same time. Two armed South Korean guards kept watch as we toured the room. They are 4th degree black belts in Taekwondo in addition to be heavily armed.

The building itself has an interesting backstory. It can be used, if empty, at any time by North or South Korea. The rule is, if the building is empty, either side could enter through their designated door. Once inside, they must lock the other entrance; barring the other Korea from entering. The building cannot be reserved for any reason by either side. It is used on a first come, first served basis. Luckily, it wasn’t be used when we arrived.

Once we were finished, we were allowed to take pictures of the guards – the North Korean guards who were stationed about 100 meters away. We were allowed to take photos of North Korea, but nothing in the a southern direction – presumably for security reasons. The North Korean soldiers were watching us on our tour the entire time. It was really interesting and kind of scary. We all had to wear U.N. Security badges when we entered. It was a privilege to have the opportunity.