I grew up in the Czech city of Pilsen (Plzen), just a few dozens of miles east from the “Iron Curtain” and the border with then West Germany. That’s why I think I should be pardoned for feeling strange obsession with the borders and division lines of all kind. No matter where I come to proximity of any frontier, I always feel uncontrollable desire to cross it: to see what is at the other side.
Whenever I come to Seoul, sooner or later I always end up calling some travel agency, arranging my trip to DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). With years, it became something of a ritual. “The most fortified part of the world”, the border between North and South Korea, is attracting me as a magnet. It is depressing, but also Kafkaesque, surreal and strangely beautiful, with impressive habitat of migrating birds coexisting side by side with the minefields; villages growing some of the best ginseng just a few meters from the barbed wire and hidden missile installations.
Any trip to the border is revealing, as long as one is ready to keep his or her eyes open and for a while to forget about clichÃ©s which were hammered to our brains for decades: “South Korea: freedom and democracy. North Korea: evil state”. Things are doubtlessly more complex than that.
The “most enjoyable” visits are arranged by “Korean Veterans Association” in conjunction with Chung-Ang Express Tour. Guides are nothing less than former South Korean soldiers and intelligence officers, just what is needed for the true connoisseurs of propaganda, those who are always willing to sample delicious nuances and tastes of pro-market and pro-western brainwashing process.
While almost everybody knows about the North Korean propaganda and lack of freedom and democracy north of 38th parallel, there is very little knowledge, at least in the west, about brutality of former South Korean regimes: their fraudulent elections, aggressive anti-leftist propaganda, corruption, campaign of terror and intimidation, torture and political killings. Not much is remembered about brutality of the US forces during the Korean War, including several massacres of civilian population. Vietnam War overshadowed previous terrible chapter of the Cold War which took place on Korean peninsula.
In 2006, while writing my book about the US involvement in Asia Pacific, I revisited DMZ and “Joint Security Area” at Panmunjeom once again; with the “Korean Veteran Association” vehicle and with Mr. Kim as my guide. After parting with 100 dollars, I was picked up at my hotel by a van, and then transferred to a larger bus at Hotel Sofitel in the heart of Seoul. One day before my departure I received the usual memo and warning:
PLEASE NOTE the leaflet said: “?Casual clothes such as blue jeans (kind of jean), and sandals (slippers) are not permitted in the tour area. Shaggy or unkempt hair is not allowed either? Any equipment, microphones or flags belonging to the communist side in the MAC conference room are NOT TO BE TOUCHED? Do not speak with, make any gestures towards or in any way, approach or respond to personnel from the other side?” No alcohol consumption was allowed before or during the trip.
In the morning I put on sharp looking black pants, trimmed my beard, and charged my camera. After examining my reflection in the mirror I came to conclusion that despite some shortcomings in my appearance which were beyond my control, I looked fit to represent affluent world of democracy, freedom and economic opportunities. My inner thoughts remained well hidden and unless someone would force me to undergo lie-detector test, there was hardly any danger that my presence at the most militarized border in the world would cost disturbances or embarrassment to my South Korean hosts. Armed with my notebook, camera and the US passport I left hotel, in anticipation of yet another surreal adventure.
Big bus slowly and majestically departed center of Seoul. Mr. Kim, our guide, exceeded all my expectations. He summarized evilness of North Korean empire, underlined great economic, moral and democratic might of the South, then warned us to be careful, “very careful” when we encounter North Koreans at the border. “And don’t make any unexpected and sharp moves. Don’t step away from the trails: the border is a mine-field. Take photographs only when I advise you. Do not talk to North Korean guards! Enjoy your trip!”
At the back of my seat, I found brochure printed by Korean Veterans Association. On the front page, middle aged western couple was grinning (showing perfect and fake teeth) in the direction of North Korea. Sure enough, these people were not pointing fingers at anything. Woman was pointing her designer sun glasses held in well manicured fingers, a man – looking like he just won brand new Jaguar – was pointing his small camera towards the territory of the proud member of the “Axis of Evil”.
“…And our close and reliable ally – the United States of America – is always ready to defend our freedom and democracy,” came from the loudspeakers attached to the ceiling of the bus. Mr. Kim was obviously doing his best to educate us. “Among other things, you will see Reunification Village – no taxes paid by its inhabitants. They are growing one of the best ginsengs in the world there. Reunification Bridge… 700 thousand South Korean and American soldiers stationed at the border: 90% are Koreans, 10% Americans… You are all very privileged: Korean citizens have to apply for this visit 6 months to one year in advance, and most of them are not granted permit… You will also see Ballinger Camp…”
Perfect multi-lane highway was following the coast of Han-gang river. There were no milestones at either side of it. Almost since we left Seoul, small area between the motorway and the river was converted to tremendous barbed-wire fortification “decorated” only with the watch towers and other military installations. All that probably just in case that the North Korean military divers would decide to invade this Promised Land.
