In Front of Them All

Trip Start Mar 02, 2004
Trip End Apr 02, 2005

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Flag of Korea Rep.  , Gyeonggi,
Thursday, March 24, 2005

I'm standing in North Korea. I've been wanting to for a while, but this isn't quite the same as going to Pyongyang. This is Conference Room T2, straddling the Military Demarcation Line, the border between North and South, in the middle of the De-Militarized Zone. They used to have a silk American flag in this room, until North Korean soldiers walked in one day--while George W was in South Korea--and polished their boots with it.

Nicole is lamenting the fact that there aren't more North Korean guards around, but as she says it, I spy one walking past the window, and in a moment they're everywhere. I'm shaking with adrenaline. Now I believe the claim that our tour guide, American Lieutenant Fassl, makes; that the South Korean guards present are here to protect us.

There's an apprehension that one feels watching circling sharks on the other side of the glass aquarium. But we're the ones inside. As if to embellish the feeling one North Korean soldier stalks by the window, inches away from us, all malice and intimidation. It's like his presence blocked out the sun.

The photo opportunity of a lifetime, and my camera batteries are dead. As much as I want to observe I need to capture, and after some unsuccessful attempts to borrow other people's batteries I score some off Kristin, a American ex-pat teaching in Japan, on a short vacation to Korea. I'd been wanting to talk to her. I'm not one for pick-up lines, but this one must truly be unique. And adds to the surrealism of this experience.

Surreal and intense. North Korea is the most deranged country in the world, and the border between the two Koreas the most heavily fortified. There are many tours offered to the DMZ but only this one, the USO tour, takes you into Panmunjom, the "Peace Village", in the Joint Security Area. Here the two sides face off, with the constant threat of death and destruction.

I wonder what would happen if I made a mad dash across the line. In the eighties a Russian man made a run for it from the North side. The resulting firefight killed two North Koreans and one JSA soldier. The Russian is now a schoolteacher somewhere in the States. It's just one of the many bizarre stories about this most bizarre place.

The UN compound in the JSA houses around 600 soldiers, of whom only 40 are American. For such a militarized country--35,000 American troops plus tens of thousands of South Koreans--it seems strange that so few soldiers stand in the way of one of the most militarized nations. The water tower over Camp Boniface, in the JSA, is emblazoned with the slogan "In Front of Them All."

Not far from Panmunjom is the Bridge of No Return, and the site of the 1976 Axe Murder Incident. The capital letters are no embellishment. This bridge between North and South, now blocked off on the north end, was where POWs were exchanged after the Korean War. The prisoners were given the chance to choose which side they would venture to, but the decision was irrevocable.

Just meters from the southern end of the bridge is the spot where, in 1976, two American soldiers were brutally murdered as they were cutting down a poplar tree obstructing the view of the area. The incident was captured on camera from a nearby observation post, and the stills are chaotic and surreal, as is the repeated reference to "the 1976 Axe Murder Incident". Before our tour to Panmunjom we sign a waiver that absolves the military of all responsibility for "entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action."

A few kilometres away from the JSA is Tunnel Number 3. Discovered in the seventies, it's suspected that the North drilled the tunnel to invade the south. Seoul is only 40 km from the DMZ, and the tunnel runs far enough under the line to bypass the many mine fields and tank traps--laid to stop North Korean tanks "when" the North attacks, says our South Korean guide--that protect the southern border of the DMZ at this most critical point. There are three more tunnels known to exist, and it's easy to imagine that there are more.

But surely the tunnels can't be regarded as efficient modes of transportation for tens of thousands of troops, let alone tanks and artillery. Granted I'm tall, but not much taller than many South Korean men. Perhaps the northerners are made smaller by malnutrition. Tunnel Number Three has me bent near double as I walk through to the end, a cemented-over portal with an Alice in Wonderland doorway and blocked off observation window.

Razor wire prevents anyone getting closer than 20 feet, but it's not hard to imagine that you're being watched. I stare hard into the slit of light exposed at the edge of the window and imagine the man staring back at me, a bored North Korean soldier whose only view of the outside word is through a darkened window at the end of a tunnel.

At first the North claimed the tunnels were built by the South, but all the dynamite blast marks point south. They even coated the walls in some sections of the tunnel with black paint to claim that they were digging for coal.

Back on top, the Tunnel Number Three gift shop--there are souvenir shops everywhere around this part of the DMZ. "Yes, we've commercialized the place", says Lt. Fassl in the JSA--sells fridge magnets bearing the cartoon likeness of both South and North Korean JSA guards. It's hard to imagine the same reference on the other side, but this just adds to the strangeness, and kitsch value, of the place.

But it's not about souvenir fridge magnets and coffee mugs. The last stop on the tour is the Dora Observatory, high atop a hill overlooking the DMZ and the North Korean countryside, where for 50 cents you can look through Niagara Falls-style binoculars and see North Korean farmers till their land, or amble down dusty streets. Far off to the right is Panmunjom, and across from it, the North Korean "Propaganda Village", called the "City of Paradise" by the North.

Truly built for propaganda purposes, the mostly empty town boasts the tallest flagpole in the world, topped by a 600 pound North Korean flag. The flag is so heavy that it barely flaps full, and is drawn down during inclement weather. The massive speaker system that until a year ago used to blare anti-American propaganda across the DMZ is silent. "Now they just broadcast propaganda to themselves," says Lt. Pippin, another of our guides in the JSA.

Whatever one calls it, the North Korean town is starting to fill up. Over 400 by southern estimates, as the Stalinist regime relocates workers for the nearby Kaesong industrial complex. Kaesong city is the third largest in North Korean, with a population of over 200,000, and the complex is a joint commercial enterprise between South and North. The South runs and finances it, while the North provides cheap labour, surely some of the cheapest in the world.

There's a newly-built highway shipping raw materials and goods back and forth, which passes a rusted old locomotive, stopped in its tracks at the start of the Korean War 55 years ago. The two objects make a fitting symbol of the future of North and South, and a reunification that is at once tangible and impractical.

Another tour takes visitors to a newly-built railway station which announces Pyongyang as its destination, with tracks that lead--and end abruptly--north. If and when it happens, reunification will cost the South dearly, no matter the business opportunities available and the overwhelming desire of many South Korean people for a united Korea.

On the drive home we pass the razor-wired fence that runs almost to the heart of Seoul. Every inch of this fence is monitored, with white-painted rocks stuck into the chain-link. This low-tech approach apparently make it easy to tell if the fence has been tampered with, and this defence is used all along the way outside the DMZ, down the river which North Korean soldiers can, and have, used to infiltrate the South. Fishermen on some of the tributaries to this river, the Han, need special permission and IDs to trawl the waters.

Driving in to the city, on a sunny spring afternoon, we pass a riverside teeming with life and leisure. Seoulites rollerblade, play badminton, basketball, or otherwise revel in the fine weather. A river-tour boat plies along fully loaded as it passes the skyscrapers and high-rises of Seoul. It's a stark contrast to the scene a few dozen kilometres away.

As much as South and North Korea's future is wrapped up in, and played out on, the world stage, the situation remains a surreal and disturbing reality. I hope I can one day see it from the other side.
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