I am writing about one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I will never forget what we did today. Upon being accepted into the program, I circled this date on the itinerary expecting it to be memorable, but this far exceeded my expectations. Having a hearty meal at the hotel restaurant, we headed out to the DMZ. This is something that I love teaching about every year, that the content alone is so rich that it holds the attention of the students with no gimmicks or frills needed. It's a fascinating case study of human culture and government. Not knowing exactly what we'd be seeing as the DMZ is technically a gigantic miles wide area along the entire Korean border, I came equipped with all my camera equipment I could carry. Having to inform our guides that I had a large lens I was hoping to bring, they had to get special permission to make sure it was appropriate. Once we left Seoul, we saw a countryside that had rice fields, forest, and a mountainous backdrop. Climbing in elevation towards the DMZ, we reached the first United Nations checkpoint. A guide came aboard our bus dressed in military fatigues, who was from the United States. Here he gave us an overview of the tensions between both sides, his role as a member of the United Nations military presence sworn to protect the border, and give us a guide to what we were seeing along the road. Beside a bridge we crossed were large pillars with black boxes on the side. We asked what the purpose of them was. He said they were explosives in case the border was breached by the North Koreans and they had to destroy the bridge. Barbed wire surrounded the area with guard towers almost every 100 yards. It definitely was a secure area. I would always tell my students that Bill Clinton, who had seen the world, said the DMZ was the scariest place on earth. Many people would agree knowing the high levels of tension in the area. In the DMZ, there were people actually living in the area. These people didn't have to pay taxes and lived a relatively peaceful life, albeit in one of the most contentious places in the world. Arriving at our first stopping point, the JSA (Joint Security Area) we headed through the conference area to hear a seminar on the United Nations and JSA responsibilities from a female United Nations officer dressed in fatigues. Following this we walked through the mini museum, which was up-to-date with a recent issue where a North Korean guard crossed the border to South Korea only 8 months ago. Hearing about the stories I never heard about before regarding issues at the border, like where there was an ax murder for cutting down a tree in the DMZ, I really understood how fierce this area could be. After the 30 minute visit, we walked out of the JSA building where tanks and light armored vehicles lined the road, but also next to a Buddhist temple. We continued on the bus, further through the DMZ to another building that looked like any other office building. Told to depart and head into the building in a double-file line, I was thinking that this was protocol as to avoid bumping into people. Entering through the large class doors, there was a set of stairs leading where we gathered as we waited in line. As we walked slowly up the stairs to the second floor, you could see it led out to a large set of windows and doors. Seemly we started in the walkout basement of sorts of the building as the floor we were walking to appeared to be the main floor. As we creeped up the stairs, my eyes light with bewilderment as I couldn't comprehend what I was seeing. There before me were the legendary blue buildings that I had read about frequently, seen in videos, and shared with students. This was the same location where only two months prior the South and North Korean leaders had met for the first time in 65 years. I had analyzed this location with my students in Google Earth and through virtual reality previously. Blinded by unrelenting excitement, I knew I couldn't hold back on trying to secure a good spot to take pictures and soak in what I was experiencing. Any time I have left the country, I always weigh the benefits and instantly I knew that this had paid off as this would be a truly memorable experience. Snapping pictures like my life depended on it, I was grateful I brought my zoom with me because I was able to get a clear view of the notorious North Korean guards overlooking.
About Matthew Cottone
Experience the World! This is my creed I bring to my classroom and my life. I'm a World Studies teacher at Van Hoosen Middle School and I have a passion for learning and experiencing the world.