A Thin, Quiet Line

12 May

I had the chance to go to the DMZ, something that I’d been meaning to do for a while.  I have a (perhaps perverse) fascination with conflict, despite never having served in the military myself, and I’d always heard the DMZ called “the world’s most heavily fortified border.”  Since it’s legal and the chances of fatal wounding these days are pretty low, I wanted to see it for myself.  Nothing can replace your own eyes on target.

Instead of Panmunjeom, the negotiation village with its border-straggling conference rooms, we went to the opposite end of the DMZ, in Yanggu.  It’s out in the wilds of Gangwon-do.  The province has a reputation for sturdy farmers and beautiful forests and mountains.  It is indeed beautiful, really and truly.  The land is not perfectly wild or pristine, as the valley bottoms are still covered by tiny family farms. But it is extremely quiet and ancient feeling.  Could this have been such a fierce battlefield sixty years ago?

As we left out of Yanggu, it became clear it could be again. There were army camps in almost every small village we passed through heading north through Yanggu county. The 21st Infantry Division (“Baekdusan” is their moniker) was the unit in residence. Most  of the camps were artillery fire bases, obviously long-established because of the number of decent-sized trees growing amongst the concrete casemates. In a few cases, you could see the barrels of guns pointing into the sky.  The bases looked a little on the rough and sparse side, with rusty roofs, outdoor racks for drying clothes, and crumbling cement in a few places. I wouldn’t envy the poor luck of your average conscriptee being stationed in such a remote valley.  Most grow up in the city, with every distraction and comfort they could wish, and then they’re dumped in a place with almost no one under the age of 50.  My girlfriend related a common barracks joke: “In the Army, even grandma is a woman.”

I was lucky enough to hike in Dutayeon, a beautiful little valley that is well within the Civilian Restricted Zone.  You definitely have to get a permit ahead of time and go through a manned checkpoint to go.

Despite the signs warning against leftover ordnance, it was a beautiful and peaceful place to walk. There was a very strong smell of wildflowers in the air.  Standing on a swinging bridge over the rushing river, I felt perfectly at peace and understood better the Korean (and perhaps East Asian) aesthetic sense better. It is not purple mountains majesty, nor golden, fertile land, nor soaring forests; it is instead tranquility, peace, a feeling of eternity.

After leaving Dutayeon, we headed east.  There were more firebases and checkpoints along the way, but not nearly on the scale that I had expected. Undoubtedly there were more than what I could see from the road, but the military presence didn’t seem very menacing. We entered into the Punchbowl, the site of a fierce Korean war battle.

The Punchbowl

In the middle of the Punchbowl is Haean.  It was a very quiet hamlet, with almost no people out, though it is planting time for the rice.  I saw no one under the age of 50. Haean, because of its proximity to the border, used to be a very tightly controlled place. Women were not allowed to leave the town unless they married with a man from another village or the city. Even though the name of the town is Haean, the term ‘Punchbowl’  (written as 펀치볼) has become a local reference to the whole area, even featuring as the name of the local gas station.   As Haean is north of the 38th parallel, it, along with other areas in the northeastern part of South Korea, was actually under North Korean control for the five years after the end of the Japanese occupation and for a period during the Korean War.  The current border reflects where the ceasefire in 1953 occurred, not the original line drawn by the Allies in 1945.  Thus the South gained a little more land in the east, while losing land in the west.

Outside Haean, we drove up a very sharp ridge. Halfway up we hit the checkpoint, where another armed guard came on the bus and made a head count. Once we continued on, it was more winding curves, not seemingly like much at all.  Then I looked out the window and saw the fence. The perimeter fence, that is: heavy-gauge chain link, topped with concertina.  The fence ran basically along the top of the ridge, roughly east-west in direction.,with a concrete or dirt path right on the inside of it. It was a shock to have heard so much about the DMZ and  suddenly, there it was, just a fence.

