Thursday, June 25, 2009

Heart & Seoul

Americans being, well, Americans

According to some folks "All Asians look alike." In Korea that ism is closer to being true. The only difference between North and South Korea is ideology, resulting in completely differing economies. And there the difference is like night and day.

When viewed at night from outer space North Korea is black as coal while Seoul, the capital of South Korea, glows like a giant Christmas tree.

If allowed one photo in the restricted zone (you had to check your camera) during the tour of the "Third Tunnel of Aggression," our second stop on the DMZ tour, I would have shot the point of intersection where South Korea had dug a tunnel down deep and steep to the unfinished North Korean effort.

The South Korean tunnel was well lit, ventilated, about eight feet high by 8 feet wide, smoothly cylindrical and completely coated in concrete; the North Korean tunnel was as crude as it was cramped. Perhaps 5.5 feet high by 5.5 wide, with rough jagged edges all around. The average person had to duck the entire time.

Fortunately, as I whacked my head four or five times, yellow construction hard hats were required.

When North Korea hastily abandoned their pernicious project, they left behind definitive evidence: small holes drilled in the solid rock just large enough to hold the dynamite used for excavation.

Obviously the placement of the holes--now highlighted in red paint--indicated the tunnel was a North to South endeavor.

According to our tour guide (and Wikipedia) if the tunnel had become operational an entire division of soldiers with artillery could have passed per hour. Since we had to walk single file while hunched over I doubt even highly-trained soldiers could move at a rate of 30,000 per hour. But I'm sure an awful lot of them could.

And they would then have had a terrifying advantage: the element of surprise.

To date South Korea has uncovered four different tunnels all pointed towards the capital city of Seoul, where one-quarter of the population resides. And government officials fear many more tunnels are out there.

So now a Great Wall of barbed wire extends all the way from the city limit of Seoul to the DMZ, running parallel to the Imjin River and Freedom Highway. Interspersed every half-mile or so, an elevated guard tower staffed by soldiers with machine guns.

At a military checkpoint we are boarded for a passport check by a young soldier dressed in camouflage uniform and sporting black reflective sunglasses. About half way to the back of the bus he slowly raises his glasses and says sternly in broken English "Who took picture?"

Everybody looks surprised (myself included) while shaking our heads side-to-side. "I saw a flash!," he declares and then looks around for a reaction. Getting none, he turns and marches off the bus after hardly glancing at our passports.

This was about 11:00 AM on a beautifully clear sunny day, so I'm fairly sure a digital camera would not have flashed. It could simply have been bright sunshine bouncing off a shiny object on the bus...or maybe the border guards always play that game just to reinforce the posted warnings (verbally reinforced many times by our tour guide).

In South Korea men are required to perform 2 years of military service. Every 6 months they get a bar added to a shoulder patch on their uniform to indicate length of experience, and by easy deduction amount of time left to serve. Our interrogator had earned only one bar.

Seated behind me on the bus three American 20-something women had been chatting up a storm on the one-hour journey from Seoul, pausing now and then to softy sing Beatles songs. Immediately after passing the military checkpoint one dials her cellphone: "Sorry Mom, I forgot about that...(probably referring to the 13-hour time difference.) "But we're here, we're at the DMZ!"

After the brief conversation ends she said to her friend soberly "Grandma had two brothers who served here, and they're still missing."

Freedom Bridge was our first stop on the tour, so named because when prisoners of war were exchanged after the 1953 cease fire they shouted "freedom" as they sprinted towards their respective homelands.

Now it is unused and heavily guarded on both sides. Overhead a helicopter gunship flies in a slow--but probably very precise--grid pattern.

Our 3'rd stop was the furthermost observation outpost of the ROK army, the ground where--according to a dedication plaque on cite--outnumbered American and South Korean soldiers stood "shoulder to shoulder" to withstand a massive assault by fanatical Chinese troops.

Naturally the base is located atop a peak of one of the ubiquitous Korean mountains.

Perhaps 100 people hover around the dozen binocular stations that allowed a view of yet another neighboring mountain, only this one was located in North Korea. Young South Korean soldiers numbering in the dozens were among those who came to gawk.

The last stop on the tour was Dorasan Train Station, a beautiful modern facility that opened in 2002 with the hope that reunification would allow passenger service thru North Korea. The architect designed the building roof to resemble a hand shaking another hand.Click to enlarge

Women who volunteer serve in the military. And they start at higher rank.

The $35 half-day tour ended at noon so I did not get to up to Panmunjom where the cease fire treaty was signed in a building now--like the country itself--a "house divided". Where guards stand glaring at each other from within spitting distance.

The Korean (undeclared) War never concluded...they just came to an official truce, which at times--particularly now--seems precarious. Yet at all the stops along the DMZ, powerful symbols exist dedicated to reunification: A sculpture of the globe split in half with Koreans on opposite sides trying to push it back together.

Or the repetitive use of the terms "freedom" and "reunification" for infrastructure around the DMZ, including roads, bridges and even entire villages. When asked, our young S. Korean tour guide said quite confidently that reunification would happen within the next ten years.

Meanwhile a North Korean inter ballistic missile--capable of hitting Hawaii--warms up in a silo with an estimated launch date of July 4, perhaps a symbolic message to the United States.

Thursday June 23'rd marked the 59'Th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, a day that South Koreans treat with the same respect as Americans do Memorial Day. In North Korea's Pyongyang 100,000 residents turned out for an anti-American rally.

Millions perished in the Korean War and even now 59 years later, the catastrophic conflict is agonizingly unresolved. But still, they have hope. And it is strong.

If indeed, hope is a muscle--then South Korea is the strongest nation on earth.


Anonymous said...

too long to read, tell us 'bout amherst, that's why we tune in.

Anonymous said...

Excellent report: I enjoyed reading it very much!

- Ms. Kim's husband ;-)

LarryK4 said...

Anon: 5:56 PM
Consider it a long metaphor on a Prop 2.5 Override--already being promoted for next year.

Glad you liked it Ms. Kim's husband. I enjoyed living it.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to believe that we're going to get out of the current status quo over there without more fighting, probably involving Americans.

What a terrible situation for South Koreans to have to live through decade after decade.

LarryK4 said...


And if anybody is worth fighting for, the S. Koreans are high on my list (this from a Chicken Hawk who NEVER would have gone into Iraq in the first place).

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your post Larry. Thanks for writing it. I first went to the DMZ in '00. It appears not to have changed much at all. You should see NK from the border with China. Now that's an experience. No guards or munitions there. Just a sad looking Ferris Wheel across the river from Dandong City.

Looking forward to more postings about Korea, particularly about the people. What did you think about the people you met? Did you learn any Hangul? How about the food? What was your favorite?

Tony said...

Good post Larry, greatly enjoyed your eye-opening first hand accounts of the DMZ and the rest of the trip...

That nighttime from space picture says it all.

Anonymous said...

Too bad South Koreans are not more pro-America. They'll get their ass kicked in a second without the U.S. guarantee of protection and out troups in the DMZ.

LarryK4 said...

The experts I spoke with describe the 30,000 some odd US troops in S. Korea as being but a "speed bump" if N. Korea really does decide to move over the border in force.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately they have 1,000 missiles and 10,000 artillary pieces all aimed at Seoul. The city is in a very vunerable spot that makes it basically impossible to defend (without a magic Star Wars missile shield).

Anonymous said...

Doubt they were "young" girls singing The Beatles .

LarryK4 said...

Oh, 'The Beatles' are pretty timeless.