About 10 years ago, I went to North Korea. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I stepped into North Korea, then I stepped back into the South.
I was taking a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is the only way the average visitor can go; shepherded through the area by a U.N. soldier (most likely, an American).
Our tour began on a bus that traveled from Seoul up the “unification highway” toward the North. Seoul is only 40 miles or so from the DMZ, which is, when you are living there, not so reassuring. I was constantly hearing how quickly the North Koreans could reach Seoul, were they to attack. Less than five minutes by plane, I think it was. The military fortifications, American bases, and South Korean soldiers posted along the border are routinely referred to as merely “speed bumps” in the way of an attack by the one-million-man strong North Korean army.
The tour bus traveled northward along the Imjin River, which is lined with coils of razor wire to prevent would-be infiltrators from climbing its banks. The highway passed through quiet countryside. Not too many people live near the DMZ. There were tank barriers every so often, and machine gun bunkers. There were contraptions that in the event of an attack would lower cement blocks and barbed wire across the roadway.
The tour began in Camp Bonifas (named for a Capt. Bonifas who was axed to death on the DMZ by North Koreans in 1976 while he was trying to cut down a tree). The signs we saw upon entering displayed the camp motto: “In front of them all.”
We sat through a briefing on what not to do in the DMZ (provoke the North Korean soldiers, take pictures of South Korean military fortifications, wander off paths, away from the group, etc., etc., etc.) and we had to sign waivers that said: “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and the possibility of death as a direct result of enemy action.” We watched a slide show on the history of the DMZ, and Panmunjom, aka “truce village.” We were given U.N. visitor badges to wear.
Outside in Panmunjom itself, we climbed a pagoda for a view into North Korea. I took pictures of the North Korean soldiers, clad in brown uniforms, standing at attention on the steps of the building on the other side of the international boundary. All around us, seemingly innocuous verdant countryside. Birds tittered. But we’d been told about the landmines that riddle the DMZ, and the peacefulness that nature offered was undercut by the military presence and a certain, unspoken tension.
A series of one-story cement block buildings lie across the military demarcation between the two countries. There were conference tables inside them, and microphone cords than ran down the middle of the tables marked the international boundary. Our tour guide took us into one of the buildings, which was guarded on the southern side by two South Korean soldiers standing in ready taekwondo stance. Their hands clenched into sturdy fists. One by one, everyone on the tour was allowed to walk over into North Korean territory, then walk back. Outside the window, North Korean soldiers. We had been warned that North Korean soldiers might try to smile at us, or take our pictures, and that we were not to respond in any way. The soldiers outside the window did not look at us but instead stared straight ahead at the soldiers from the south.
Our tour took us past some of the 1,292 concrete posts holding up rusted metal signs in Korean and English that mark the line between the two countries from coast to coast – 151 miles in total. There are about 1,200 South Korean guard posts stretched long that length, facing three times as many on the northern side. The land inside the DMZ is so quiet and undisturbed by modern life that wildlife that is endangered elsewhere on the Korean peninsula flourishes there. But the creatures that thrive there have one commonality: none are large enough to set off a landmine.
The tour guide showed us the North’s propaganda signs — lettering on hillsides that faced the South. These read “Yankee Go Home” and “juche,” which is the North’s motto of self-reliance. The North blasts music and speeches for hours a day, in hopes of swaying South Korean soldiers to defect, I suppose. In response the U.N. command plays American rock music into a country with no access to world media. What, one wonders, do North Korean soldiers think about Pink Floyd?
Not long ago I watched the Korean movie “JSA” (Joint Security Area) which details a secret friendship between guards from the two countries. Having been to where the movie took place, the tension was very real to me. There’s an eeriness to the DMZ, an eeriness that must be worse at night, when you are a soldier, alone in a guard house, dreaming of home and your girlfriend. One of my students in South Korea told me he’d been posted to such a duty during his time in the army. He said the North’s music made him horribly homesick, and that there were times that he wanted desperately to cross over to its source. At the time I could not understand this — “it’s just music,” I thought, but I suppose if you are posted in such a tense, unreal place for a long time, anything that smacked of comfort and security might appeal. Even — or perhaps especially — if that security was your country’s arch-enemy, but also shared your country’s history, family, language.