4:26 p.m., from an email issued by the U.S. embassy
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul is transmitting the following information through the Embassy’s warden system as a public service to all U.S. citizens in the Republic of Korea: Please disseminate this message to U.S. citizens in your organizations or to other Americans you know.
"North Korea has announced that it will attempt a rocket launch between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on one of the days during April 4-8, 2009, from a site in northeast North Korea."
This possible event has received much media attention. At this time, the U.S. Embassy in Seoul sees no potential danger to American citizens in South Korea as a result of the possible launch and does not believe that any special actions are warranted by American citizens other than to pay close attention to local news reports during this time period.
2:42 p.m. Dora Observatory, DMZ, three days earlier razor wire surrounded us as soon as we reached the northern border of Seoul. Manned watchtowers lined the rivers, even tanks cloaked in camouflage stood at the ready. The proximity of this otherworldly situation to the cultural and business center of the country was staggering.
The bright sunshine made me squint as I took the final step off the tour bus. The two small United Nations and Republic of Korea army signs stood blindingly against the dank camouflage design of the modest building. The small rise of the pavement obstructed my view, only building my inner anticipation.
Today, I was going to see what all those rumors of oppression and control looked like. I would lay my eyes on the most mysterious, threatening, and veiled country on the planet… North Korea.
Another reminder of strict picture taking regulations was yelled toward the group; the tension was palpable. Each step brought a new and different vision of what may greet my eyes, ‘will we see the northerners, chained, wearing tattered clothing, working the rice fields to exhaustion? Would it be nothing more than an undeveloped moonscape just on the other side of the fence? Would I have the red dot of a North Korean laser scope on me at any point?’
I stepped foot on the observation platform where the view yawned in all directions. Mountains framed a small distant city. The barbed wire meandered along the topography perpendicular to us. There was no moonscape, no apparent forced labor camps, just a continuation of rolling hills with the barren foliage of early spring; a striking continuation of Korea.
1:15 p.m. Third Infiltration Tunnel Theater
- The camera slides gracefully over a lush mountaintop meadow. Pristine distant ridges are interrupted by a Korean child lifting a flower to the heavens. A voice finishes its soliloquy, ‘The DMZ will be a lasting memory of the unification of the Koreas for generations to come.’ The lasting memory for those inside the theater is a unification of different sorts.
Less than an hour earlier, the group stepped foot onto what is known as the ‘Freedom Bridge,’ the actual bridge used by Northern refugees and POW’s returning south after the Korean War. Pictures of loved ones and family members, personal notes to them, and tattered flags lined the chain linked fence and drifted in the breezes skirting the rows of barbed wire.
The memorial was a grave reminder of the rift, not only between countries, but between their people. It is with this emotion fresh in our minds, that we entered the theater.
The unification witnessed in the movie was not of the two Koreas, it was that of distant family members meeting after nearly fifty years of forced separation.
In 2000, the North agreed to a temporary loosening of border regulations, since reneged, which allowed this to happen. The screen filled with images of men weeping in each other’s arms, mobbing one another after realizing their relation. Emotion swept over the audience quicker than a stiff breeze. North, South, it didn’t matter… these people were Korean.
With recent events and staunch ideologies, again, coming to a boil on a global scale, it seems bringing the two Koreas together is farther out of reach than ever before. It was only after an email from the U.S. embassy that I realize how strong that separation truly is.
The collective heartbreak felt in the DMZ theater overpowered any sense of accomplishment we had at seeing a country only a relatively few have. Perhaps one day, the fences and barbed wire, along with the oppression and control, will come down and the continuation of the Korean peninsula, as witnessed from the observation deck, can be just that, a continuation of Korea. The symbolism, the messages of hope, and the yearning for unification sensed from this side of the border, make you hope good will conquer in the end, and hope the Korean people will one day live harmoniously again.
photo by Austin King on Flickr