Living on the edge in South Korea

Gyeongbokgung-inner palace building

I enjoyed a rewarding and edifying three-day experience on a business and cultural trip to Korea this week, staying at the heart of the trendy district near City Hall and within a short walking distance to Seoul’s iconic Gyeongbokgung, the official principal palace of the Choseon dynasty and Changdeokgung, another immaculately preserved palace of that dynasty and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.

Palace inner sanctum—Choseon dynasty

During my visit, I had the good fortune of seeing many of the main sightseeing spots in the inner city of Seoul, including the wonderful Namsan Park in the Jungu District, a popular oasis of ‘green’ for hikers and joggers, and offering spectacular views, especially at night time.

While it is dangerous to proffer impressions after a short-term visit, I can certainly say that the Korean people are friendly and courteous. Particularly among older people, I found several who spoke Japanese, and they helped us get around in the same way that Japanese are helpful to guests. And so did younger Koreans with whom I could communicate.

Sentry Box overlooking North Korea

The highlight of my trip was visiting the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at Panmunjeom 250 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide, and the most militarized border in the world. I visited the tiny (800 square meter) joint security area where the armistice (truce) was signed between South Korea and North Korea in 1953.

It gave me an eerie feeling to be in a technical war zone, as South Korea and North Korea still have not signed a treaty ending their civil war, and from time-to-time the North Koreans act violently, as in the 1976 axe murder incident.

I wanted to take a picture of the North Korea soldier peering at us through binoculars, but the lens I carried was a zoom of 24-105 mm, whereas the max allowed is 100mm, as the young military DMZ guide explained. Apparently there is fear that shooting pics with a large lens might provoke shooting back of a different kind, that is, not with a camera but with a gun.

There are sad, sometimes comical views of North Korea from the Dora Observatory. Again, no pics allowed past a certain line, and at that point the pics were not worthwhile taking.

On the humorous side, North Korea got into a contest with South Korea to erect the tallest flagpole and its flag. The South Koreans finally gave up when they realized that the competition was silly. The North Korean flagpole stands at 168 meters and the flag weighs 270 kilos, a Guinness world record. When it rains they have to take the flag down to prevent it from tearing.

I saw the Propaganda Village in North Korea, a fake little townhouse community made to look as if North Korean life were prosperous. I saw hills stripped of all trees, the hills denuded of vegetation to make firewood for poor, hungry and cold people.

Freedom Bridge DMZ

I saw the Bridge of No Return where North Korean POWs who decided to return to North Korea (hapless souls) could never return. I could see in the distance a North Korean factory where workers make the equivalent of $70 dollars a month before tax, and the government taxes 30% of that income.

Warning Sign—Land mine danger area

I saw danger signs all over to warn visitors not to enter areas in which hundreds of thousands of land mines were placed in and beyond the DMZ. South Korean soldiers are working steadily at grave risk to rid Korea of these horrific weapons.

Access to 3rd infiltration tunnel

I went into the 3rd infiltration tunnel built by North Koreans, one of four tunnels found so far, although some believe there may be as many as 17. The 2nd tunnel is large enough for 30,000 troops to pass through in an hour. As the DMZ is less than 50 kilometers from Seoul, South Koreans live with continual apprehension.

Dorasan Station—to North Korea

Yet from the South Koreans I talked to, all welcomed the idea of unification. In 2002, South Korea actually built the Dorasan Station to await unification, with state-of-the-art rail infrastructure to connect Seoul and Pyongyang and warehouse and customs facilities to accommodate trade.

Sculpture—Reunifying a divided country

It’s obvious that eventual unification will take place. My conjecture is that Kim Jong il, basically incapacitated, will pass soon, and his chosen successor, Kim Jong-un, will be unprepared to hang on to the reins of power as his father has. Then comes the indeterminate period of internal strife, the emergence of a more moderate, rational power open to reconciliation, the negotiation of a permanent peace treaty and of a unification agreement. To be factored in this time equation is the degree to which China supports its North Korean neighbor.

The sooner reconciliation occurs, the better for the world and for Japan, which along with South Korea is most threatened by an attack from an unstable, maniacal regime with nuclear weapon capability.

All the best,

Warren J. Devalier

©2011 Warren J. Devalier