Prayers for peace in area of tensionTHE DEMILITARIZED ZONE
This strip of four kilometers by 241 kilometers (2.5 miles by 150 miles) is one of the most heavily fortified in the world, a symbol of a country that was torn apart by war. For about 250 young people, hailing from all over the world, it was the perfect spot to wish for world peace.
The group visited the area last week as part of the Youth Festival for Peace, which began in Seoul on Thursday.
First held in Baden, Germany, in 1938, the festival, which was sponsored by the International Youth Hostel Federation, had run biannually until 1968 in Tokyo, but financial problems and dwindling participation forced it to end.
After 36 years, the federation decided it was a good time to revive the peace camp, in light of the problems in Iraq and other parts of the world. Seoul was chosen as this year’s site for the peace festivities because it’s in a country that is ideologically divided.
The festival’s conclusion today will be followed by the beginning of the International Youth Hostel Federation’s 45th Conference, which continues until Friday.
First created in 1909 by a German teacher named Richard Schirrmann, youth hostels have long been used by budget travelers of all ages. With more than 90 countries as members, the hostelling organization offers more than 6,000 places for people to stay while seeing the world.
For the peace festival in Seoul, more than 250 people from 47 countries, mostly in their early 20s, gathered to talk about human rights, the environment, cultural heritage preservation and other topics. On Thursday, members celebrated the opening of the festival by getting a taste of Korean traditional culture through activities such as making tteok, or rice cakes.
Friday’s trip to the DMZ began at 9 on a rainy morning. The Korean government had cleared all the participants for the visit to the zone, which is closed to the public except for those with a special tour.
Less than two hours later, they were at the DMZ. After passing by signs that showed the direction to North Korean cities, the buses reached the checkpoint, which was guarded by armed South Korean and U.S. soldiers.
The mellow atmosphere inside the bus was disrupted when one of the festival participants took a picture of the guard post with a digital camera. One of the soldiers boarded the bus and demanded that the photo be deleted for security reasons, waiting until the participant did so.
It was a sharp reminder that this was no ordinary field trip, that the much-publicized tensions in the DMZ were real.
Upon entering the DMZ, cell phone signals died and signs featuring skeletons warned of land mines. The buses then reached the Third Tunnel, which was secretly dug by North Koreans to infiltrate the South.
A tram took some participants down the steep tunnel, but others had to walk.
“There’s nothing fun about it. It’s just so sad,” said Maham Muned, 23, from Pakistan in a chador. She was panting and sweating after leaving the humid tunnel.
“It’s just dark and cold down inside the tunnel, which was just too low that I had to bend down all the way,” said Muddasir Tasir, 28, from India.
Guided by South Korean soldiers, the group moved on to see a public service film on North Korea and the DMZ.
Jamie Hubert, 27, from Boston, said the film was “informative.”
“I learned a lot from the film about the conflicts of the two Koreas and the DMZ area and its nature, which is preserved perfectly,” she said.
The heavy rain was a hindrance at the group’s next destination, Dorasan observatory, where on a clear day, visitors are able to see the North Korean city of Gaeseong, right across the Military Demarcation Line, with the naked eye.
Instead, the group had to settle for a briefing from an Army soldier and the miniature map of the DMZ, which pointed out the city and other sites.
Many participants, eager to see North Korea for the first time, tried using telescopes, despite the poor visibility.
Shady Beshr, 21 from Egypt, was one of them. “Back home, we have a similar area called Taba, on the border of Egypt and Israel,” Mr. Beshr said. “But this area makes me more sad, for North and South Koreas are brethren after all.”
Fleur Borgeat, 22, from France, said she was “too sad and scared to be in the area.” She said all she could think about, as she stood there, was the possibility of peace one day.
So close, and yet so far
On the last stop of the day, at the Dorasan train station, the group grew more solemn. The station, complete with railroads and ticket offices, had no passengers, only armed soldiers. Signs indicated that it was only 205 kilometers to Pyeongyang and 56 kilometers to Seoul. It was a geography lesson that highlighted the political and ideological gap between the two countries.
Choi Jae-hyuk, a Korean college student, said, “It’s meaningful for me to be here when Pyeongyang seems to be so close, especially with many friends from around the world.”
Standing in front of the sign and the soldiers, the group’s members were busy taking pictures, just like U.S. President George W. Bush did in his 2002 visit to the area.
Many participants walked on the empty railroads, praying for the day when trains would run there, connecting Seoul and Pyeongyang.
Cormac McKenna, from Ireland, said he is more reminded of his home country’s longtime conflict with England.
“It’s a shame that the two Koreas are divided when there’s no due reason,” Mr. McKenna said.
by Chun Su-jin