Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The closest we’ll ever come to active landmines

If you ever feel you need a healthy dose of reality to believe that the world is not always a warm and fuzzy place then the Korean DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) should be first on your list of places to visit.  You may vaguely remember hearing a lot about the end of the Cold War when you were 10, but here its vestiges are alive and well.  Our USO tour bus left Seoul early and took us as far as the American-South Korean base and from there we switched to a military bus to take us through to the Joint Security Area (JSA).  Crossing a seemingly innocuous bridge our army host told us that the concrete walls were anti-tank pylons, the fields next to us were land-mined, and the barbed wire fence right after it was electrified.  I nearly choked on my Hello Kitty lollipop.

As he went on, we were surprised to learn that there were villages in the DMZ, one belonging to the South Koreans and the other to the North.  In the South, villagers plant rice fields and, aside from enduring very strict curfews, lead what sounds like a normal life (albeit with the constant threat of war breaking out around them).  In the North, Propaganda Village actually remains empty although the official position of the North Korean government is that it is a thriving 200-person collective farm.  Until 2004, loudspeakers in the empty village blared communist ideology with the aim of convincing South Koreans to defect to the North – thus the nickname. 

The JSA, however, was certainly the most unsettling place.  The area is divided up into buildings that belong to both North and South Koreans with shared conference rooms in the center.*  From the South Korean side, soldiers remain at a ready in a modified taekwondo stance, fists clenched and partially concealed behind buildings making them more difficult targets for sudden gunfire.  On the opposite side, two North Koreans march from behind pillars and frequently take out binoculars to examine each and every face in your tour group.  It’s hard not to imagine a huge wall inside that now has our pictures on it.

The tour finished at the Third Tunnel.  As North Koreans defected to the South, some of them carried information pertaining to the location of huge tunnels that the North had built under the DMZ with Seoul as the final target.  Unlike the miniature Cύ Chi tunnels built by the Vietnamese, these are proper tunnels (midgets like Tia don’t even need to duck).   Some of the rocks still have the black paint applied by the North Koreans to corroborate their claim that the tunnels were just old coal mines if ever accidentally discovered.  Four tunnels have currently been found but the South Koreans suspect that there might be many more.  It’s like living in a 1950s spy novel!

In stark contrast to the palpable tension is the comical game of one-upmanship.  South Korea constructs a building meant to host reuniting families and North Korea puts up another building just opposite that’s taller.  South Korea raises a 100 ft. flagpole and North Korea erects one that’s twice as tall (with a 600 lb. flag flying!).  If there are people who believe that modern nation states don’t do their fair share of primitive penis waving this should dispel that illusion. 

Saddest part: the perfectly new, fully functional railroad station at Dorasan with train times appearing on the electronic board but whose track ends just before the DMZ.   Families wait in the lobby praying to be reunited with their families stuck in the North.  Absolutely heartbreaking.

* - In the past, the buildings were scattered around the entire compound but that didn’t end so well (ref. axe murder incident).

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