Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Where it All Began

I got up early this morning, 59 years — to the moment — since the start of the Korean War, the event which put everything about my husband's family's story in motion, to just look out my windows and think about what dawn on that rainy Sunday morning in 1950 must have been like. The attack was completely unexpected. In fact, many of the South Korean troops stationed near the 38th parallel were home on weekend passes, visiting their families, when heavy Soviet-made tanks crawled through flooded rice fields to invade what is now South Korea. I've stared into the gun barrel of one of these monsters at the National War Memorial here in Seoul, and I can imagine the horror of seeing it rise over a hill, bearing down on a soldier who expects a lazy, routine morning of guard duty. 
Since I have family in town, visiting from the United States, I had the opportunity to return to the DMZ just two days ago, and was a little surprised (given the lack of concern among my Korean friends and those I know in the American military) to see that security has been ramped up since we visited in April. Barbed wire still barricades the riverbanks, and guard towers dot the shore, strategically positioned to look out at North Korea on the other side of the Imjingang, a tributary of the Han River that bisects the city of Seoul. But now, there are soldiers in the guard towers that were abandoned earlier this spring, and a tank sat on the side of the road, men with camoflage paint smeared on their cheeks, keeping watch over the placid water. Tourists still hike deep beneath the DMZ to explore a tunnel blasted through solid granite by the North Koreans in the 1960s or 70s to facilitate a sneak attack on Seoul, but the video that these visitors watch no longer talks about imminent reunification and reconciliation. The world is waiting for a predicted missile launch from North Korea sometime in the next few weeks - a long-range scud missile that will reportedly soar over Japan, toward the Hawaiian Islands. Here in Seoul, North Korean officials are quoted in my morning paper as saying that they will "wipe America off the globe" if United Nations efforts to stop illegal arms trafficking continue. The Kang Nam, a North Korean ship believed to be full of these weapons is somewhere near Hong Kong, leading a slow-speed marine chase that could prompt a return to the war that never really ended. In July of 1953, a truce was signed to end the fighting, but no treaty to formally end the war was ever signed. It makes me wonder whether North Korea's million soldiers believe that they are, indeed, still at war. 
I remembered to bring my binoculars to the DMZ this time, and so I was able to look directly into the expressionless face of one of these soldiers. As I raised my binoculars, he raised his, and we peered at one another over twenty-odd yards of concrete, his face filling my viewfinder - jaw tensed, mouth fixed. Was he curious about me or simply doing his duty? Was that tension in his face inspired by hate or fear? The DMZ is a strange place, made even more odd by the tension that grips the globe in light of recent threats. Below, I've reposted a piece I wrote for my personal blog (a series of digital postcards I write for my family) after our first view of North Korea in April:

Driving by razor wire and guard towers for miles and miles puts a tourist into a very strange state of mind. When you're surrounded by armed guards, with cameras trained on your every move, you can't help but whisper. Your motions become slow and small and deliberate. You pose for photos, but you're afraid to smile. 
Everything just feels wrong. 
The buildings within the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone along the border between North and South Korea don't look particularly threatening. They're mostly standard 1950s-era military construction and looked a lot like parts of Loring Air Force Base, near where I grew up. And the North Korean soldiers, peering at you through binoculars, seem less frightening the the stone-faced ROK (South Korean) guards who are both protecting you and making sure that you don't make an errant step or gesture. If some fool had made a run for the line, I have no doubt they would have shot him. You're permitted to take photos, but not to wave or point or otherwise show any interest in these people a few dozen feet away - too much chance of ending up in a North Korean propaganda video, or so they say.
We took a tour arranged through the USO with American soldiers as guide-guards (and minders). It was actually surprising how frequently we were able to take pictures - I'd expected a blanket prohibition. Of course, at one point, we were herded into a "photo area" - a little box painted on the ground, selected because it didn't offer any angles from which one could actually take a photograph of North Korea ... But some of the oddest views simply can't appear in this movie. The little spotted deer that leapt out of the trees and bounded off toward the border (the DMZ actually harbors some rare animals and plants since it's mostly been left alone for 50 years) - the rusty signs hanging about two feet from the road, warning you that the idyllic forest you're looking at is full of land mines - the bridges and overpasses wired with explosives so that they can be destroyed and made into barricades at a moment's notice - the local people who tend their rice fields just a mile or two from one of the most heavily defended borders in the world.
On several occasions, we were taken to overlooks where we could just barely see (it was a particularly hazy, smoggy day) the North Korean village within the DMZ. The name is technically Gijeong-dong, but the Americans call it "Propaganda Village" and the North Koreans call it "Peace Village." There have been stories about painted skylines, like old movie sets, which may have been true in the past - but they do look like real buildings now. Supposedly if you look through binoculars, you can see that the windows have no glass, though. (I'm bringing my binoculars when I go back!) The guide said that all the lights in the village are turned on and off at the same time every day, and so there's a suspicion that no one actually lives there - but who knows? For years, they told people that the large North Korean building you can see in the Joint Security Area was just a facade, but that's been proven false. And none of our guides happened to mention that just below the rise where we were taken to view the DMZ, there's a giant fortified concrete bunker with gun towers and tanks - that's the view we present to the North Koreans - but no one likes to talk about it.
It is possible to take tours of a village within North Korea - though the restrictions are pretty severe - no photos, no talking to people, no interaction. The tour had been shut down in recent months, due to mounting concern over the satellite/missile launch (which occurred just a few days before our DMZ tour) and two journalists who were taken prisoner, but we're going to look into it, and we'll definitely blog about the experience if we get there!
Until 2004, there was a propaganda war here, with North Koreans blasting recordings from their side, and Americans and South Koreans fighting back with pop songs. Both sides ultimately found it too annoying and agreed to a cease-music. Instead, we now have flag proliferation. The South Koreans put up a big flag in their village, so the North Koreans had to top it with a pole that's more than 500 feet high and a flag that's so heavy that it can't actually flap and threatens to collapse under its own weight if it rains.
Communist soldiers have crossed the line over the years - most recently in 2006 - but it seems to be more a matter of testing boundaries than any actual attempt at hostilities. There's a fascinating story about how a tree trimming attempt in the 70s led to fighting with fists and axes; and a story about a Soviet diplomat who defected from a Communist DMZ tour in the 80s; but most of the time, it's just weirdly quiet - very tense people staring at one another for days and days and days on end.
On our way home, we stopped at a tunnel that was dug under the DMZ by the North Koreans, and was one of four that have been discovered since the 1970s. Drilled out of solid granite, it was damp and cold and we kept banging our heads on the ceiling. I couldn't imaging marching through miles and miles of these sorts of tunnels - actually, picturing North Korean soldiers trying to manage a unified goose-step in such close quarters was pretty funny.
But the strangest part of this strangest of days may have been when we watched a video about the DMZ before entering the tunnel - it kept talking about reconciliation as though it were already in motion, and described the DMZ over and over as a "place of peace" where happy animals frolic (playing hopscotch with the land mines, I presume) and people can come together --- I kind of snorted and started to laugh out loud, before I contained myself. Place of peace? Really?
That does sum up our experience, though. The DMZ isn't real. It's a place of mutual delusion, where we pretend not to be at war, while training our weapons on one another. It's a place where you can't wear certain clothes or wave or gesture, because that might not be the "right image" to present to the North Koreans; and Lord knows the kind of shenanigans the North Koreans get up to in their ongoing performance of flashing lights and fake buildings and giant flags for the benefit of the guards standing a few hundred yards to the South. It's smoke and mirrors, cloaking a very frightening reality that I hope we never have to face again. 
And it's fascinating.

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