Monday, March 10, 2008

The Hermit Kingdom

On my mission I had a unique opportunity to visit the 38th Parallel, the Demilitarized Zone (oddly named, because it is the MOST militarized area on the globe). We needed a special referral back then from US military personnel, and, thankfully, one was being taught the discussions.

The train had a short delay on the way north. I remember sitting in the cab and suddenly feeling a thud. Slowly, the train came to a stop. We had hit someone. Everyone was curious, and many of us hopped off the train to see what had happened. Apparently, a Korean woman had been out farming and didn't hear the horn blaring from the train. Perhaps she heard it everyday and was either deaf or just wasn't thinking. I didn't get close enough to see the dead body due to a throng of people surrounding her. But, unfortunately, I did see her as we passed.

Once we got to our stop, we took a bus ride into one of the many military bases on the DMZ. I had to get out my dictionary so I could read the signs that lined the roads that said "Danger - Landmines."

We stopped on the U.N. base where my companion and I shot a picture in front of the "World's Most Dangerous Golf Course - As Shown on Sports Illustrated." Below that it said, "Danger: Live Minefield on the Green" or something like that.

Our next stop was at an observatory. We entered a room with a huge glass wall overlooking DMZ and the North Korean side of the border. We could look through binoculars at the North, or what you could see of it. Our guide informed us that we should not make any sudden or inflammatory moves or arm gestures, as we, too, were likely being watched from the North.

The view was fascinating. The first thing I noticed was that the South Korean side and all of the DMZ line looked like typical Korea--lush and green. Immediately when you looked past the DMZ onto the North Korean side of the border, and as far as the eye could see north, it was COMPLETELY barren. Not a tree to be seen, no grass, no bushes--nothing. Our guide told us that the North had bulldozed everything for a combination of fuel and to remove any cover for a potential South Korean infiltration (as if the South really wanted to infiltrate the North). I figured that both were true, as well as possibly some sort of punishment from on high for a very evil regime. Who knows.

I could only see two cities in North Korea from my vantage point. Or, at least that's what I thought they were. They actually looked quite nice, with newer buildings. But as I looked closer and spent more time perusing the cities, I realized that nobody actually lives in them. They were just for show--to make the South think the North was a nice place.

Far into the distance I could see the closest Kim Il Sung statue. Kim Il Sung was the founding, ruthless dictator of North Korea. Massive golden and bronzed statues of Kim Il Sung are scattered across the North, to remind the people who their god is. And they do worship him as a god. You may have seen those huge Buddha statues in photographs from friends who had traveled to Asia. Well, the Kim Il Sung statues are probably just as big, but instead of being a great philosopher and religious leader of peace they portray a very wicked dictator who ruthlessly killed tens of millions of Koreans.

Perhaps the most interesting was the propaganda from both sides. The North had signs strewn all over the border that stated things like "Come to North Korea and Live Like a King!" or "You are Important in North Korea!" Kim Jong Il, King Il Sung's just-as-impressive dictator son, had billboards put up of his favorite movie star. He is, of course, a huge fan of movies from the United States--even if he won't let his people watch them.

South Korea, on the other hand, had the trademark South Korean neon crosses all over their side of the border. At Christmas, they blared Christmas music to the North. They, too, told the North how wonderful it was to live in South Korea, only they weren't lying. Both sides, apparently, thought they could lure the opposing side's soldiers with their big talk. Although I'm not sure, I would bet money that the South has had more defectors than the North (just a guess).

From the observatory, we hopped back on the bus and drove to one of several large tunnels. Apparently sometime in the '60s or '70s, North Korea started digging. I believe we were told they had probably built about 10 of these tunnels, although the South Koreans had only found about seven. These were not your ordinary tunnels, mind you. Each tunnel led from the Northern side of the border, under the DMZ (2.5 miles wide) and up onto the Southern side, just like a gopher. The tunnels were big enough to fit a North Korean jeep with four soldiers. So, you can probably picture a large-scale infiltration from the North with hundreds of these jeeps driving through the tunnels and up onto the South, only a stone's throw away from 20 million people in Seoul.

Anyway, the South had found like seven of these, and had exploded the Northern side closed. We walked down into one of the tunnels. It was amazing to see how wide these were. How could no one have seen or heard what they were doing! It was simply amazing. At the end of the tunnel was an armed South Korean soldier standing motionless and looking in our direction. He stood on our side of a small room that the South had created. Inside the room was a bird in a cage. On the other side of the room was another armed South Korean soldier looking at the exploded rock closure. Every so often, the soldiers would check the bird to see if it was still alive. If it was dead, the soldiers would need to get out fast because it meant the North was gassing the tunnel.

North Korea is an extremely odd place. A few years ago I read a fascinating book, "Aquariums of Pyongyang." This was the true story of a man thrown into a North Korean gulag (prison camp) for something like listening to outside radio. He eventually escaped and crossed into China, where he had to dodge Chinese authorities to make it to the South Korean consulate (the Chinese would send him back to North Korea if they caught him). He finally made it to South Korea, where, surprisingly, he has largely been ostracized by many South Koreans who obviously have NO idea what he has been through.

I wish I had time to talk more about this book, or other things I've learned about the North. When you learn these things, you scratch your head and say to yourself, "is this the same world we live in?" This same sentiment is expressed by a CBS News reporter in a new article.

We are SERIOUSLY blessed to live here in the United States!!


Trav and Darcy said...

Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I really enjoy learning about other countries.