Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
“Panmunjom is closed right now.” Our guide, David, explained, referring to the farthest point inside the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ that it was possible to visit. One conference room there is built so that it straddles both North and South Korea. One can walk from one end of the room to the other and back, traversing North and South.
“It’s closed because of the tension,” David said. The tension — yes, we’d all read about it in the papers, with North Korea testing nuclear weapons underground and firing missiles over Japan. “In fact, all of the DMZ can be closed at any moment without notice.”
David was forty-ish, lean in that stereotypical East Asian way, with floppy black hair. “Oh look,” he pointed out the window just forty minutes after we left downtown Seoul. “There’s North Korea on the other side of the river.” Guard posts and barbed wires lined the road we were driving down. Indeed it is difficult to appreciate without seeing it for yourself just how close Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is to the border with the North, where peace was never truly established in the wake of the Korean War, where war can break out at any moment.
At the checkpoint entering the DMZ, a soldier of the military police came onto the bus to check everyone’s passport. He looked hardly older than twenty. It got David reminiscing about his days doing compulsory military service. “I did mine twenty years ago,” he said after the MP left. “Back then we had to do three years. Now they do 21 months. They have it easy. When we were in the army, the food was... not good. The sleep was not good. I remember having a cold shower one day when the temperature was minus 12 degrees Celsius,” or about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. “The day after I finished my basic training, as a gift from my superior officers, I got a beatdown.” David looked vaguely into distant North Korea, his mind wandering. “But it’s better now,” he snapped out of it. “They pay more attention now” to the conscripts’ welfare.
Our first stop was Imjingak with the so-called Freedom Bridge, across which over 12,000 South Korean prisoners of war were released after the two sides signed the armistice in July 1953. Next to it was a rusty old train locomotive that was once used to transport materiel to the frontline. The plaque next to it explained that it bore 1,020 bullet holes, a result of being intercepted and forced back by Chinese Communist forces that intervened.
From there we drove a short distance away to the “3rd Tunnel.” Third because it was the third out of four that the South uncovered over the years that the North had dug in preparation for an invasion. The surmise is that many, many more as yet undiscovered tunnels stretch under the DMZ. But before we could walk down into the tunnel, they had us watch an 8-minute film.
It was one of the odder productions that I had ever seen. The fast editing, the CGI explosions over Seoul (simulating the consequences of a Northern invasion), and the action movie soundtrack all conspired to give it the bizarre feeling of, well, an action movie, albeit a low-budget and strangely tone-deaf one. Toward the end, the narrator in very American English intoned nonsensically, “Until the day of reunification, the DMZ shall live forever!”
Inside the tunnel, gas masks lay in glass cases every few meters with instructions for how to put them on in the event of a chemical attack. At the end of the tunnel, which the North had tried to dress up as an abandoned coal mine, 170 meters from the first North Korean soldiers, a square hole in the wall allowed a stolen view of the other side.
Above ground, atop a hill at Dora Observatory, views of the other side needed not be stolen. A row of binoculars overlooked Gaeseong city, once the capital of Korea during the Goryeo dynasty, and its industrial park funded by the South and manned by the North — except it had been shuttered since February 2016. A North Korean flag flew proudly and twice as high as its South Korean counterpart — “They always have to have the tallest flagpole in the North,” David explained. A guardhouse stood quiet amidst the green September trees.
Finally we stopped at Dorasan station, the last stop on South Korea’s railway system. After the original railway was blown up during the Korean War, the two sides optimistically reconnected the line in 2003 so that a South Korean train could theoretically drive all the way to Pyongyang and a North Korean train to Seoul. The sign over the platform still read, “To Pyeongyang.” But of course no train actually went there. It was meant for the eventuality when the Korean Peninsula would reunite as one.
And in one corner of the train station was a grand piano with strings made out of barbed wires.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."