The climate-controlled interiors offered a welcome refuge from the crisp, early-morning breeze, as the bus paced along the highway with trademark Korean efficiency. The freezing temperatures, coupled with the fog, were more archetypal of winter than spring. The only symbols of vernal hope were occasional glimpses of cherry buds priming themselves, albeit tentatively, for their much-awaited annual blossoming. Their cheery disposition was in ironical contrast to the sobriety of where we were headed.
Before long, the appearance of barbed wires, traffic barriers and uniformed personnel indicated that we had arrived at our destination. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a 250km-long, 4km-wide area spread between South and North Korea, created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953. Despite the significant presence of military personnel, the implicit understanding is that the DMZ is a buffer zone where both sides would refrain from any sort of combat.
We may have been part of an innocuous tour group, but this was a high security area and identity checks were mandatory for everyone. Passports open to the photo page, we held them up for inspection as American soldiers came around perusing the range of national identity documents on display—Korean, Australian, Swedish, Indian and then some more. Security checks done, it was on to the visitor centre of the first stop—the JSA or the Joint Security Area.