Last Friday, I woke up absurdly early, ate a quick breakfast of pre-packaged Danish donuts I bought at 7/11 the night before, and hopped on the subway in Seoul, and rode two stops over to the Samgakji station near the Army base. I had to be there by 7:00AM so that I could ride on a tour bus for an hour and a half up to the De-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea.
A little background:
Shortly after WWII, war broke out on the Korean peninsula between North and South Korea. This war, which the US got heavily involved in, in the attempt to beat back the march of communism in Asia, is often referred to as "The Forgotten War," overshadowed by its cousin, the Vietnam War, which occurred about 15 years later and was also about beating back communism. However, in this war, 33,000 American soldiers and 152,000 South Korean soldiers were killed in action - not a small war by any means.
I became interested in Korea about a year ago when my internet friend, Kelley, came through Waco on a tour she was doing with a charity, and needed a couch to sleep on. I was able to give her a place to stay, and I attended the movie that she was there to show. The nonprofit - LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) - is about 1. Political action for the US to pressure China to recognize defectors from North Korea as political refugees, and 2. Aiding these refugees when they come to the United States. The film that they showed was incredibly eye-opening as to the situation happening in North Korea right now - political prisoner and labor camps, nationwide famine, and an oppressive regime run by what can only be called a crazy person.
Looking on a map, you can see that North Koreans only have a few places to go: down into South Korea, a journey which would take one through the heavily guarded and somewhat harsh 2.5 mile wide zone known as the DMZ. The other options are up into freezing cold Siberia, or over into communist China, which is sympathetic to the regime, and therefore, if you're found out without the proper papers, you get deported right back to North Korea, where, if you're not executed immediately, you get put in a political prison camp.
The situation is not good for the North Koreans, especially not for those who wish to leave.
So, it's almost needless to say that the DMZ was something I absolutely had to see when I visited Korea. When I asked a couple of friends who had lived there before, one who had been in the military, stationed at Seoul, told me not to muck around with hotel tours, but instead to sign up to go with the USO. Because it's associated with the US military, the USO tour allows you to go further into the DMZ than most hotel tours - those will just take you to the spots you could visit anyway: the 3rd tunnel and the lookout points.
Instead, with the USO, you get to visit the Joint Security Area, or JSA, which is an area that was a previously neutral zone on the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) plop in the middle of the DMZ. Yes, that's a lot of acronyms.
Back when it was first established, the JSA acted as a neutral zone between two technically still warring countries (North and South Korea only signed a cease fire - they never actually ended the war). Because the neutral zone spread over the MDL (the line marking the border between North and South), buildings belonging to each side were built all over the compound. Part of the problem arose when North Korea built checkpoints on the South Korean side - particularly three checkpoints surrounding just one South Korean one - checkpoint three. One day in 1976, near checkpoint three, some South Korean (ROK) and US soldiers and officers were working to cut down a giant Yew tree that was blocking the view from checkpoint three to checkpoint four. They were ambushed by North Korean soldiers and two US officers were killed.
As a result of the incident, the zone, while still "neutral" reverted back to country borders - the MDL now became of extreme importance, and so the line was, quite literally, marked through the camp. Part of the issue here was that there were several buildings sitting directly on the line. Therefore, concrete slabs were positioned along the MDL, between the buildings, to mark out where the border is. You can see just such a slab in this picture:
So, by being able to visit the JSA, I was able to get as close to North Korea as I could without having to go through the troublesome visa and screening process (which I doubt I'd ever pass, considering my views about oppression). For a few minutes, I got to actually stand in North Korea, and for several more, I got to stare across the way at North Korea soldiers who were staring back at me. For me, it was quite sobering - to think that 20 feet away from me is a regime known for oppression, terror, and propaganda filled with lies. We were specifically told not to wave, smile or do anything that could be used in North Korean propaganda.
Coming to Korea as an, I'll admit, somewhat ignorant American, I was surprised by how much South Korea actually knows about North Korea and the conditions there. In the War Memorial, there was an exhibit marking the 60th Anniversary of the establishment of the DMZ, and a large part of the exhibit was about the current conditions in North Korea. There was a lot about the history of the Korean War, and then a section that was simply "North Korea since the war." There were charts pointing out where each of the political prisoner and labor camps are. Pictures depicting how far the nuclear range of North Korea actually is (for my US readers - they would be lucky to hit Alaska), and others talking about the famine and food problems. Displays showed conditions in the political prisoner camps and what the cells are like if you're sentenced to death (they are so small that you can't even sit properly). It is, all in all, remarkable how much information is available, and was just sitting on display in the museum - for only the admission price of 5,000won (about $4.50US).
To go to that exhibit, learn about the DMZ, and then to go visit the actual DMZ - seeing not only North Korea, but the Bridge of No Return, the two towns that exist inside the borders, the site of the Yew Tree that was the catalyst for the axe murder incident, and the living statues that are the ROK soldiers who are the front line against North Korea - made the conflict very real. There is no doubt that things are very tense between the two countries and that it will take a lot of work for things to cool down.
But, however, as one walks through the war museum, and looks at things at the more "touristy" areas of the DMZ, there can be no doubt that there is a hope for reconciliation. South Korea exudes this hope of ending the war, of being able to embrace the North Koreans as brothers and of seeing freedom for their neighbors to the North.
After a tense morning at the JSA and staring across at North Korea, and an interesting hike down into a tunnel which North Korea had been digging in the 1970s in the hopes of ambushing Seoul, and visiting a lookout point where, were it a clear day, we would have been able to see the treeless mountains of the borderlands of North Korea - treeless because they don't want to give defectors any cover - we went to Dorasan Train Station, which is the last possible stop on the South Korean train line - Gyeongui - going North.
Here, in an almost deserted train station basically in the middle of nowhere (this station is, indeed, at the very edge of the DMZ), the sense of hope is almost palpable. There are reminders everywhere of what should be a bustling train station, but instead one that sits nearly empty except for those who happen to go through for work up in the Industrial City just inside the border of North Korea, which means mostly freight trains - there is no passenger service, if I remember correctly. There is a large, billboard sized poster that confronts the visitor when they enter the train station. This poster shows train tracks disappearing toward the horizon amongst green fields, with lettering in the blue sky above it, first in Korean and then in English: "Not the last station from the South, But the first station toward the North."
There is a sign lit up above doors leading to the tracks that says "To Pyeongyang," which is the North Korean capital. Another large poster on the wall displays the eventual map of an intercontinental railroad crossing through Europe, Russia, China and North Korea to connect Portugal and South Korea.
These are big dreams, big plans. And they all depend on the reunification and reconciliation of two nations divided. Despite the fact that it has been 60 years since the war and the separation was solidified between North and South, despite continually bristling tensions between the two countries as North Korea looks for excuses and threatens and tests their nuclear weapons, despite the propaganda and the lies, fighting and the strain exhibited so obviously at the JSA ... despite all this, there is hope.
And that, my friends, is a beautiful, beautiful thing.