Thrill seekers to Seoul sometimes visit the 38th parallel, the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. Some 150,000 visitors visit annually, whisked in and out by commercial tour buses. I went in an army car with a Korean couple. Mr. Lee, a South Korean citizen, would not under normal circumstances be allowed to come up to the frontier. But he was a journalist who served in the Korean War and he has been granted this visit.
We left from the War Memorial park in town. Barbed wire runs along the edge of the highway and rocks are carefully placed every few inches as markers to check for any tampering. Sentry posts on stilts are manned looking out over the river. We arrive in the border village of Panmunjom and board an army vehicle. It’s parked by a row of flags which represent all the nations involved in the Korean war. The flags mark the entrance to Boniface, a camp named after a soldier who was axed to death by the North Koreans in the mid 1970’s. He and his lieutenant met the same fate: they were pruning a tree that obscured the vista from a patrol post. Every few years it seems there has been some incident. Most notably, a North Korean submarine came ashore and the crew committed suicide. Another potential movie plot occurred in 1984 when a Russian visitor on the North Korean side decided to defect and ran to the U.S. and Republic of Korea troops.
Today at Conference Row, which is the closest we can get to the communist side, the North Korean government is showing around some VIP’s. The consensus from our side of things is that they are from China. There are more North Korean guards out because of this delegation. Three guards are on a high balcony and three are on the ground. It’s unusual to see so many North Korean soldiers I’m told. “You got lucky,” the specialist, Sgt. Butts my guides says. As if we are at the zoo, some reclusive dangerous animals have deigned to come out of their cave.
One North Korean has his back to us – he faces the VIP’s in case that ’84 scenario is repeated. The Republic of Korea soldiers wear identical sunglasses and show no expression. They have ball bearings in the hem of their pants. That’s the only sound apart from the propaganda music which Butts says keeps the 550 soldiers awake at night. Some 150 of the U.S. and ROK troops are actively patrolling at any time. I ask Lt. Commander Margotta if since the nuclear crisis they have increased patrols. He declares, forcefully, “our posture has not changed, we couldn’t maintain a higher alert posture without going to war!” But he admits that they are on the lookout for different operational habits on the other side. Recently, the North Koreans have not shown up for bi-weekly meetings but, “it’s not unusual for them to back out of talks.”
Technically, North and South Korea are still at war. There was no peace agreement, only an armistice that the UN is maintaining. There is no wall here. But when you look out over the valley, it is clear where the Military Demarcation Line runs because the vegetation is cultivated on the south side and barren on the north. There’s also a Hollywood-style sign on the North side glorifying the great leader. The propaganda village on the other side which also looks like a film set is less of a “village” and more of a cluster of office buildings. The village on the south side is a real village that existed before the Korean war. The army operate a checkpoint into it and there’s a nightly curfew.
Looking out at the valley away from the mess huts the scene is beautiful. Mountains, yellow flowers, rice fields, and ginseng fields. A haven for wildlife, the 4000-meter DMZ leaves endangered species like the Manchurian Crane well alone. But it’s cold and blustery, and so we go to the mess hall to eat dinner with the soldiers: a horrible mixture of pizza and rice and cold macaroni. The Mattel figures on guard outside talk about Tae Kwan Do (80% of them are black belts). Some of the guard stances are modified Tae Kwan Do. The soldiers describe their press briefings and visitor tours as important educational duty. A necessary evil.
The soldiers are laconic in a polite way. At least they answer questions. It is verboten to even stare at a North Korean guard–any sneering gesture on the other side is used as propaganda–a jeaned youth making a kicking motion means degenerate aggressors. Hyundai built a new freedom house here, for the goal of someday having families of both sides meet. North Korea added a new roof to their building opposite. The “mine’s bigger than yours” stakes. At least with the Berlin Wall, families could travel to see each other. Not here. The other side is a mystery. Even from the observation tower there is no human movement. Which is why visitors get so excited to see additional guards.
It’s wonderfully calming to get back to the magical beauty of the Yonsei university campus, where young people practice Korean fencing amidst the natural landscaped beauty. And to hear music rehearsals and laughter and watch young couples sit on benches sculpted from logs contemplate the dusk softening the cherry blossom. It was impossible to feel lyrical about the frontier. Is the peaceful setting here on this campus only possible because of the U.S. presence? There’s a lot of talk now of the U.S. base in Seoul moving out and moving south. That would be a radical step.