The DMZ, Korea

November 7, 2013

Looking north.


Thirty-five miles north of Seoul is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a no-mans-land that has divided Korea for just over 60 years. At the crack of dawn, I join a gaggle of tourists piling into a luxury bus bound for the DMZ, my first 'official tour' on this journey. (Mark is holed up at our guesthouse, waging his own personal war against a seemingly intractable illness.) My bus includes a group of Americans, Korean War veterans and their sons, a Swedish woman on holiday with her two adopted Korean daughters, a hip couple from DC, and many Asian tourists. We breeze along super highways through Seoul's maze of concrete and high rises, on roads paralleling the Han River. Soon the gray concrete gives way to just-harvested rice fields and small vegetable farms. As I gaze out the window, I see camouflaged guard posts along the river, each spaced only 200 meters apart, masses of barbed wire coiled along the fenced roadways, and heavy artillery tucked into every valley, poised on each little hilltop.

After an hour's drive north we reach a United Nations (UN) checkpoint and enter the 2.5 mile wide, 149-mile long DMZ. I'm astonished: the DMZ is beautiful! Enormous flocks of geese swirl overhead, a crystal clear river rushes by, shorebirds feed in wetlands that stretch as far as I can see, the wooded hills are brilliant in their autumn hues of purple, bronze and gold. I have to remind myself that this corridor is riddled with land mines and is the most heavily militarized border in the world, with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed on both sides, poised for war. (Later I learn South Korea is proposing that the DMZ become a international biosphere reserve.)

At Camp Bonifas, a United Nations (UN) military post, named after an officer bludgeoned to death with an ax handle by the North Koreans, during a weird altercation over tree cutting in the DMZ, a cocky US Marine boards the bus. He carefully inspects each of our passports, verifies that we are dressed neatly and tidily, as required, then gives us a briefing filled with acronyms and admonitions, the two most important being: 1) We may only take photos in designated areas (very few!) and only while facing north and 2) we are not allowed to gesture at or communicate in any manner with any North Korean.


We head on to Panjmunjom, where in 1953 the UN-brokered armistice agreement ended the three-year Korean War, a war in which more than 3 million people were killed and, by some estimates, the families of 7 million people were split. Infrequent conferences are still held here, and over the years there have been skirmishes resulting in a number of deaths on both sides. Today, UN troops, mostly South Korean (ROK) soldiers guard the area, each frozen in a military/martial arts stance. US marines casually saunter about, skirting but never crossing the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) at the exact center of the DMZ. A North Korean soldier suddenly emerges from the gray building on the other side of the MDL. and a minor hubbub occurs. Our marine steps up his monitoring, scanning us tourists to be certain we are dutifully somber and expressionless. I glare as I snap a photo of the North Korean soldier, who also looks appropriately severe. We file into the conference room and take north-facing pictures of the ROK soldiers who guard the room, standing perfectly motionless through all the tourist-induced ruckus.

Next stop: Dora Observatory. It's crisp and clear, a freezing Siberian wind whips around us, but barely flaps the enormous, 600-pound flag the North Koreans have erected on the tallest flagpole in the world (150 meters), trumping the wimpy 100-meter tall flagpole the South Koreans have erected. North Korea's hillsides are denuded and apparently contain city-sized military installations -- some may contain nuclear weapons. A line of binoculars has been set up for our viewing pleasure, but photographers are corralled behind a painted yellow line, where the view is obscured unless you are 6 feet tall, at least. I hold my camera high over my head and snap a couple of photos -- north-facing, of course.

Our personal marine escort leaves us and we don hard hats for our final escapade, traipsing down the 'Third Tunnel', one of four North Korean tunnels that have been discovered crossing beneath the DMZ, this one in 1978. No photos are allowed. As we descend the dank, dark tunnel, the taller among us (myself included) regularly bang our heads on the low rock ceiling. Our guide explains that the North Koreans painted the tunnel walls gray to bolster their claim, if the tunnel was ever discovered, that it was created to mine coal. Pretty lame.

At the end of a long day, I am exhausted by too many facts and figures, have lost track of all the acronyms, and am dismayed by the childish, silly games played by both sides. But most of all, I am sobered by the sad reality that another war, even a nuclear war, could occur between these two countries -- whose people are brothers and sisters -- at any moment. South Korea has a tragic history of invasions and dominance by other countries (notably, Japan) and the threat of yet another war is a subtle, but constant undercurrent. Back in Seoul, I hike up one of the surrounding peaks to a 17th century fortress wall, where I am required to show my passport at a heavily armed military checkpoint. I navigate the underground subway maze and wait for the train in front of glass cases filled with gas masks. After several weeks here, I no longer notice military convoys traversing the city streets, policemen in tightly packed box-like formations on street corners. South Korea's tragic history and the almost tangible future threats seem to have shaped this nation, encouraging artistic expression, driving people to succeed, forging pride in this vibrant country. Let's hope peace prevails.