Run DMZ - It's Tricky
Trip Start Oct 31, 2008
30Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
Have you ever bought a new car and felt like it's the only one of its kind, only to find that afterward you see its "twin" around every corner? It seems that once you develop an awareness of an object or a category or a concept, suddenly you are frequently surrounded by evidence that relates to the object, category or concept. I have been experiencing this phenomenon recently. I was online scanning Yahoo News headlines and I noticed one about the Karate Kid movie. This simple event led me to think about martial arts, especially since I’m in Korea. Concepts like yin and yang, harmony, opposing forces, tension, and balance came to mind. Almost immediately I began to see evidence of these concepts all around me, just like that Kia sedan I thought was so unique. You may recognize some of these concepts in many of the photos in this posting.
The 38th parallel, the demilitarized zone, the DMZ – is one of the most tension-filled environments I have ever experienced. In 1976, while conducting a routine tree trimming operation in the DMZ, a group of U.S. soldiers were confronted, threatened, and attacked by a large group of North Korean soldiers. The North Korean soldiers used axes to kill two soldiers. Since 1953 there have been multiple attacks and provocations by the North Koreans in the DMZ. The most recent attack occurred a few weeks ago when a South Korean ship was torpedoed and sunk by the North Koreans. I write this information as a backdrop to my recent visit to the DMZ.
Riding along a barbed wire-lined road dotted with guard towers and weaving around barriers strategically placed on the road, our bus finally arrived at The Joint Security Area of Pan Mun Jom, Korea. We were delayed and observed outside of the gate by highly trained and intensely focused guards of the likes I have not seen before with perhaps the exception of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Washington D.C. Two soldiers arrived and escorted our bus to a briefing room where we signed an informed consent and liability waiver form releasing the United States and South Korea of liability for any unfortunate events that may occur while at Pan Mun Jom. We were briefed on the history of the DMZ and given specific instructions on what we could and could not do or say while at the DMZ.
No sudden movements or gestures were allowed. No direct eye contact with North Korean guards was allowed. No sandals, shorts, baggy pants or unkempt hair was allowed so you know I required an adjustment. When walking to and from the observation area, two person lines were required and obviously we had to stay together as a group and stay within strict boundaries. The tension was palpable. For a moment, I felt seconds away from a confrontation as I focused my camera lens at the North Korean guard standing at the top of the steps on the North Korean side as he stared back at me through the lenses of his binoculars. It was a scene that I had seen many times on television news. Many of you are aware of how my ever so slight tinge of paranoia, imagination as I call it, can take over at times. The guards had informed us that the North Koreans take video footage and photographs of everyone who comes to the DMZ. The photographic and video equipment was evident everywhere in the area. As I looked through my camera lens at the guard looking back at me through binoculars, for a split second, I began to think about how easily a North Korean could misinterpret the 45 RPM record adapter logo on my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cap for some type of top secret nuclear symbol. I could almost hear the shot ring out as in one take I become the star of my very own Zapruder film. Okay, okay so sometimes I get a little carried away and somewhat grandiose.
We were allowed to see the United Nations Conference Room. This room is used for all negotiations between the north and the south. Half of the room is in North Korean territory. I couldn’t help but have a friend take my photo standing near one of the South Korean guards while standing on the North Korean side of the room. You can tell by the photo that I was a tad bit nervous about it. The South Korean guards are always positioned in a Tai Kwon Do semi-attack position. All of the guards have black belts in one of the martial arts. Looking at the guards, for a moment I couldn’t help but think that I probably looked like that as a child when I moved too slowly at Sunday dinner after church and ended up with an inferior piece of fried chicken. Anyway…
We continued on our journey through the DMZ which included visits to the “Bridge of No Return,” close to the location where the Axe murders occurred, guard station UNC 3, known as the “Loneliest Place in the World,” and tunnel 3 which is the third of a possible 17 tunnels that the North Koreans have constructed that lead into South Korea. Tunnel 3 was discovered near Pan Mun Jom. We were told that approximately 30,000 troops and heavy guns and equipment could pass through this tunnel in about one hour. Our photo ops were greatly restricted for much of the tour. An interesting site was the view of North Korea’s Propaganda Village, a modern appearing city located within view of the DMZ. Skyscrapers and all are visible. The only problem is that nobody lives there except a handful of maintenance workers. It’s all for propaganda purposes. There is a 160 meter flag pole with a huge North Korean flag that highlights the village. Photos could not be taken for security reasons the day we were there except from one location and we had to hold our camera high above our heads and give it our best shot. Needless to say, the DMZ visit was one I will never forget.
On a lighter and brighter note, I was lucky enough to be in South Korea for the Lantern Weekend, which was part of a larger celebration of Buddha’s birthday which lasted over several days. It was an amazing weekend of bright colors, fun-filled activities, music, entertainment, colorful native wardrobes and Buddhists from all across Asia. After an hour and a half train ride to Seoul, my friend Carl and I were famished. Like a magnet we were drawn to a sign that read, “We will provide meals for old men.” Carl and I looked at each other and determined, “Why not?” I am here to tell you though, the old adage; “There is no such thing as a free lunch” is steeped in truth. There is always a price to pay in one way or another. We decided that although hungry, sautéed centipedes just weren’t what we had in mind. In spite of all of the exotic activities available, whether it be meditation, yoga, lantern making, drumming, making Buddhist prayer beads, or even dressing up in traditional Korean wedding attire, the activity that most attracted the kids was skipping rope.
One gentleman caught my eye amidst the brightly colored attire of the people. He was dressed in a flowing white robe and had flowing facial hair to include his eye brows. I couldn’t help but ponder, “How does he do that?” He intrigued me and my eyes couldn’t help but steer back toward him in wonderment throughout the afternoon. It was as if he were a cross between a Zen Master and JRR Tolkien's Gandalf character. Later in the day, I caught a photo of him when he was not in camera-posing mode. I couldn’t help but laugh and think, “That’s how he does it.”
Seoul is a vibrant city, filled with community activities, tradition, palaces, and life. I have enjoyed visiting the diverse neighborhoods, talking with the people and participating in their activities. They are gentle, creative and kind.
The last stop north on the train is Mt. Soyosan. A hike on the Mt. Soyosan trail is a worthwhile trip on any visit to South Korea. In some ways it reminded me of walking along a Rocky Mountain trail in Colorado as a beautiful clear water stream accompanied the trail up the mountain along with rock formations, waterfalls, and trees. The monuments and Buddhist temples however, make for that uniquely Korean distinction. After visiting three temples, my friend Carl and I were honored by being invited to eat “Temple Food” after a meditation session. We walked down a dark corridor, removed our shoes and sat on the floor in a special dining room and enjoyed a wonderful vegetarian lunch of vegetables, rice, bean soup and rice cakes. There were about twenty of us at the lunch. It was a wonderful and unexpected experience.
This is my last posting from Korea. I have enjoyed it, but look forward to getting home in early July if all goes well. As always, I will send you a notification when the next posting goes up, probably from San Antonio, Texas. Enjoy your summer. J