Doo doo, just another Tuesday come and gone. Well, actually, not quite. Let me rewind the tape a little.
Having lived in South Korea for much of the last ten years, one of the places I’ve always meant to visit is the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Well, I was working on my novel last week when it hit me that the main character should visit the border for a number of symbolic reasons. Of course, I couldn’t write about it without doing it myself. So after a quick call to the American USO Office in Seoul, I was all set to visit one of the most notorious and volatile areas on the planet.
I got up at 5 A.M. this morning to be able to get to the USO by 7. Once there, about 30 of us boarded a bus and headed up north towards the border. Our guide was a young Korean woman in her early twenties who was pretty and perky and quite proficient-of not all the way fluent-in English. (I’ll call her Janie.)
As we drove for about an hour and a half, the huge buildings of Seoul gradually disappeared, replaced by the Imjin River and the barbed wire fence that ran alongside it to prevent the North Koreans from crossing over it. We soon crossed a short bridge called the Grand Unification Bridge and drove on to an army compound, which had the feel of a summer camp retreat, with small, dull-colored buildings scattered here and there, the only signs of life being the few soldiers standing at attention at checkpoints.
We got off the bus at a small building called the Visitor Briefging Center where an American soldier stepped up on stage and gave a historical overview of the Joint Security Area (JSA), where we would soon be visiting. To clear up the various names, the DMZ refers to the area that runs 2 km north and 2 km south of the border, officially known as the Demarcation Line. The JSA is the small, smack-in-the-middle part of the DMZ where North and South Korean officials have meetings and North and South Korean border guards virtually co-exist. It’s about as tense an area as you can get, especially with crazy events such as the 1976 Axe Murder Incident when North Korean soldiers wielding axes attacked and killed American soldiers who were trimming down a tree in the JSA. (The axe in question is now housed in the North Korean Peace Museum; apparently, irony is alive and well up north.)
After the presentation, it was time to see the JSA for ourselves. We were escorted by the American soldier who warned us not to bring our bags into the JSA (in case North Koreans accuse us of trying to bring explosives in) and also not to try to communicate with or gesture towards the North Korean soldier we were likely to see on the other side of the JSA (in case we get accused of trying to antagonizing them).
We got off the bus and entered a big, gray building called the Freedom House, where meetings betweens North and South Korea sometimes take place. Once we crossed the building, we came face to face with three small, sky blue buildings (each about the size of a mobile home) and then in the distance, a bigger, gray, multi-story building known as the Panmungak, North Korea’s main building in the area. The one North Korean guard we could see was stationed in front of Panmungak’s door, dressed in a green uniform with red stripes on the shoulders. I kept watching him and when we appeared, he took out a pair of binoculars and took a good look at us. (I would love to know what went through his mind at that moment.)
Our American soldier escort then led us to one of the sky blue buildings, the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) Conference Room, where talks take place between duty officers from both sides. It’s basically your everyday conference room, dominated by a shiny lacquered wood table surrounded by chairs on both sides. The crazy thing is, the table served as a microcosm of the border itself; when we crossed the table, we were officially in North Korean territory. Also, there were two South Korean soldiers standing at guard, one standing near the table and one standing in front of the door on the opposite wall. As it was explained to us, when North Korean tour groups visit the DMZ, they enter the same room, but the South Korean guards leave and are replaced by their North Korean counterparts, one of whom blocks the entrance that we came in. It was just kind of mind-boggling to look at this room and this table-a nice table, but STILL!-and ponder the meaning of it all. As some of us crossed the table, we noticed a dead bug of some kind lying on the floor. Someone wisecracked, “It must have died while trying to defect.”
Soon, we said goodbye to the room and to the Korean guards (they never spoke, and our guide warned us not to touch them since “they will hit you”) and got back on the bus. As we drove away, the American soldier pointed out where the Axe Murder Incident took place, and we also passed the Bridge of No Return where after the Korean War, POWs were given the choice to either cross and go to the other side or to stay where they were (apparently, the bridge is depicted in one of the James Bond movies, and I’m pretty sure it’s the bridge Angelina Jolie walks across to meet her husband in the beginning of “Salt”).
We next drove on to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, one of the secret tunnels North Korea dug to get into South Korea for surprise attacks. It’s not much to look at, basically just a short, rocky cave with a low ceiling (we all wore helmets, and I was never so happy that I wasn’t tall).
Afterwards, we went on to the Dora Observatory located on top of Dora Mountain, where we were theoretically supposed to get a grand view into North Korea, namely the Propaganda Village (where almost no one actually lives) and the ultra-high flagpole with the North Korean flag perpetually waving (in a classic case of phallic competition, the South Koreans outdid the original North Korean flagpole with a higher flagpole of their own, only to see the North Koreans come back and build a higher one still). Well, that didn’t really happen in reality as the day was too hazy to see pretty much of anything aside from the humbled South Korean flagpole.
After that, we moved on to the final place in our itineary: Dorasan Station. It’s pretty much your average rail station with the requisite lobby and counters and railroads and stop signs. The only thing it’s missing is an actual train. A few years back, a railroad between North and South Korea opened with great fanfare, and a train actually ran from Dorasan Station (the northernmost station in South Korea) to stations in North Korea for a little while. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last, and now the deserted station now plays host only to visiting tourists.
Looking at the railroads heading up north to God-knows-what-it’s-like-over-there, I thought about all the things I saw today, and I don’t know, I can’t say that I came to any epiphany or some greater understanding of anything, really. I think issues of North and South Korea, of war, of families torn apart for the rest of their lives, it’s all beyond the grasp of anyone who hasn’t experienced them firsthand. The tour today was intriguing, interesting, and thought-provoking, yes, but for me to claim that they brought me any real insight into the Korean War and its aftermath would be pompous and asinine. Ultimately, if today taught me anything, it was that there is so much that I do not know, so much that I cannot understand. It was a completely humbling experience; that’s the best way I can describe it. And really, I think it’s a good thing. We all should be humbled every now and then; otherwise, we’d never strive to be more than what we are now. So that is how I chose to leave the DMZ at the end of the day: absolutely humbled, and utterly grateful for it.