Sunday, February 13, 2011

Exploring the DMZ (2 January) – Part Two

After an eventful morning, we’re starving so we head to lunch at the Unification Village, Tongilchon, where Seokjin points out the noticeable lack of security on the buildings – like they need it since they live in a fort!  It’s an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned this morning and we realise that despite so many visible signs in the DMZ that promulgate peace and unification, there seem to still be so many insurmountable obstacles that hinder any true progress. 

As is increasingly common in Korea, lunch is an adventure where being blindfolded would probably be more successful in helping us to try many of the foods we don’t recognise before us.  There are two soups: Soybean paste and one with shrimp – soybean paste it is for me then since I’m allergic to shrimp (and we’re pretty far from any hospitals!).  The soybean paste doesn’t look very appetising, and it’s certainly and acquired taste – one that Catfish doesn’t seem to have acquired….


We finish lunch early and head outside for a brief look around.  KiwiKat and Patricia tell us (in very broken English) to walk in a particular direction, look and take a photo but to do it quickly.  This, naturally, leads me to ask if we have to do it quickly because we’re likely to be shot.  Unfortunately, we’re soon summoned to return to the bus so I don’t get to take my photo of what appears to be a truly spectacular view.  It’s 13:30 and we’re meant to have left this section of the DMZ. We’d learned about the ‘human trap’ this morning when UN soldiers used to live in the DMZ and we can’t help but wonder if we’re the current human trap and all the talk of military drills is just a ruse.  We don’t stick around long enough to find out and we’re soon heading across another bridge – where we do take photos although I’m pretty sure we’re not allowed to do so – and on to Imjingak which is something of a paradox. 

Built to pacify those who had to leave their homes in the North, Imjingak is as far North as civilians can go without permission to enter the actual DMZ.  It has an altar where families who are unable to cross the border can get together and pray for their ancestors at Seollal and Chuseok (The Korean Thanksgiving), a Peace Bell to symbolise the desire for peace and unification between the two Koreas, Freedom Bridge which is only partially free (it’s obviously barricaded for security reasons), and the discontinuted Gyeonggi train line with an old, rusted locomotive that clearly won’t be travelling anytime soon.  Along the fences, there are hundreds of thousands of ribbons with messages of peace and pro-unification.  The contrast of the colourful peace ribbons on the barbed wire is interesting and ironic: Interesting that Koreans have tried to beautify a very sombre sight and reinforce their desire for unification and ironic because they’re attaching beauty to a sight that is mostly being viewed by tourists and South Koreans as far as I can see. 

In case Imjingak doesn’t hold enough appeal from a historical and cultural perspective, there’s also a mini-amusement park to attract the interest of the younger generation.  Most Koreans don’t seem to visit the DMZ for various reasons.  However, it is an important part of the Korean history and culture.  The dilemma in how to interest and lure Korean children to Imjingak seems to have been resolved with the amusement park and sledding hill.  It also turns Imjingak into something of a paradox: On the one side there is the historical and cultural side of this location and on the other…a theme park.

Don't Pull Your Tongue at the North

When we arrive at Imjingak, we see a small group of people standing in front of one of the monuments releasing propaganda balloons – ie balloons with outside information about crazy Kim Jong-Il and what is not (presumably) being said in North Korea.  The sight of this group, with media coverage, angers Seokjin considerably as he does not agree with the approach that the current South Korean president has taken towards North Korean.  It’s the first time I’ve seen him visibly angered and it’s interesting considering Korean views of demonstrating anger (at least from the literature that I’ve read).  Patricia manages to get hold of the propaganda that was being sent in these balloons and she and ByungMin attempt to explain what the message is – something about Crazy Kim Jong-Il being dead?

After walking around the peace messages, putting little more than our big toes on the Freedom Bridge and glossing over the frustrated locomotive, we head to the Observation Deck where we can use binoculars to see North Korea – or rather we can see the snow on the mountains in North Korea that is visible without the binoculars!  A few buildings across the border can also be seen and I can’t help wondering if there’s an observation deck like this on the North Korean side with people staring back at us, just as curious, just as judgemental, almost identical except for the minor detail of probably being pro-North Korea instead of South.  On the Observation Deck, KiwiKat is posing more photos and tells Catfish to pretend to push ByungMin over the edge of the deck in front of the ‘Danger’ sign.  I’m not anti-American but I do find this photo somewhat metaphoric of America abusing it’s power and pushing other nations around like puppets in general (Sorry Catfish!)….

Unification Observatory

The final part of our trip is the Unification Observatory.  Usually, the AK trip makes use of the Dora Observatory but our entire trip schedule has been reversed today thanks to military exercises and parts of the DMZ being closed off to tourists.   Here, we watch another video and see a scaled reconstruction of this particular part of the DMZ that allows us to understand just how close North Korea actually is.  Clearly visible across the mostly frozen river are several propaganda villages – villages that seem to exist purely to show viewers on the South Korean side of the border that North Koreans are happy and settled in their lives (ie Back off, there are no problems here!).  Apparently the people who live in these villages are true supporters of Crazy Kim and can be trusted not to try and cross the border – of course, this doesn’t stop many people from trying!

This particular observatory also has a mini museum attached to it.  The first thing I see when I enter is a timeline detailing every event since the end of the Korean War.  It’s somewhat distressing to note that as I move further and further down the timeline, the entries become longer and more frequent and it’s likely that they will soon need another wall to continue this timeline long before unification is achieved which is surprisingly upsetting. 

The museum contains an interesting selection of paraphernalia from North Korea in every aspect of life: Military, education, daily living, currency, tourism, food, weapons, etc.  I am only just starting to understand why so many people explain that while South Korea may seem outdated in some areas, North Korea is like stepping back in time fifty or sixty years.  From what I see before me, North Korea doesn’t possess the same rich lushness that South Korea seems to have – probably because the average North Korean has no money.  Communism is great in theory but let’s be realistic: Cold, hard cash makes the world go around no matter how much we try to refute it or would like to deny it.  Forcing a nation to wear commemorative pins with your picture and that of the previous ruler, and making them display these photos in every house doesn’t make them loyal and obedient subjects – it just means people are compliant and resilient. 

The sight that truly disturbs me is the education and housing section.  These textbooks and supplies look like they haven’t been updated in nearly thirty years.  KiwiKat manages to read the dates on one of the books (1986) so we’re right in guessing that they haven’t been updated in nearly thirty years.  The skeptic in me, however, can't help but wonder if this is a true reflection of life in North Korea or propaganda from South Korea.  With such a turmultuous history, how do we know which account is accurate?  An overwhelming sense of sadness takes over as I realise that, despite our troubled past and numerous present problems, at least South Africans are exposed to international events and allowed to discover what happens in the world that exists beyond our own borders.

We move to the final section of the museum which has a replicated classroom and average North Korean home.  Seokjin explains the sign posted next to the replica of a North Korean apartment: homes are distributed according to position in North Korea.  This means that there is a scale which determines the ‘lavishness’ (if this word can even be applied to North Korea) of the home assigned to each family.  There are seven tiers in total: 15% of the population live in the top two tiers. 25% of the population live in the third and fourth highest tiers and a distressing 60% of the North Korean population live in apartments like this or worse.

By the time we leave the Unification Observatory, I find myself more curious than ever about the other half of Korea that I’m increasingly interested in exploring.  Adventure Korea once ran a trip to the North Korean city of Kaesong which NZ2 and KiwiKat were part of but, unfortunately, due to the political unrest between the two Koreas, such trips from the South are no longer possible.  Hopefully, one day, I’ll get to North Korea….

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