Enormous concrete apartment blocks were visible from the window at the right side of the bus. Entire towns, entire cities made of the same multi-story housing projects. I could hardly keep up with the numbers: Block 23, Block 78, and on it went. Majestic Han-gang River, soldiers and endless wire from one side; concrete and identical looking housing projects on the other. I was wondering which part of Korea came up with this urban planning first.
Bus entered “Freedom Road” and after a few miles, stopped at the parking lot near “Freedom Bridge”. There stood the last South Korean train station, after which the tracks went towards the North and the bridge itself, decorated with the heart-breaking paper messages written by ordinary Korean people attached to the metal grid: mostly wishes to see their families across the border at least one more time.
The bus moves again, this time towards the Tongil Bridge and the check-point. We were entering “no-go-area”, the most militarized place on earth, “Demilitarized Zone”.
Mr. Kim’s outbursts were intensifying. He began mixing attacks against North Korean state with cheep humor. “So why do we still have so many American soldiers here? What do you think? Because they are protecting us. And because we don’t want to spend more money on our own defense!” He was laughing at his own jokes, but nobody else was. Foreign visitors in the bus were silent. The view behind the window obviously overwhelmed them – especially those who came here for the first time.
Barbed wires were everywhere and the military trucks driving up and down the road. Everything looked unreal and disturbing, including the ginseng-growing Freedom Village, small hamlet separated from the rest of the world, surviving in the middle of the mine-fields and well hidden high-tech weapons.
The area looked peaceful, almost serene. No heavy weapons visible: everything hidden under the ground. There must have been tens of thousands of tanks, camouflaged bunkers, artillery and missile silos as well as nerve-gas and biological-weapons concentrated around here, but from our angle of vision, there were only majestic migrant birds flying over the gently rolling hills.
Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is just a strip of land – approximately 248km/155 miles long and 4 km/2.5 miles wide, cutting across Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between the North and South.
Bus drove through the military Camp Bonifas and terminated its journey at the parking lot of JAS (Joint Security Area) at Ballinger Camp. Our passports were checked again and then we had to attend a briefing. Another list of rules, another endless outburst of propaganda pushed through our throats. American and Korean soldiers were patrolling side by side, inside the briefing room and on the road.
“American army has a gulf-course here”, explained Mr. Kim after we boarded another, this time military bus with two soldiers inside. “The funny thing is that it has only one hole and it is surrounded by the mine-field”. He laughed loudly, but again nobody responded. It occurred to me that there was certain resemblance between Mr. Kim and the pre-recorded announcing system above the escalators in many Japanese department stores: the flow of words never ceased.
And then it appeared in front of us: the ‘truce village’ – Panmunjom – the only place where North and South connect. It is called JSA (Joint Security Area), with several buildings on both sides and some build right on top of MDL (The Military Demarcation Line). This is where negotiations between two sides had been held since 1953.
We were obliged to visit “Freedom House”, a monstrous propaganda establishment made of glass and steal. From here, North Korean information center (Panmun-gak Pavilion) is lesser than 100 meters away. Theoretically I should have been free to cross all the way to North Korean side and visit their center. I should have been free to move around, as long as I stay in JSA. I have not been prevented to enter by North Koreans: I was prevented lo leave by the brisk military voice of Mr. Kim, my guide or whatever hell he really might have been.
Instead of going north I was again bombarded by stories about bizarre “Stump of the Tree Chopping Incident” from 1976, about the shootout which followed defection of Soviet diplomat to the South during the Cold War, about long tunnels which were dug by North Korean military (no outright lies, just manipulated half- truths).
At some point I felt that I could not stomach Mr. Kim any longer. I approach him at the viewing terrace, just a few feet from North Korea, and asked him publicly, in front of the soldiers and visitors: “Mr. Kim, could you please tell us about the accident involving the US soldier defecting from here to the North in 1983?” Mr. Kim stares at me in disbelief and I could only guess what would have happened to me if I would have dared to challenge him in the days of the military dictatorship. “You must be out of your mind, young man”, he replied in patronizing tone of voice. “Why would an American defect to the communist north? Nothing like that ever happened.”
Finally I was allowed to enter the barrack where the negotiations between the North and the South take place. Demarcation line – the border – runs in the middle of the table. I went around the table, technically entering North Korea.
South Korean soldiers kept watch inside and outside the barracks. The ones selected to serve in this area were enormous – probably two meters tall.
