The Final Frontier
Every other weekend or so, I like to go on a little trip to see some part of Korea. Thanks to the Korean national holiday just gone I had an especially long weekend just now, and decided to go about as far from Changwon as I can get, and still be in South Korea, barely. This weekend I headed off to the South Korean / North Korean border.
After the end of World War II, the "Great Powers" agreed amongst themselves how best to move into the Japanese-occupied Korean Peninsula. The Russians moved in across their land border from the North, and the U.S. troops swept in from the south. There was a temporary division along the 38th parallel (line of latitude), and plans to unite the regions again. Shockingly, things between the US and Soviet sides didn't go according to plan.
The Soviets had more of the country, and the US region had more of the people. The US/South side held 'free and fair' elections after a short time, but the North didn't. So two new statelets began to take shape. As the South Koreans tell it, they were liberated from Japanese rule and established independence in the South, whilst their northern brothers just suffered a change of dictatorship. On the other hand, the North still refers to the folks down here as the "puppet government of the imperialist American colonial power", so take your pick of propaganda. Soviets and US troops face each other across a "temporary" border - hardly a unique situation. However, unlike the long-standing Iron Curtain, this korean border was torn through straight away.
The South claim the North invaded (after careful perparations), the North probably claim the opposite, and my book on the topic sits on the fence. Whatever the case, the Northern Communist troops tore through the south, only to be pushed back by a daring Douglas McArthur's maneuver of landing a fleet of ships well behind enemy lines and retaking Seoul. McArthur, the WWII hero had done it again, only then he was himself pushed back by the 'Illegal Intervention' of the Chinese, until both sides once more faced each other across the 38th parallel. Eventually, a short-term Armistice Agreement was signed between the US and their enemies, whereby they agreed to a ceasefire, a 2km pullback from either side of the front line, and further talks to come to a final conclusion. The talks never got anywhere, and the temporary little Armistice Agreement has been the glue to hold the sometimes fragile peace on the peninsula together for the last fifty years.
There are a couple of little niggles though. The South Koreans were totally excluded from this agreement, and the North are pretty happy about that. The South probably see it as a denigration of their independence and control over their own rightful territory being traded away by the US Forces, whereas the North see the fact that they signed a deal with the US, as confirmation that the South was nothing more than a plesant local face on what was really intended to be a US-run country. Technically speaking, the two sides are still at war. :-) Glasnost and peristroika thawed out the Cold War in Europe, but left the Korean peninsula at full freeze. Troops armed to the teeth still face each other across the 4km demilitarized zone around which they'd last been fighting.
This is exactly the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) I decided to go and see. So it's the last border of the Cold War, but what do you actually see? There's a variety of options. One "tourist attraction" is a place known as Panmunjeom - the Truce Village. This is the place where the two sides have traditionally gotten together to make no progress towards a resolution of the conflict. It's also the place where the Koreans pin their hopes for Unification. They've thousands of years of history together as Koreans, and this current division can be nothing more than the inevitable little glitch, bound to be rectified soon. The greatest proponent of this was probably the outgoing South Korean president. He adopted what's become known as the "Sunshine Policy" towards his northern neighbours, and it seemed to work. The Cold War melted away a little bit. Familes began to be reunited across the divide, the South gave humanitarian aid to the North, the US Administration under Bill Clinton chipped in too, a new road was constructed across the DMZ, there were plans for a rail-link, and well, we'll all live happily ever after. The South Korean President won a Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to peace and engagement with the North. Hurrah!
In recent days it's been revealed that the North Korean's were bribed with the princely sum of $500 million by the Hyundai comopany for rights to build the road and ferry tourists up to the mountains in the North. Well, bribery happens pretty much everywhere. But here's the interesting thing. The first under-the-counter payment was $200 million - and the South Korean government helped to launder it and have it channeled north. When? Just a couple of days before the North "agreed" to come to the Peace Summit, the same peace summit that won the South Korean president his Nobel Prize. Interesting... The Government denies that there was any quid-pro-quo on this deal. The North were coming to the peace talks regardless of any money being paid secretly. Sure guys. I'm sure the nearly-bankrupt North Korean state was totally uninfluenced by the massive five hundred million US dollars , they were coincidently paid...
So I gave the Truce Village a miss, and headed for something totally unsullied. I went to see the Third Tunnel Of Agression. How can a tunnel be agressive? When it's dug across the DMZ by your enemies. When it's 73m deep and capable of moving 30,000 soldiers per hour, along with their artillery, into your territory, that's how. Seeing the tunnel was pretty neat. You see exactly where the would-be invaders stuck in their dynamite to blow away the rocks, and you see exactly the direction they were heading before they were detected. It's creepy and despite being full of tourists, it does make you feel like "Oh my God, these North Koreans really do mean some nasty business."
