In light of the death of Kim Jong Il, the ‘Great Leader’ of North Korea, I felt it was time to conclude my blog entry about the DMZ and express my utter fascination with a country ruled and ruined by dictatorship. I have lived just south of North Korea, located on the last subway stop before Imjingak and the entrance to the DMZ for almost 2 years and feel an intrinsic part of Korea, a comfortable alien simultaneously welcomed and isolated. I have a great connection to this place, if not for the hanoks and palaces that strike me with a sense of recognition and awe each time I see them as if I lived here in a former life, then it is an affinity for the East that I have always held and am finally nurturing. This is why I am here, why I am exploring, and why I might stay for years to come.
The legendary DMZ, or Demilitarised Zone, has been one of the most recommended locations of interest in Korea. The DMZ serves as a divide between the North and South, is 4 kilometres wide and 250 kilometres long cutting Korea in half at the 38th Parallel. It is the most heavily militarized border in the world, due to the lack of a peace treaty and what remains is an armistice – technically the two Korea’s are still at war.
I find war and politics particularly disheartening, but since I began reading a popular novel among foreigners entitled Nothing to Envy, my interest in North Korea, the Korean war and communism has grown. I have acquired a stomach for it and since visiting the DMZ, my curiosity has only grown.
I met my tour group at Imjingak, the last stop before the actual partition between South Korea and the DMZ demarcation line. Several monuments have been erected here including the Memorial Alter which signifies comfort to the 10 million South Korean people who were separated from their families in the North.
Accompanying the monuments is the The Freedom Bridge, which connected the North and South; and bore passage to some 13,000 war captives returning home and rejoicing their freedom when a cease fire was decided in 1953.
Finally, an observation deck has been erected, fitted with binoculars allowing tourists a panoramic view of the greenery present beyond the wire fences.
Imjingak acts as memorial for the war, but is also a physical symbol for hope of a future unification between the two countries and consequently receives about 3 million visitors a year.The most elusive element as a reminder of the war, hardships and the millions of deaths 60 years ago, is that hosts parents, children, families as well as local and foreign tour groups. A small theme park has been constructed with iron and plastic merry-go-rounds, over-sized boat rides and bumper cars, perhaps embodying peace and new beginnings but ultimately serves as a great paradox. Somehow war and playgrounds seem incongruent, if not jarring on the senses.
After viewing Imjingak, our tour group crossed the bridge to the actual DMZ – the road is blockaded by several military personnel at various check points, adorned with barb wire fences and passport checks lest we forget where we are.
Our first stop was the third tunnel. This is one of four known tunnels said to be made by North Korea in an attempt to infiltrate the South. This particular tunnel was found in 1978, is 1,635 kilometres in length, 2 metres wide and 2 metres in height. It is estimated that an army of thirty-thousand soldiers could pass through the tunnel within an hour. The tunnel is heavily guarded and no photography is permitted. The tunnel ends with 3 blockades, securing the entrance from the North. The walls have been highlighted where dynamite and explosives were used to create the tunnel. A further 7 more tunnels are said to exist along the border from the east to the west of South Korea. This information has come from defectors from the North and these tunnels whereabouts have not yet been established.
Our next destination on the trip was my personal favourite, Dora Observatory. It is the northernmost observatory in the South where one can see North Korea’s Propaganda Village – Kijŏngdong - although it is known as Peace Village in the North. Here we viewed farmland, the bronze statue of Kim-Il Sung, and finally the North Korean flag, protruding awkwardly from the bland buildings and barren farms, flying proudly as the world’s third highest flagpole, a sight of utter contradiction amidst the desolate farmlands.
