DMZ: somewhere on the 38th parallel
Since Saturday, I could officially say I have stepped foot in North Korea! But when I say “stepped foot in” I mean it quite literally. Of course I was simply in the DMZ, so I didn’t get to witness the true North Korea. For those of you who don’t know and as I just recently learned, the DMZ stands for the Demilitarized zone. It is an area of land 4 km wide (2 km in the North and 2 km in the South), spanning from coast to coast on the Korean Peninsula. It is a manmade boundary created to seperate North from South after a 3-year war. Technically speaking, the North and South are in a perpetual state of war, but they have agreed to stop fighting due to its costliness in both resources and human lives.
Although there is not much to see in the DMZ, since it is just a piece of land, I still recommend travelers in the neighborhood to come visit this place. It is a place where history is very much still alive and the atmosphere can chill you to the bone. As you begin to get closer, you can see the barbed-wire fences all around the surrounding mountainous areas.
Once past the first check point, which is located just a few km south of the DMZ, road blocks are set up so cars must go at a slow pace. The air immediately changes and you feel that you are in a foreboding area. We got to the UN army camp base, as an officer must escort us into the actual DMZ zone. We were briefed on the history and some rules to follow such as no pointing or strange gestures that may cause the North Korean soldiers to use against outsiders as propaganda. As a matter of fact, there is a dress code to go to the DMZ! While not strict, you still cannot display any show of outrageous fashion.
As we went to the actual line dividing the North from the South, UN and South Korean soldiers protected us from all sides standing in a specific Tae-Kwon-Doe stance ready to pounce on any North Korean guard who dare try something. They even wear dark glasses for intimidation purposes. Although not sure if this tactic would work on an angry soldier with a gun, they certainly managed to creep me out! As we got to the line, we could see a North Korean soldier watching and guarding from the other side. He took out his binoculars and watched us carefully for any movement that might instigate some kind of war or international crisis. I wondered what he thought of us. Did he think we were some kind of devils coming to criticize him? Did he feel interest or disdain? Perhaps he sympathized thinking we have the short end of the stick. Either way, I felt that there was a clear “them” and “us” atmosphere about the soldiers. Finally, we left allowing the soldiers to leave their posts in the cold air outside.
We then went to an observatory where we saw the cold mountains of North Korea. It was strange to think that just beyond those mountains lay Kim Il-Sung’s legacy and, we were later informed, at least 25,000 of his statues spread around the country to remind its people of his greatness. From the observatory, this (see picture) is the glimpse of North Korea I was permitted to see. It’s of course not much as we were not allowed to take pictures past the yellow line. For those of you wondering what happens if you do go past the line, my father tried it and got immediately yelled at by a soldier who insisted on checking out our camera to erase any pictures we might have taken. In short, you don’t want to mess around with the rules while visiting this zone.
While standing there, I wondered if the North and South will ever be re-united and if this area where I stand would ever be freely walked upon back and forth by anyone who pleases. I thought it funny that all these visitors come every year trying to catch a peak at North Koreans as if at some exotic wild bird rarely seen. I also wondered if the North Koreans can sense it, or are they simply oblivious to the world’s fascination with their country. They probably just go about their daily lives trying to make themselves as happy as possible and not thinking about the world around just like the rest of us.
Either way the DMZ is tangible proof of what war, hatred and the thirst for power has done to us and the world, where two soldiers stand face to face every day without once speaking or trading stories from back home that probably bear much resemblance simply because they are divided by this “line”. I felt great sadness being there. After all, this land, these mountains and rivers have all been there long before humans, living harmoniously in nature. Then humans came along and cut it up claiming this inch belongs to me and that inch to you when the truth is it belongs to everyone and no one. These artificial lines have created schisms amongst humans and have made us hate and try with all our might to destroy each other. Until we can learn that these lines mean nothing and are truly a figment of our imagination, we will never learn to live in harmony. The DMZ is proof of how harsh human nature can truly be.
Ironically enough, the DMZ, on one side representing all our flaws, has also helped out nature. Due to this virtually untouched eco-system, birds and thousands of species of wild animals thrive here. Untouched and unbothered, animals live peacefully and as they should. I guess we can always find a brighter side to even the darkest truths.
For more about life in South Korea, check out Chris in South Korea.