We got to Eulji Observatory and from that point on, there was no picture taking allowed. The South Koreans held the top of the ridge from which the above picture of the Punchbowl is taken (facing south).  The 21st Division had OPs at different points along the ridge.  The perimeter fence and OPs are the limit of military advance and indicates where the DMZ actually physically begins.  Head down the slope  in front of the South Korean lines and there is a stream at the bottom of the valley. Go up a one or two hundred meters on the other side and there is what looks like a red dirt road running east west along the – this snake-like clearing is the actual meeting of the two borders. A kilometer on the other side is the beginning of the North Korean lines. Each army used to be further apart, with the South two kilometers south from the actual meeting of borders and the North Koreans two kilometers north. In the 1970s, the North moved a kilometer south in provocation and in response, the South moved a kilometer north. So currently only two thousand meters separate the two armies. One SK OP juts out fairly far into the valley and is actually only about 780m from the North Korean side. The soldiers there supposedly have to wear body armor and helmets at all times, though when I saw them they were in shirtsleeves digging out a pit at the base of their observation tower.

Through telescopes attached to CCTV cameras, we were shown pictures of NK emplacements on the opposite ridges. We could even see a few NK soldiers. One guy was clearly watching us from a bunker, but at another post, the soldiers looked relaxed. The lieutenant giving us the briefing said that they often see the NK troops taking naps on a regular basis. His manner of speaking was as if he was scolding a lazy student. In addition to normal OPs and living quarters, a field where North Korean troops grew food (plowing with oxen) was visible.  Atop one of the opposing peaks there sat a tower used to block South Korean radio and TV transmissions.  One of the more interesting parts was a waterfall clearly visible even with the naked eye.  The North Koreans used to send their female soldiers to bathe naked in the waters of “Angel Falls” in order to entice lonely South Korean soldiers observing the borders to defect.

The weather was rainy and foggy, but broke enough to see farther into the distance. Barely visible was on of the peaks of Geumgangsan,  arguably Korea’s most famous mountain. Looking that great distance into the North, I was chilled. I have made observations throughout my time in Korea, always saying “Korea is like this,” and “Koreans do this,” and “Korean culture is like this.” Yet I now saw that there was a whole other half to the country of which I knew nothing and never would.

What was also scary was that this thin, quiet line of fence and spread-out sentries was all that protected the border. I’d always thought of the DMZ as resembling Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, with artillery, machine guns, tank traps, and clear signs of military force everywhere. Obviously, given the number of fire bases further south along the valleys, the South Korean plan is a defense in depth, a sounder military strategy. Yet the thinness of the line bothered me, as well as the proximity of the two sides. The threat was not at a distance, just barely on this side of the horizon. It was clear, present, observable with a good pair of eyes.

What made the situation simultaneously absurd and creepy was that the DMZ seemed so arbitrary. Of all the valleys, mountains, and natural formations, this was the border because this was where the fighting stopped, as if it could just pick back up tomorrow. To the eye it was clear that this was no Rhine, no Rio Grande, no English Channel, no Alps, no landmark to easily divide people and nations. This was all the same land.  For centuries it had seen the same people. On the South Korean side, literally a few hundred meters below the ridgeline and the perimeter fence, local farmers were planting crops on the slopes. They and their forebears had done that forever.  In comparison,the DMZ seemed like a transient, minor nuisance.

To me, that thin, quiet line reinforced the tragedy of Korea. It is indeed a house divided. Yet it is not split based on allegiance to leaders or clans or power factions, as the country had been in the past. It is divided because of each side’s allegiance to two ideologies that are fundamentally not Korean in the first place. Some have angrily said that the division of Korea is America’s fault. No, it is not – it is modernity’s fault. It is because of the way we have changed our living and our thought in past hundred and fifty years as a world. We have sought an unnatural order for things and our struggle to control or justify that order has dichotomized our relationships with our neighbors, our countrymen, and other peoples. Modernity insists on rigidity and homogeneity in thought and action; it holds no room for the true diversity of human character and existence. And old-souled, inward-looking Korea suffered as a result. Never had it attempted to force itself on others.  Korea had only ever sought to live as it wished, not bothered by others. Yet it became an unfortunate, tragic pawn in the struggle of different orders. Korea, at least in the South, suffers today not in an physical, wanting sense. But the whole country suffers in a spiritual sense, for it is indeed without its other half.

I left Gangwon-do and headed back to the city, to all the distractions and the money-making, to the scramble to be recognized in the world.  But all I could think about was the land I’d been in all day.  That land has taken on a certain meaning because of the people scattered amongst its valleys and had impressed a certain character upon them in return.  Perhaps, one day, they could continue on in that way, unbothered by the fence.

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