[Overseas view] Changing views of the DMZ

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[Overseas view] Changing views of the DMZ

It’s not true that if you’ve seen the Demilitarized Zone once, you’ve seen it forever. My family went several times during our years in Korea, taking visitors, and we observed the evolution of DMZ-ology.
On each trip to the Demilitarized Zone you see the same things:
The Unification Observa-tory, a platform on a promontory from which you can stare across the Han River at nothing much, but it’s North Korea. South Korean families whose roots are in the North often go there to hold rites for ancestors whose tombs they are forbidden to visit.
A North Korean infiltration tunnel. Three such tunnels have been publicly discovered, but some sources estimate that there are as many as 200 of them, stretching well down toward the southern reaches of the peninsula. You can go several hundred feet along through the one at the DMZ, formerly on foot, now in a little rail carriage.
The conference table at Panmunjom, precisely bisected by a yellow stripe denoting the boundary line of the Cold War. The southern half of the room is guarded by Republic of Korea soldiers, tall fellows masked with sunglasses, facing North in an aggressive taekwondo posture. Nobody guards the northern half of the room.
Our “Freedom Village” and their “Propaganda Village” both have absurdly high-flying flags. The North won that war of gestures with a stoutly buttressed, 180-meter (600-foot) flagpole. The flag is 30 meters long and nearly 200 kilograms, or 600 pounds, dry weight. It takes a near-gale to stir it, so instead of streaming boldly it usually hangs like a pall over a cluster of usually deserted houses.
Also unchanging is the dress code: no ripped jeans or ragged T-shirts or flip-flop sandals ― because a long-lens photographer in the North could snap a picture and use it to show how immiserated the poor folks are in the South. And no miniskirts or sleeveless blouses, lest the same photographer document the degraded morality of the South.
What changes over time are interpretations of the DMZ.
On my first visit in 2001, a film at the interpretation center presented the Zone as freedom’s frontier, a proud monument to the world’s righteous support of the valiant Republic of Korea in resisting treacherous aggression from the North. The inter-Korean summit had been less than a year earlier, but the DMZ had not yet caught up with the spirit of reconciliation supposed to be settling over the peninsula.
A year later, a new film portrayed an entirely different DMZ ― an ugly scar imposed on the helpless Korean people by outside powers who callously ripped apart a brave and peaceable nation and, pursuing their own global aims, precipitated upon Korea a hideous war whose painful vestiges are only heightened by the sorrowing Korean people’s determination that one day they will be unified.
This was early in the Roh Moo-hyun administration, and I surmise that the film was retired fairly quickly, because I have not talked to many people who saw it.
Possibly, South Korea’s war-fighting ally, the United States, lodged an objection.
In the spring of 2004 the DMZ film stuck close to facts: the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, when North Korean troops poured over the 38th parallel. Maps showed the early success of the Northern armies, then Douglas MacArthur’s Incheon landing and the rout of the North, the Chinese Army driving back the UN forces, and finally the stalemate with the opposing armies not so far from where they had started out three years earlier.
That spring, the North and South had agreed to stop broadcasting propaganda at each other. The South had just shut off its loudspeakers, but the North was still blasting away. Since the broadcast was as unintelligible as most loudspeaker announcements, I asked a guide for a translation: “Our general is No. 1 ― hurrah!”
(The general is the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, who is not actually a general but is popularly acclaimed as one because of his alleged uncanny military genius.)
Not long afterward, the North, too, called off the propaganda. I saw the rusting loudspeakers on listing posts on my last visit, a few weeks before I left Korea this summer.
There were other changes since my previous visit. In 2004 our tour lunched in the mess hall of Camp Bonifas, the U.S. Army installation at the DMZ. The food, though oriented toward rice and kimchi, was about as palatable as I recall the Army chow at Fort Dix, New Jersey, all those years ago. So when we lunched this time at a Korean restaurant just outside the DMZ, I assured my traveling companion that he had not missed anything.
But we did visit Camp Bonifas, where we were given a full account of the “ax-handle affair” of 1976, when American soldiers tried to trim a tree in no-man’s land that was blocking the view to the North and two of them were bludgeoned to death by North Korean soldiers with axes. One of the dead was Captain Arthur Bonifas, for whom the camp is now named.
I had read about this murder, and it was mentioned on previous DMZ visits, but this was the first time there was a whole presentation, with diagrams showing exactly who stood where and who did what, followed by a visit to the fatal site and to monuments for the slain Americans.
So the DMZ tour changes over time, which is a good reason, if you are in Korea for several years, to take it repeatedly. But I was really floored on my last visit when the tour guide introduced her assistant, a North Korean defector.
She was introduced as “Michelle,” a former staff sergeant in the North Korean Army and former university student, who came to South Korea last year by way of China.
The interpretive buildings at the DMZ have now been fitted out with mock-up rooms representing a North Korean school and a North Korean home living room. Michelle led us around them, pointing out the dominating pictures of Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 but remains North Korea’s “President for Eternity.”
We sat at the school desks ― cramped, because this was an elementary school ― and looked at math texts, wall charts and other teaching aids. It was only a little plainer than my elementary-school classroom half a century ago. The living room was small, plainly furnished, and like living rooms in most of the world, dominated by a television set.
Michelle explained (as has been widely reported) that TV and radio sets are fixed to receive only government stations; thus North Koreans are deprived of knowledge of the outside world. She told a harrowing tale of her defection, involving imprisonment in China and suicide threats that finally won release of the group she was with. She said that at her university, 60 percent of the students would defect if they could.
Can we take all this at face value? Many people (children, politicians ... even journalists?) sometimes tell the stories they think their hearers want.
But I doubt that it’s entirely invented. What pleases me is that over my years in Korea the DMZ trip has become much more comprehensive, balanced and interesting.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper

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