Travels in the Demilitarized Zone

Note: This is a longer entry than usual, because visiting the DMZ is a pretty intense experience. I've split it into three pages. Links leading to the next page are at the bottom of each page.

While in Korea, we took some time off from soccer fandom and took a bus tour to the DMZ. I am not normally a fan of bus tours, everyone being herded into the same place at the same time like a bunch of dispirited goats, but if you want to get to the DMZ, you either take a bus tour or you don't go.

"DMZ" is short for "Demilitarized Zone," the 4-kilometer strip of land that divides North and South Korea. Contrary to what you might expect given its name, the DMZ is very heavily militarized. "Demilitarized" refers only to the absence of heavy weaponry; I've never seen more soldiers, checkpoints and guards in my life.

In 1988, I visited East (and West) Berlin. For me, it was a powerful, deeply significant visit, and I remember it vividly. (In fact, I wrote my college application essay about it, and I mentioned that, while we shared a past, East and West Germans did not share a future. At the time, in the fall of 1988, the events of November 1989 were still unthinkable.) We rode in my uncle's car, driving through East Germany to get to Berlin. I remember the long lines at the checkpoint to enter East Germany, the military personnel in drab uniforms holding scary guns, the high walls and observation posts everywhere. I remember, later, entering East Berlin by subway, at the Friedrichstraße station - being scrutinized by the East German passport control officer, asked to turn my head, to show my ear, to make sure it was really me. I looked at the Wall from both sides on that visit. From the West, observation platforms leading up close to the Wall itself (though officially, East German territory began 5 meters before the Wall, so West German structures could not go all the way up to the Wall), tourist traps everywhere, marketing the division. From the East, you weren't allowed to get that close, so we settled for a more distanced view of the Brandenburg Gate, walking with my parents' East Berlin friends whom I was meeting for the first time and for whom the Wall represented a nearly impenetrable border.

The North Korean side of the DMZ, as seen from the South

This is what I remembered when we decided to go to the DMZ: the overwhelming weight of history, the awareness that it was by sheer luck that my father's mother got herself and her son back to the West in 1945, and the realization, meeting my parents' friends, that the border, which for me was intimidating and unfamiliar, was a impassable barrier for those born on the other side of it.

Of course, the DMZ was different, because I don't have the family connections there; but the weight of history, and the physical reality of those politics you learn about in high school classes, those were overwhelmingly present. Even while you're caught up in the stylized ritual of the visit, you remember that beyond those soldiers standing at attention on the Northern side, there are vast numbers of people who are not just contained inside their border, but who are starving and dying because of it.

A view of North Korea. The area is beautiful - and also heavily mined.

Family connections or no, however, the DMZ differs from that East-West German border in a number of important ways. Perhaps most significantly, the two sides here are - officially, anyway - still at war. While the Korean war ended with an armistice agreement in 1953, no peace treaty was signed, and for the US army (which maintains a significant presence along the DMZ), the place is considered a hazardous posting.

And hazardous it is, too. There have been numerous violent incidents involving the North and South, and at least until recently, North Korea was actively engaged in trying to oust the South Korean government. (Coup attempts and several infiltration tunnels attest to this.) The German border was different; while both sides were actively engaged in extensive spygames, the war there was undeclared and cold. Violence on the border was almost exclusively directed by the East at its own fleeing citizens. That this is despicable, there is no doubt, but as far as border relations go, that type of violence does not create international tension in the way that attacks on the opposing side do.

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last updated 19. June 2002

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