Suffering for a Difference in Ideas

DMZ (27 September 2013)

This must be one of the weirdest yet saddest and most thought-provoking trip I have ever taken in my life. This day I joined a tour to see the border between the Koreas.

The day started early in the morning at the office of the Panmunjom Travel Center at the Lotte Hotel. I was there by 7.30 am to register and pay up as requested by the agency. We were setting off at 8 am. I had to wear a collared shirt. The instructions of the agency were clear on a dress code and I discovered later from the guide that everyone had to dress relatively smartly so that the North Koreans would not be able to use anyone of us as propaganda material to tell their people that foreigners were impoverished wretches as compared to them.

Joining the tour in the morning was a North Korean defector. Her story was incredible and yet not unique to her. The lady’s journey started at the Yalu River. Crossing that river was the first necessary step to freedom since that was the only way to get out of North Korea. The lady’s attempt was successful and it cost her about US$3 to get across. Leaving the country was of course absolutely forbidden and defectors therefore needed some luck to escape North Korea. The lady was extremely lucky to meet a guard willing to accept US$3 to turn a blind eye.

Across the river was China, North Korea’s ally. Even if the defector should manage to cross the Yalu, he or she was not entirely safe yet. The Chinese authorities are always very eager to send defectors back to North Korea. Defectors therefore have to stay under the radar while in the country and then find a way to get to a South Korean embassy in a neighbouring country. In the lady’s case, she remained in China for about 2 to 3 years, working her way. Thousands of kilometres later (Pyongyang is less than 200 kilometres away from Seoul), she eventually found her way to a South Korean embassy in Laos. She has been in South Korea for many years now.

The lady on our tour was one of the lucky ones who got out. Many tried and failed and found only imprisonment and torture and even death for themselves and their families. Even those who managed to get out had to find some way to ensure their families’ safety or leave them to a certain fate.

The bus journey to the DMZ took about an hour and part of the journey was along the Han River. For much of that journey, the Han River was fenced up to prevent people from using it to get into the south and vice versa. The closer we got to the border, the quieter the land appeared.

I knew that the tour would be pretty intense. But that intense feeling was heightened when I received an indemnity form to sign when I was on the bus.

We got to the Imjingak Park just after 9 am. It was already full of tourists, mostly PRCs. The park is dedicated to the topic of the separation of the Koreas and has many monuments commemorating that part of history.

Peace bell at Imjingak

Freedom Bridge used by repatriated POWs or soldiers returning from the north

A very interesting place that we were brought to was the Third Tunnel of Aggression. There are 4 such tunnels discovered so far and this particular one was found based on information obtained from a defector. The tunnels were dug by the North Koreans for a surprise attack on the south. The third tunnel is only 44 kilometres away from Seoul.

The tunnel is a high security area but it is hard to see that as it is a busy tourist attraction. Photography inside the tunnel however is strictly prohibited.

To get down to the tunnel, we had to take a ride on a tram. The tram tunnel is steep and very small indeed. A huge American guy sat in front of me on the tram and he looked very uncomfortable trying to avoid hitting the sides on the downward journey.

The tunnel of aggression is not a big tunnel. It is long but not wide. We got to walk about a few hundred metres of it and most of the time we had to walk with lowered heads under a metal frame which was set up I presume for safety reasons. However the frame lowered the height of the tunnel even more and most of us knocked our heads several times along the way. Fortunately we had helmets on but it was unpleasant, though funny, nevertheless to contribute to the symphony of knocking noises ringing out throughout the tunnel.

Apparently the tunnel could accommodate a contingent of soldiers moving in threes. I think the small frames of the North Koreans might allow them to use the tunnel with ease. It was however a different situation for the more affluent peoples of other countries who could feed themselves to obesity.

The end of the tourist route was at one of the concrete barriers built to block access into either side. There is a window in the first barrier through which we could look through at what we thought would be North Korea.

The North Koreans denied everything about the tunnel of course. They had even initially denied digging any tunnel at all. Later, they clarified that the tunnel was part of a coal mine and even painted the walls black to make it look like there was indeed coal to back up their story. However geological evidence showed that there could not be coal in there. Obviously no one believed the North Koreans.

It is thought that there are more of such tunnels along the border and the hunt for them is still being carried out today.

Dorasan was next on our itinerary. On the hill itself is the Dora Observatory where one can get a good view of the DMZ with the North Korean propaganda village and the city of Kaesong on the other side of the border. It was a little hazy that day but the view was quite magnificent. What was amusing to me however was that photographers were restricted to a line a few metres away from the edge of the observatory wall.

At the Dora Observatory

Nearby is the Dorasan Station, the last train station before the north. Somehow this station seems to symbolise the hope of reunification of the two Koreas. The station sits waiting for the day when trains from it will finally be able to run to North Korea.

At the Dorasan Station

The climax of the day tour happened after our bulgogi lunch. We were brought to Camp Bonifas from where we would be taken to visit the Joint Security Area or JSA for short. It was getting more and more exciting for me. Along the road were concrete structures which would be broken up with explosives to impede the progress of North Korean tanks if necessary.

The military camp looked very peaceful indeed. However, we had to transfer to special buses to get to the JSA. An American soldier was on board to keep an eye on us throughout the short ride. He stood at the front of the bus watching us like we were being brought to prison.

We went past the Bridge of No Return and then we arrived at Freedom House. We were given a short presentation about the Korean War and the events that led to the separation of the Koreas by an amusing Korean lady. And then we were led outside, lined up in twos like we were on a kindergarten excursion except that fortunately we did not have to hold hands, to the JSA. Soldiers were stationed everywhere in the building, watching over us kindergarten kids, and standing so still that I wondered if they were real.

And then I saw it.

Joint Security Area

It was a disappointment though that the North Koreans decided not to guard the border that day. We only got to see one in the distance guarding the door to Panmungak, the big building in the north facing the border. The South Koreans however looked ready to fight at all times with their perpetual taekwando stance.

Visiting the blue conference hall was also a very interesting experience for me. I got to walk onto the North Korean side of the hall.

North on the right, south on the left, border marked by the wire on the conference table

Guarding the door to North Korea

The trip ended soon enough but it left many thoughts zipping through my head. I just cannot get over the fact that all that has happened, and is still happening, between the Koreas, and all the facilities, arrangements and manoeuvres at the border are the result of a difference in ideas about how the country should be governed. It just sounds so evil that people have to die, families split apart and lives disrupted just because of simply that, a difference in ideas, things that merely went through people’s heads and stuck on.

And of course the one in power on one side would make himself a monarch like in the days of old except that his system of government would not have been recognisable to the real kings of the past. The self-made monarch would then amass all the privileges that the country could afford for himself and his cronies and leave the rest of his people in varying degrees of poverty.

Hope for reunification of the two Koreas still exists I think. People who have had their families split apart however may not get to see the reunification of their families in their lifetimes. Sixty years have passed since the Korean peninsula was split asunder and people are not getting any younger.

During those sixty years apart, each side has developed on its own terms and created its own identity. Although they are both still Koreas and share centuries of a common history, language and culture, those sixty years were sufficient to make the peoples on either side of the border different. Will the two ever be able to get back together now?

Both Koreas are capitalising on the Korean War and their separation as a tourist attraction. However, what they are capitalising on is in reality a human tragedy. And I just cannot get over the fact that this tragedy was caused by a difference in ideas.

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