A Fine Line

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September 14, 2012 by travelinggrits

This post reflects on my experience at the DMZ on August 17, 2012.

The sky was dreary, and a few raindrops meandered down the windows of the tour bus; it set the scene perfectly for our solemn journey. Everyone was relatively quiet; we had crawled out of beds at 3 a.m. to board the bus to cruise to Seoul, where we then departed for a U.S.O. tour of the DMZ.

The bus stopped at a military checkpoint at Camp Bonifas. A uniformed officer examined our passports and instructed us not to take pictures of the area for security reasons. We were ushered into a nearby building for a security briefing.

In a dispassionate, well-rehearsed presentation, the military guide described the history of the DMZ. He showed pictures of Daeseong, a freedom village with the only civilian inhabitants of the DMZ, and its North Korean counterpart, the “peace village” of Kijeong, which flies a North Korean flag atop a pole purposely constructed to overshadow the flagpole at Daeseong. He gave a detailed account of the 1976 axe murder incident, in which soldiers were attacked while trimming a tree blocking the view from a checkpoint within the Joint Security Area. His calm and collected tones expressed the serious but cooperative attitude toward North Korea, but the stories he told could not help but convey a subtle undercurrent of tension over the years.

And yet, even humor could coexist in the DMZ. We filed back onto the bus and rode to Panmunjeom, the location of the Joint Security Area. Our guide teased us for whipping our heads from side to side as if observing a tennis match when he pointed out landmarks. As we passed a fence and several yellow and black-striped concrete blockades, he told us, “Well, you just passed through a line of explosives” with a twinkle in his eye.

Upon arrival at the Joint Security Area, we marched through the Freedom Building and stood in rows on the steps in the back, literally face to face with North Korea. We spoke in hushed tones and avoided making gestures at the scene before us: a raised concrete line marking the stony division between two countries, with blue military armistice buildings straddling the line. South Korean soldiers stood guard at the building corners, poised in a taekwondo ready position to show no fear and staring ahead at the brown building on the North Korean side. A North Korean soldier observed us from the steps of this building, his gaze heavy upon our group as he raised a pair of binoculars. We were all clad in shirts with no writing, nice slacks and closed-toed shoes, per U.S.O. instruction, to avoid becoming propaganda material for unkempt appearance. The light drizzle from earlier had dissipated, leaving behind a white, muggy haze; cicadas buzzed as if vocalizing the electric tension that we all felt.

After a few minutes, we entered the military armistice building. Another South Korean guard stood watch as we circled the table where the 1953 Korean War armistice had been signed. We were allowed to walk around freely in this room—thus crossing the North Korean line by walking to the far side of the room. One friend said, “War has never felt so real.” Peering out the window at the concrete line behind me, I certainly had to agree.

After taking some pictures, we were ushered back to the Freedom Building. Looking back, I noticed that a second North Korean guard had joined the first, watching our departure.

As we put some distance between ourselves and this much-contested border, Camp Bonifas welcomed us with a symbol of democracy and free enterprise…in the form of a souvenir shop. North Korean currency, liquor, DMZ T-shirts, even pieces of barbed wire mounted on plaques. Somehow, I was not surprised.

A civilian tour guide took over for the military personnel, and we joined throngs of other tourists for our next stop, the third infiltration tunnel. According to our guide, four tunnels burrowing below the border have been discovered, but up to 20 are believed to exist. The third tunnel, found in 1978, is considered the most dangerous because it is merely 52 km from Seoul. The tunnel’s story is framed differently depending on the Korea telling it; the North insists its use was for coal mining from the southern side, while the South points to the tunnel’s granite composition and the direction of the dynamite blasts as proof of its purpose. The air was cool and clammy as we descended below the earth, peering through a wall at the far side, and for some reason a scene from the movie “Inception” came to mind.

The Dora Observatory afforded a bird’s eye view of the line between north and south, and the distinction was clear: the thick trees abruptly halted at the northern line. A highway, used by a few hundred South Koreans who work in North Korea with industrial operations established by Samsung, snaked north. Our last stop of the day was at Dorasan Station, a train line built in the early 2000s that operated as a supply train to the Kaesong industrial area for a little less than a year. The train no longer runs, but the hope is that they will one day restart operation. Until that time, you can still buy a souvenir ticket to Pyeongyang. Something about the atmosphere here reminded me of my travels to Poland last summer; Although this well-cleaned train station bears no physical resemblance to the decaying transport stations used during WWII during the Holocaust, the deserted waiting area felt similarly eerie.

Our bus headed south toward Seoul, and many napped on the smooth ride. The rest of the weekend would be lighthearted; a pool party at the ambassador’s house, two full free days in Seoul and our graduation from our language study, including class performances of skits in Korean. We would carry on with our lives, and our experience at the DMZ would not be lost but would slip to the back of our memory. And so it is with the South Korean people.
An official peace treaty was never signed to finish the war, and small disputes have arisen in the past and will likely rise again. But as I looked around at the tourists at the DMZ sites, scrolling through news feeds on smart phones, dressed in casual chic, I see a nation that has moved on. Don’t get me wrong, that underground channel of contention will remain. But these people have learned to rise above rather than dwell on the past.


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