The significance of this village is that, as the name suggests, it was built to encourage South Koreans to defect to the North in the 1950′s. However, observation from the South suggests that the village is actually uninhibited. The buildings can be viewed through binoculars and appear to be empty, void of glass in the windows as well as actual rooms with furnishings. Vacant shells lacking the life and activity that human presence brings. I did however, spot 3 villagers walking aimlessly down one of the dirt roads through my binoculars, their slight figures almost unidentifiable at that distance – their only the sense of detection being the movement of their swaying arms. Their existence was no doubt, an attempt to create a sense of life and action, but failing in contrast to the naked buildings. Although many of thousands have visited this site, and have viewed this portion of North Korea, it will forever be a highlight not only of my stay in Korea, but also in my life. The notion that I got a glimpse of this mysterious place – this enigma, this ghost of a county will always leave an impression on my mind and psyche.
We then visited Dorasan Train Station. This station used to unite the two Korea’s at the top of the Gyeonggui line, but due to the tensions between the countries, the line is no longer used. It was recently restored and remains open to tourists and as yet another token of impeding unification. It is admittedly, a strange sight – a bare train station with it’s destination headline as “Pyeongyang” – the capital of North Korea.
We returned to the location of the third tunnel again to watch a short clip on the DMZ. As the stretch of land has been uninhabited for the past 50 years, it remains untouched which has provided nature with the opportunity to flourish and grow unperturbed despite the occupation of military along the actual borders. The video talked of unification and gave evidence that the tunnels had been built by the North, based on the position of the tunnels and how they were excavated by stipulating that the angles and positioning of the explosives could only have come from the North. It has, in fact, been debated who was tunnelling under the earth in order to siege, and naturally the North blamed the South, and the South the North.
Finally we left the DMZ, crossing the wired bridge and returned to Imjingak. I was left with a heavy impression of a history I will never truly understand despite my relationship with the country,a sense of excitement for having come close to something so foreign and a strange sense of sadness for the people who live their lives under the rule of dictatorship.
Upon reading the novel I mentioned, Nothing to Envy, and watching several documentaries, I have tried to pin point my obsession with this country, this quiet, voiceless nation. Foreign entry is controlled and remains under high scrutiny for any tourist or journalist. Media within the country itself is hindered and controlled by the manipulation thereof – the only broadcasts allowed are ones exalting the ‘Dear Leader’ or the supremacy of the North Korean regime. Media into the country is prohibited and banned; and anyone caught indulging in any outside of the government regulated media will suffer the enormous consequences by being imprisoned in the gulags or concentration camps – ending the already warped sense of freedom the civilians have. But there at the Dora Observatory, it stood before me – North Korea, the flag atop its spire, flying high and proudly in the small Propaganda Village.
I can’t stretch my imagination far enough to fathom how I could identify with people so sheltered and hidden from the world. I can’t begin to imagine what the mindset of someone subjected to dictatorship must think. The psychological repercussions of being habitually told what to do, how to do it and what to think that all sense of autonomy no longer exists. And if it does, it has been so deeply buried in fear, that any sense of independence returning must be repressed. Somehow the fact that they have no knowledge of my existence is the most intriguing fact, not simply how I could never be able to relate to them, even though I am aware of their lives on a whole, but more importantly that they could never relate to me, as they are completely oblivious to my life and have no frame of reference from which to draw. The sense of connection and empathy feels severed by this great unknown. They are not aware of me, they are not aware of us.
And now, Kim Jong Il is dead. On the 17th of December 2011, this feared, sometimes revered man has fallen and left his people. News reports say that the military is on high alert as a totalitarian state void of their autocratic ruler is prone to power struggles and rebellion. His son, Kim Jong Un is to be his successor, although there is speculation of his competency as a young and inexperienced man. After discussing the matter with a Korean colleague, it seems there are many options. One of which is that the Western educated Kim Jong Un, one who has been exposed to the benefits of Capitalism, might slowly change the ideals of North Korea, similar to that of China, a country that is evidently reaping the rewards of economic growth. Another idea is that his lack of experience might end in a loss of power. However, this country’s mysterious nature will continue to linger as it heads into darker times, and of the reality of the situation, we do not know. It simply is a very interesting time to be living here.