Saturday, December 18, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? The DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is a four-kilometer (2.5 mile) wide and 250-kilometer (155 mile) long gash across the Korean peninsula at roughly the 38th parallel, although it deviates in several places.  It symbolizes a wound that continues to fester in the Korean psyche, the wound of forced division of a country that had been culturally and linguistically unified, as well as forced separation of friends and relatives from one another across a politically arbitrary divide.  It is a living reminder of the Korean Conflict (Korean War), a war that should never have occurred, and never really ended. And it symbolizes the national helplessness experienced by a small country in the face of the military might of other world powers (USSR, USA and China) that wish to control its fate.  Those countries might have saved Korea from an oppressor (Japan) at the end of WWII, but in exchange, they have robbed the country of its power of self-determination, creating two puppet states, one of which continues in the North, although the South is now virtually autonomous.
Panmunjom, located in the middle of the DMZ, was the village where an armistice was signed terminating the vicious three year Korean Conflict (1950 – 1953).  This truce, brokered by the USSR and the UN, included all parties involved:  North and South Korea, the Soviet Union, the United States, and China.  But it was a truce, not a peace treaty, and the Korean War has still not ended, and will not end--at least in the minds of most Koreans--until the country is reunited.  In the intervening half century, the politics and collective experiences of the populations in the two halves of the riven country have diverged so radically that reuniting them could be as traumatic as the original rift.
After about two months in Korea, I visited the DMZ on a trip organized by the American military, intended primarily for service personnel and their families.  It was a sobering experience. Until the DMZ trip, I hadn't reflected much on the kind of political stalemate and military time bomb that still exists in Korea half century after the truce. The U.N. troops at Panmunjom, within the DMZ itself, are always on high alert, and the tension in the air is palpable. The North Koreans have dug several tunnels beneath the DMZ with the objective of providing surprise attack routes into South Korea.  Four tunnels have been discovered so far, one of which we visited during the trip; another twenty are rumored to exist.  The trek back up after an easy but slippery descent into the bowel of the tunnel was exhausting. I'm sure any soldiers passing through the tunnel would be in better shape than I was; nonetheless, given the narrowness of the tunnel, the steepness of the grade, and the uneven terrain, this would NOT be an efficient way to get many soldiers from North to South, so I doubt seriously any surprise attack is planned via that route.  Still, the very presence of tunnels creates a fear factor.
North and South Korean military troops occupy separate buildings at Panmunjom and peer through binoculars at each other and at the intrepid tourists who venture to the site. There are towers on both sides of the no-man's land, the demilitarized line or DML, about the width of a football field that separates the hostile factions. The South Korean (Republic of Korea, or ROK) soldiers adopt a Tae Kuon Do stance, fists at their sides, knees bent, shoulders hunched, as if they were crouching animals ready to strike. This is intended to intimidate the North Koreans.  Soldiers from both sides glare at each other across the distance, daring each other to make a move. There have been a few incidents in which soldiers were killed. One of the towers on the U.N. side (the only side we visited) was constructed with a Korean Buddhist temple motif: colorful roof tiles and graceful wall paintings in bright contrast to the gray reality of the half-century-long stand-off.
We also visited the actual room where the temporary truce was signed in 1953. Our guide, an American soldier stationed at the DMZ, emphasized that what existed between North Korea and South Korea was a truce, not a peace treaty, and that they were still officially at war. That was a sobering realization.
On the southern edge of the DMZ is a concrete wall, "the Korean Wall,”built by the South and intended as an anti-tank barrier.  Along the northern border of the DMZ is a heavily electrified (3kV) triple fence built by the North.  And the land between them is strewn with mines.
A small, positive result of this DMZ no-man's-land is that the thin empty swath across the Korean peninsula has become a de facto wildlife sanctuary teeming with birds, including a large flock of Manchurian cranes, and small mammals, and even some endangered larger animals such as the Asiatic black bear.  Indeed, some of the flora and fauna found there may no longer exist elsewhere on the Korean peninsula.  Environmentalists everywhere hope that, if the country is re-united, the DMZ will remain uninhabited by humans.  At present, an international effort is underway by an ecologic advocacy group, the DMZ Forum, ( to preserve this once-grim symbol of war as a monument to peace and preservation.

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