Inside the DMZ Between North and South Korea

(CBS/Robert Hendin)
The final day of President Obama's Asia trip turned into a once in a lifetime experience for a small group of reporters and White House staffers who were taken on a tour of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between South Korea and its mysterious neighbor to the north, North Korea.

The ride out of Seoul, the South Korean Capital of 12 million people, took about an hour. As we drove along the Han River, we noticed South Korean guard posts every few hundred feet and barbed wire rolling down the banks.

It was an eerie feeling approaching the DMZ as we came up a few checkpoints with anti-vehicle spikes and roadblocks making for delicate driving. Seeing a U.S. soldier salute our van as we drove through made us feel that we had arrived at Camp Bonifas, the United Nations Joint Security Area that comprises the border and is run by the U.S.

(CBS/Robert Hendin)
Once we got through the first gate, a public affairs officer and a security officer got on board and gave us some basic ground rules, like where we could and could not take pictures. We were all given purple "press" armbands to wear, so we were seen as noncombatants. Our security officer was wearing a yellow one, meaning that he was armed.

We drove past the first few gates and were told not to take any pictures for a while. We passed through security areas, an anti-tank wall and minefield and drove through rice fields before arriving at a large, modern looking, grey stone and glass building. We entered the building and went up an escalator and out another door. We were instructed to stand outside, atop a small set of stairs.

I had no idea where we were, for what I always envisioned the DMZ as a large trench with South Korean and North Korean soldiers on each side staring at each other. What was in front of us, was a road, a few small trailer like buildings, three of them blue U.N. offices – all sat perpendicular to where we standing.

(CBS/Robert Hendin)
Below us, guarding the U.N. buildings were 2 ROK guards, as they called, for Republic of Korea. The men wore ornate uniforms, dark glasses and helmets. They were staring out across the area between the buildings. Across another road at another building.

Standing on the stairs of that large stone building was a North Korean soldier. I was looking at North Korea.

The North Korean guard post was manned by 2 soldiers, one standing on the steps with binoculars, looking out at our group (see picture above), and a second man, who we were told was inside manning cameras, also looking at us. We were told not to point, gesture or make any commotion toward them. Though, we were also told that sometimes the North Koreans would do something to try to instigate a response.

After spending a few minutes taking pictures and video, there we could take as many pictures as we wanted to, we were taken into one of the blue U.N. buildings.

(CBS/Robert Hendin)
It was a long room with conference tables. It was where direct face to face negotiations between the two sides took place. There were translation booths on each end. A ROK guard stood in the middle at a table that straddled the actual border. On the table was a UN flag. At the far end was another ROK guard standing in front of a door. We were instructed not to go behind that guard as that was the door to North Korea. Luckily, it was locked.

The ROK guards, by the way, do not react to anyone or anything around them. They stood still, hidden behind dark glasses, as our group posed for pictures with them and moved about the room.

After a few minutes thinking that behind that blue door, was North Korea. Really, North Korea. We were taken out, through the door way we came in, out a few hundred feet to a little observation post for a better view. We observed a second North Korean small guard building in front us. No guards were out there, but there cameras on the roof.

(CBS/Robert Hendin)
We were told to turn around. We saw a village with rolling mountains in the background. It was a beautiful site and would have been more picturesque had we not been told that was also North Korea. There was a large North Korean flag flying above the village. Our security guide told us that the flag is incredibly large and very heavy, weighted so it is always flying.

It was then that our guard told us that we standing in an area that was surrounded by North Korea on 3 sides.

On the way out, we were taken to the bridge of no return, where after the Korean War, prisoners were returned to their respective home countries.

After a few minutes taking it in, we moved on and headed out. The ride back was quieter as the group was still in awe after seeing this most mysterious place and having first hand glimpses of the world's most secretive country.

(CBS/Robert Hendin)

More Coverage from Robert Hendin on President Obama's Trip to Asia:

Obama Takes in the Sights of Beijing
U.S., China Fuel Each Other's Bad Habits
President Obama, Can We Twitter?
Inside the Japanese White House
For Obama in Asia, Focus Will be Economy

Robert Hendin is a CBS News White House producer. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.