Seoul is a magnificent city on the mend. With glittering skyscrapers, magnificent palaces, ultra-modern department stores and wide boulevards packed to the brim with newly minted cars and more limousines than one can imagine, it is one of the most modern and well-organized cities on earth. It is also a very busy city in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a dynamic symbol of the Republic of Korea’s incredible growth since the 1980s.
South Korea’s path to prosperity has accompanied its nurturing of a rough and tumble democratic political system. As recently as 1987 the country was ruled by a rigid military dictator who ruthlessly stifled any form of dissent, but a massive pro-democracy movement that erupted just prior to the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul led to a new democratic constitution and a vigorous free press. When I visited the city most recently in November 2012, there was a noisy presidential campaign that appeared to be as intense and as close as the recent race in the United States.
Just north of the city, however, less than thirty miles by car, lies a very different scene that offers clear reminders of the Korean War that virtually destroyed the country between 1950 and 1953. It was one of the most contentious conflicts ever fought with two million people killed in a small mountainous country the size of Virginia and North Carolina. The war ended with the signing of a cease-fire just south of the 39th parallel that divided the Korean peninsula almost exactly where it was when the war began.
The visitor to Panmunjeom, a former small village overrun in the war which today serves as the sole meeting place between north and south, is quickly reminded that the 1953 agreement was just that—a cease-fire. The war has never really ended and there have been frequent violations ever since. The border between the two Koreas is a 4000 meter wide strip of land called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that runs 250 kilometers across the whole peninsula. It is the most fortified zone anywhere, with innumerable landmines, heavy armament and thousands of combat ready Korean and American troops facing each other.
The DMZ is a tense and dangerous place, but amazingly it is open to busloads of foreign tourists who arrive almost every day of the year – South Koreans are not allowed in. There are full-day tours from Seoul that take the adventurous tourist from Seoul into the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjeom, the highlight of which is a visit to the Conference Building where United Nations and South Korean authorities can meet with their North Korean counterparts.
One passes through three military checkpoints, is accompanied by armed American guards, and sees a huge amount of military equipment and tank barriers as one approaches the North Korean border.
The blue-colored United Nations controlled Conference Building straddles the border and is open to tourists from both sides. It is a relatively small building with a large wooden conference table in the middle decorated with the UN and North Korean flags. Tourists may enter the building under the watchful eye of gun-toting American and South Korean guards—and when one crosses to the north side of the table you quickly realize that you are technically in North Korea. It is perhaps the only tiny corner of North Korea that any tourist may enter without being molested.
This was my second visit to the JSA and Conference building. When I first visited there in 1988 there were several North Korean guards staring into the window of the Conference building taking pictures of me taking pictures of them. I am told that North Korean troops are supposed to be stern and gruff, but when I took his picture, one of the North Koreans posed with a smiling salute. When we stepped outside on the South Korean side of the border we were greeted by loud propaganda music coming from North Korea. Interestingly, there were no North Korean guards or any music this time.
Staring into the DMZ from the JSA creates a false illusion of calm. No sane person would try to walk through the DMZ as it contains innumerable mines that would kill any unlucky intruder. It is a well-wooded area totally undisturbed by human contact and as such has become a nature preserve full of a wider variety of birds, deer and other small animals the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else on the Korean peninsula. One sees pleasant open fields and a calm lazy river that flows north to south that is carefully watched by South Korean guards to ensure that no North Korean saboteurs are attempting to enter the South.
Climbing to the top of an observation post one can look through a telescope into North Korea beyond the DMZ. One can see a prosperous looking North Korean agricultural village, Giujeong-dong. It looks prosperous, but the look is deceiving –it is an empty Potemkin village stuck there for propaganda purposes. No North Korean peasants have actually ever lived there. About 15-20 North Korean workers often appear in the village to maintain the facilities and raise or lower the North Korean flag, but they don’t live in the village.
One can also see the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a special administrative industrial region of North Korea located a few kilometers north of the DMZ. There are 121 factories located here representing one of the very few sites where there is actual commerce and communication between North and South Korea.
Another fascinating place to visit is the third of four tunnels that North Koreans dug under the DMZ in failed attempts to sneak troops into the South. South Korean and American forces discover discovered this third tunnel in October 1978. Located 73 meters below the surface, it was too deep to be detected by any listening devices on the surface even though the North Koreans used loud digging equipment and dynamite to blast their way through solid bedrock. The tunnel, 1.95 meters high and 2.1 meters wide, could have allowed an hourly flow of 30,000 heavily armed North Korean troops to enter South Korea every hour. Fortunately, a defector from North Korea was able to warn the South Koreans about the tunnel which had already penetrated through to 435 meters into South Korea. Had the North Koreans succeeded in opening the tunnel and pushing large numbers of their troops into the South, they would have quickly overrun a South Korean outpost guarding the Munsan corridor leading to Seoul only a few miles away.
Today tourists wearing hard hats can enter the tunnel through a long passage way from the surface. One can then walk about a third of the mile through the dank wet tunnel up almost as far as the border with North Korea. At that point the tunnel is firmly blocked to prevent any further attempts by North Koreans to use the tunnel. It is amazing to see how much work the North Koreans put into constructing this long tunnel through dense bedrock and how lucky South Koreans and Americans were to discover what the enemy was up to.
The short bus trip back to Seoul takes one through wide open heavily guarded areas almost to the gates of Seoul. It is startling to almost suddenly leave what is still in effect a war zone to enter the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s largest cities.
Later when I asked over twenty of my former Korean students who had studied at my all-women’s college in Virginia for a year what they thought about North Korea and the threat of war coming from the North, most said that they hardly thought about these matters. The idea of war is totally alien to them. One former student noted, “We in South Korea focus on our own lives, on our own careers. The Korean War is just history to us like the Civil War is history for you in Virginia. We are not scared of North Korea, we don’t think about North Korea, and we really don’t care about North Korea.”
The attitude of my former student is quite common among younger South Koreans. They seem amazingly ignorant of and indifferent about life in North Korea. They feel that North and South Korea have evolved into two very separate countries with sharply different cultures. They regard the Korean War as ancient history that has little or no relevance to their lives today. However, any visitor to the DMZ quickjly realizes that the threat from North Korea is very real and that deep tensions continue to exist between the two Koreas as well as between North Korea and the United States.
North Korea today is experiencing a generational change in leadership. The generation that experienced the Korean War and its immediate aftermath is giving way to a younger group of leaders who probably feel that they must show their muscle to justify their rule. One way they might do this is to instigate incidents along the DMZ, especially at the JSA. Therefore, South Korean and American forces along the DMZ must be in a constant state of readiness to counter any threats from the north.