Saturday, October 11, 2008
Days 46-47: Seoul, South Korea -- and the DMZ
The Dandong Ferry to Incheon wasn't the most pleasant journey I've had, but for the price I will not complain. It was by far the cheapest way to get from Dandong to Korea, even if my cabin was very tiny--just enough to recline and sleep, but not turn (with ease). Incheon, with about 2-3 million people, is about an hour from Seoul and is considered a big Seoul suburb. Seoul's population is about 12 million, or roughly a quarter of South Korea's total. It is its undisputed political, cultural, and economic capital.
A few hours ago, I came back from the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. This is the place that Bill Clinton called "the most dangerous place in the world." Unfortunately, he wasn't exaggerating. Demilitarized couldn't be further from the truth, by the way, as the zone extends two kilometers south into the Republic of Korea and 2 kilometers north into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. There are land mines in numerous places, barbed wire is everywhere, as are border guards, etc. North Korea's million-man army is stationed along the border, as is much of the country's artillery. It is said the North can flatten Seoul within an hour. From the South Korean side, nearly 30,000 or 40,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed. It is a very interesting, albeit tenuous and de facto unofficial, "peace."
What's interesting is the wildlife that has flourished inside the DMZ in the last 50 years, since there are no people there. There are many rare species that have flourished there, which is perhaps one of the only good things that has resulted from the divide of this one nation into two separate and very different countries.
Panmunjeom is a place where these two world's meet. One is a capitalist world, a country that is the world's 12th largest economy. The other is the Hermit Kingdom that has been isolated for the last five-and-a-half decades; it is the world's last Stalinst dictatorship and a place where many freedoms we in rest of the world take for granted today are simply nonexistant. It is also a place of the world's most extreme personality cults: Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Scott Fisher, a blogger right now living in South Korea, writes that "It's the edge of the known world butting up against a nation of people trying desperately to keep it away." My tour, unfortunately, included everything but Panmunjeom, which lies exactly at the 38th parallel--the demarcation line. Although the true border swings and winds around that parallel, Panmunjeom is smack dab in the middle and is where the UN-sponsored armistice talks are held in several barracks. The barracks were built exactly half-way into North and South Korea each, and visitors are allowed to enter the building but must leave through the same side they entered from. Basically, you can technically cross into North Korea, but you can't leave through the door that is on the North Korean side if visiting from the south--and vice-versa. The visit to Panmunjeom apparently is precluded by a signing of a waiver to respect all rules, no taking of pictures, and admitting familarity with the strict rules. A strict dress code is observed, too, purportedly so that the North Koreans don't use foreigners and the way they dress in propaganda. From the South Korean side, tourists are taken to this town on a UN car, since South Koreans and 22 other nationalities (among them Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese--hmmm, I see a pattern here) are not allowed inside, as decided jointly by the U.S. and UN. Again, I did not see Panmunjeom, but I did see the third infiltration tunnel that the North had dug and the South had discovered several decades ago. My tour also visited the Freedom Bridge, Observatory, and other sites. Unfortunately, we couldn't take pictures at most "hot" sites, but it was an interesting visit.
One more--and final--note of interest is the quixotic dream of reunification, which is a touchy subject for southerners. Many think it will come one day--some think soon, some think not so soon. But the fact of the matter is that though many southerners want it, they hesitate when questioned about the financial cost. When East and West Germany reunited, at least the East was somewhat developed, but even for Germany reunification came at a very high price. However, for South Korea, the true cost can be as high as $1 trillion, as estimated by economists, considering the antiquity of the North Korean infrastructure and industry. There is a lack of nearly everything in the Hermit Kingdom.
Perhaps one day its people will get to reap the same benefits and freedoms that many of us have today. Only time will tell as to when that day will come, if ever, but hopefully it will come sooner rather than later.
P.S. The pics of the DMZ here are courtesy of Dan Harmon and Scott Fisher. Check out Scott Fisher's excellent memoirs of his visit to North Korea on http://1stopkorea.com/nk-trip1.htm . All of the three pics in this post and more are from this link.