There's also an observation post where you can look through high-powered telescopes into the North Korean territory, much as the current and former US presidents have done. It looked to me pretty much like any other part of Korea. (rolling mountains lost in smog) There are a couple of distinguishing features though. Each side have a "village" on either side of the Truce Village. The South Korean one is a little farming community - the people who live there are exempt from taxes and the normally compulsory two year military service, but on the other hand, they'll be the first hit in any war, and the eldest sons in each family have to stay in the DMZ to maintain the population. The daughters and other sons can go as they please, but that's not too much of a consolation if you're the first born. Then you've got to stay as an example to the North of how happy and prosperous the South Korean residents of this "Freedom Village" are. The Northern equivalent is even better. Their settlement (known down here as the Propaganda Village), is another little farming community, complete with everything except farmers. At night, the lights are on, but no one's home. :-)
One of my little gripes with the tour of the DMZ is that I wanted to take a few photos of what I saw, either down in the tunnel, or looking through the telescopes, or whatever. Nope. Not allowed. You can observe, but not remember through photos? One soldier even stopped me from taking a photo of a papier mache model of the DMZ! Were they afraid that the North might remember what the geography of the place looked like? I'm turning into a total little shutter-slut these days, and was full of righteous anger about going on a no-photo tour, until I eventually saw sense and realised that the guns and ammunition isn't just for show. This place is deadly. The soldiers here could potentially be attacked at any moment. They've discovered three North Korean tunneling operations, but there are apparently around twenty such tunnels, and who knows where the next one will pop up?
People die. The soldier who stopped me taking a photo of the papier mache could himself be next. Can I possibly blame him for being touchy? There are indicents of violence and people have died in skirmishes with the North. One really got to me. The "Axes Of Evil" incident. The southerners went out into the DMZ to chop down a poplar tree that they didn't want obstructing the view. The northerners didn't like this so much, it was "their" tree, and they weren't about to let the southern soldiers chop it down. So they killed them. How would the South and the US respond? They didn't want to start a fullscale war, but they couldn't just let the North away with it either. Another mission to cut down the poplar tree was launched. As one GI radio operator tells it:On August 18, an unprovoked murder of two American officers and the wounding of many of our troops was inflicted by cowardly communists as their numerically superior force beat and hacked our men to death.
At the time, I was stationed at 1/38 Infantry Battalion, Camp Hovey as a forward observer attached to "A" Co. 1/38 Inf. As soon as we heard the terrible news we went to an even higher rate of preparedness for war. On the 21st of August, I was sent to A Co with combat load and prc-77 radio so I could call for fire, mortars, artillery, airstrikes or naval gunfire when we (roughly 700 men) went towards our helicopters. At that time, we were "The Suicide Battalion" for this operation (and the whole time I was in Korea, actually.) No medics were going in with us as the battalion medical officer estimated 85% casualties flying into the northern sector of the DMZ. Of course, we knew the remaining 5% would probably be annilated quickly as well. The 2nd Infantry Division Commander Morris J. Bready's chopper received fire and was hit but he was alright. I tightened my radio a little more. But combat engineers cut that poplar tree to about 8-9 feet high (now it is level with the ground), and the cowards did nothing about our actions. I have a piece of that poplar tree in a plastic cube and some writing on it about our deed.
Heave stuff. OK guys, I won't take any more photos.
I will however go to the military museum and check out the cool stuff on display there. The DMZ was sobering, real war with real people, but sadly, I was a little boy with little boy's toys back in the military museum. Everything from cannons that looked more like bells on their sides, to the medieaval Korean machine-gun: something like the bizzare but deadly offspring of a crossbow and a gattling gun. :-) Then outside lots of old fighter planes, tanks and equipment from the Korean war.
One thing that totally surprised me in the museum - the number of countries that fought in the Korean War. China, the US, the Koreans, sure. Along with the UK, Canada, and the usual suspects when it comes to US-led wars. But did you know about the involvement of countries like Thailand, Ethiopia, South Africa, and that great favourite of the UN and long-term US ally, Colombia? They all sent troops under the UN flag to fight with the US troops against the Communists. Strange to think of it, but that means that the UN fought a war against China - the same China with a permanent seat on the US Security Council. No wonder they're always objecting to things, last time they forgot to object it went a bit pear-shaped for them. ;-)
Another interesting question: How many Vietnam War movies have you seen? Have you ever seen a non-US good guy? It turns out that the South Koreans also fought in Vietnam. So did lots of countries with flags I just didn't recognise. South Korea fought in Vietnam? I wonder how many of my kids know that? As the museum shouts at you: Freedom Is Not Free.
The DMZ is a pretty dreary place, but there is one unexpectedly beautiful thing about it. For 50 years you've had an unoccupied strip of land 4km wide, running right across the width of Korea... in other words, no factories, no cars, no roads, nothing. Nothing but one of the world's best nature reserves. A family of deer ran across the road in front of our bus through the DMZ, and it's all pristine wilderness. A place of human death with more natural life than anywhere else in Korea. Is there a lesson to be learned from that? Another question: If Korea is somehow reunited, what will happen to what is now the DMZ? Korea is densly populated, this untouched DMZ land wuld be perfect building ground for overcrowed Seoul nearby. Who'll win the next War over the DMZ? I'd side with the conservationists over the developers - but if that's the worst DMZ conflict that we have to worry about then I don't think anyone down here will complain too much either way.