North Korean adversaries from the latest James Bond film would have looked like midgets compared to them. After studying them from close range, I came to the conclusion that the South Korean soldiers were living beings after all, made of flesh and blood, although they were trained to stand still without any slightest movement, creating impression that they were made of wax. Not one muscle moved. Expressionless faces decorated by large-frame sun glasses, making them look like a mafia or like bouncers in some exclusive bordello. Outside the barracks, soldiers were standing with their legs unnaturally spread, only half of their faces facing the enemy, the other side facing the corner of the wall.
At the other side, lonely looking North Korean soldiers looked in comparison modest and somehow human, their Soviet-style uniforms far from fancy. They were facing their adversaries directly, not the wall of the barrack.
Standing for a while on North Korean turf, I realize how little I know about this place. Only what I am allowed to know by tailored and limited reports from the mainstream media. How is the situation, how is life just a few kilometers away from here? Probably not good; most likely not good at all. And I can’t get a visa and just travel there.
But after the war, North Korea was successfully competing with the South. For quite some time it was richer, more prosperous. Then eastern block collapsed and it was left on its own, supported only half-heartedly by its neighbor: China. Isolated and paranoid (not always unreasonably, as is evident from the history), it became a hermit state, a target of victorious western propaganda: “Communism? Just look at North Korea; that’s an alternative to our free society.”
According to the BBC Timewatch: “More than one million civilians died during the Korean War in 1950 but no one knows how many of these were killed by American forces. Few doubt that US forces committed atrocities in Korea, although the Pentagon denies official responsibility for one of the worst incidents of the war: the frenzied slaughter of civilians at the No Gun Ri railway tunnels”.
Japan which brutally occupied Korean peninsula during much of the first half of the 20th century re-emerged as economic and industrial power from the ashes of the WWII, after unquestionable support for the US during the Korean War.
The war and the slaughter of Korean civilians by the US troops is only one morbid chapter of the modern Korean history. Post-war South Korean regimes were brutal to the extreme, oppressing opposition and dissent, using murder, torture, intimidation and propaganda as their tools.
Our bus briefly stopped at “Bridge of No Return”, abandoned border crossing. Again, the North Korea was just a few feet away. “Look at the “Propaganda Village at the other side”, said Mr. Kim. “You can see the houses there, but nobody lives there. It is just propaganda. Pro-pa-gan-da! And that flagpole with the North Korean flag: it is the highest flagpole in the world, 157.5 meters high. We build our flagpole at 98.4 meters in 1980′s and they felt they have to have the highest one in the world.” He produced dry and sarcastic laugh.
Again, the no man’s land between two Koreas seemed serene and quiet. Green fields and light mist were pleasing to the eyes, so were large birds flying over our heads.
“To hell with the flagpole”, I thought. “What were you doing in the 1970′s, during Park’s dictatorship, Mr. Kim? Were you breaking balls, raping, torturing students?”
“And now”, said Mr. Kim, grinning happily, “Let’s give a big applause to our heroic soldiers, both Koreans and Americans!” We were approaching Camp Ballinger. “Here you can’t take photographs, but you can buy souvenirs and finally? Finally you can have a drink!”
After several check-points and few miles of the military roads, it was a traffic jam all the way to Seoul. Traffic and barbed-wire, this time on my right. And the endless ocean of concrete apartment blocks on the left, as we were coming closer to the capital.
“Come and join us again”, said Mr. Kim, parting with the group. Across the street, protesters were blasting “The International” in Korean from enormous black speakers placed right on the sidewalk in front of some office building.
Two days later I visited the very center, a pinnacle of the South Korean propaganda, located in a short walking distance from my hotel: “The War Memorial”. Building of tremendous size was surrounded by public park full of guns, B-52′s, fighter jets and tanks. Hundreds of children were climbing over the military equipment and over the statues of vile looking, charging soldiers. There were endless exhibitions depicting heroic South Korean soldiers in the epic battles with the North. And some displays from the Vietnam War, in which South Korea participated on the side of its handler.
I tried to think about some similar institution of this size anywhere in the world, an institution which would be solely dedicated to propaganda, but I couldn’t. Nowhere, not even in the Soviet Union.
But I should stop here, instead of wasting paper on the thoughts that are definitely not in vogues at this time and age. Or maybe I shouldn’t, instead trying to analyze one day the impact which the past of South Korea and the United States had on forming the present day North Korea, forcing it to become an isolated and paranoid state.
Andre Vltchek: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, senior fellow at Oakland Institute and co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), new publishing house for political fiction. His latest books include a novel “Point of No Return” and “Western Terror: From Potosi to Baghdad”, a compellation of political essays. He is presently living and working in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]