Tag Archives: Korean War

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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Returning, Remembering

5 Jun

Monday, I was walking through Namdaemun Market.  It can feel touristy at times when packs of foreigners come wandering through, eyes wide in confused terror when an ajumma starts trying to lure them into their store in guttural Korean.  Even though, as person who wields a Alien Registration Card, I prefer not to think of myself as one of them, I have come to accept that I am indeed not much higher on the list in the locals’ eyes.  Their ancestors have civilized this place for about 4000 years, which makes my time here about the equivalent of a geologic second.

But there was one pair that stood out beyond others.  They were not expats.  That was obvious enough from the camera bag and general amazement with which they gazed upon the chaos.  They were father and son, I realized, and they were here for one purpose.  They had not been lured to Korea’s shores as newcomers by the glossy and sensuous photographs of the government’s tourist campaign.  The father was too old to be traveling.  The skin sagged beneath his eyes and chin. He moved very slowly and stiffly, reactions delayed, his head and eyes searching languidly about.  Only one reason could have gotten a man of his age and condition to come to Korea.  It was because it was not his first time here.  Last time he must have held an M1 Garand in his hands.

It was Memorial Day in America and here he was, seeing the place where he had served, 60 years on.  The last time he had been here, things were simpler, both at home and in Korea.  He had been in his youth, too, better able to take on the difficulties and challenges of the world.  But now he was older and everything had changed.  Perhaps he recognized the faces and some of the smells, but the sights surely baffled him.  Who where these plasticized pop stars adorning posters in the shop front?  What about the racks and racks of acid wash jeans, hoodies with ink-splatter designs, and knock-off soccer jerseys?  He had seen changes in his own country but those had been more gradual.  Perhaps he had rued them but accepted them grudgingly.  But how could he come back to this land and expect to know it?  The contrast between the two was too great.   He was paralyzed not by the immense excitement of choice but by the perishing of any sense of familiarity.

Was this what he had fought for?  That is a question that echoes in many veteran’s minds, even about their own country. But had he given part of his youth and the lives of his friends for all this?  A consumer paradise of slick sameness, appearance glossing over substance, where if you stopped a passerby and asked about the North, they might shrug and call them brothers?  Was it good for him to see this place and understand what it had become, a busy land of square pegs in square holes, consuming, growing, and getting rich without a thought to the cost?  Or would he rather have remembered Korea as a poor, torn country that had nowhere else to look for salvation except to his country in the prime of its might?

His son guided him about, walking next to the old man, pointing down some arcades:  “Dad, let’s go there.”  His son could not have known the things his father saw.  But he knew he had to marshal his father carefully through this jungle, one beyond the understanding of the old breed.  I turned away for a minute and then lost sight of them in the masses, who did not know their story and passed them by without a glance.

Thoughts of War

26 Apr

If North Korea was going to strike a blow against its neighbor, there might be no better time than now.  Kim Jong Il is in failing health and what would be a better symbol than to attack on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War?  The sinking of the Cheonan might have been a test by North Korea of both the South Korean military’s preparedness as well as the martial inclinations of the South Koreans.   I, for one, will be glad that I will be out of the country on June 25, the sixtieth anniversary day.  Thinking about all of Seoul fleeing south as artillery, bombs, and perhaps (no, probably) chemical weapons crash down into this urban conglomeration is a chilling thought.  Many older Koreans remember the war; I’m sure that repeating it again, with even more disastrous consequences, is something that they hope never happens.

A war in Korea would seem to most like a terrible distraction from our current military efforts abroad, a conflict we cannot afford in terms of both blood and treasure.  Why is our military here? many ask.  The Koreans are not poor peasants any more, they are a successful, prosperous nation.  Can’t they protect themselves?

I think that to look at Korea is a good way to measure our current efforts other places in the world.  America’s role in Korea has not been one of calculated strategy or politics, nor stemmed from an shared past or affinity in ideas.  It has resembled more of making the best of a bad situation from the very beginning.  Our occupation and protection of Korea was our first major experience in facing a limited war with few recourses for a solution.  Certainly the Indian Wars, the Moro Rebellion, and forays by the Marines into Central America during the 1910-1920s were examples of limited wars, but none had the same sort of dire implications for the international order like the Korean crisis did.

Many who looked at Korea back then could have pointed to the negative aspects of the country to justify abandoning it, much in the same way that many advocate abandoning Afghanistan now.  Korea was poor, rural, perhaps even feudal.  It had no great inclination toward commerce or industry; its mindset was traditional and Confucian.  The Hermit Kingdom was happy to do things as it saw fit, without regard for others expectations.  A noble attribute indeed, but one which did little to convince others of its worthiness to deserve an investment of precious lives, resources, and political capital.

Yet if one looks at Korea today, it is easy to see the positive attributes that Koreans possess that made the country successful: an immense capacity for hard work, beyond the comprehension of most Westerners; a focus on success within the framework of society instead of reorganizing everything through violent revolution; an obligation to one’s family, friends, and, to a lesser extent, nation, in one’s efforts to succeed; an appreciation of material progress, something strange for a Buddhist land.  These attributes seem obvious now but perhaps were discounted as irrelevant sixty years ago.

The conundrums of Afghanistan are similar to Korea.  Not that the countries are similar in many ways.  Korea is small and dense, with fertile land and a sea on three sides, while Afghanistan is much larger and disconnected, with a much more varied and harsh environment.   Koreans shares a culture, language, and race with virtually no exceptions, while Afghanis are a much larger patchwork.  Korean culture emphasizes devotion to society, authority, and one’s place in serving them; Afghanistan is much more independent and tribal in its loyalties.  The two are hardly comparable.  But the point is that our experience in Afghanistan may be understood within the context of our own in Korea.  We entered neither by choice and found ourselves questioning our intentions and strategy.  Just as we are confounded by corrupt Afghani officials, so too was the U.S. Army dismayed at Korean police who executed dissidents during the war.  And just as the Taliban flee to safety in Pakistani tribal areas, so too did North Korean and Chinese units retreat beyond the Yalu to rest and refit.  Korea was an ugly war with little glory and a hardly acceptable end, and the same might be said for Afghanistan.  Yet we know from Korea that some good may come of it all.

This is not to say that we will succeed in Afghanistan, nor that we will fail.  Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of how we understand what limited information we possess.  Just as we could not have expected that certain aspects of Korea would have turned into strengths rather than weaknesses, to say that Afghanistan is doomed because of such-and-such a trait is to expect too much of our own foresight.

Yet if there is one thing that we should apply to Afghanistan from our experience in Korea, it is that if a troubled, torn country is to have any hope of becoming a peaceful, successful participant in the world, it must be guarded for an extended period of time and require a long investment of national will and resources.  America is still in Korea and, although its land forces are dwarfed in numbers by the North Korean army, its naval, air, and even nuclear power provides a serious deterrent to those north of the DMZ.  To leave would mean disaster for Korea.  The last time we thought it was safe and left, in 1948, we found ourselves returning two years later to repulse an invasion at great cost to both soldiers and civilians alike.  But leaving is precisely what we are doing in Afghanistan.  President Obama has said that we are leaving Afghanistan beginning in 2011.  We will create conditions suitable for our withdrawal and then never return.

But we do not get to choose the situation.  We do not choose history, it chooses us.  Just as we could not avoid being drawn into a conflict in Korea without compromising our own national security, dependent on the strategy of containment, we cannot expect that we will remain out of Afghanistan so long as there is a threat from Islamic extremism.  Korea was a pawn in the hands of greater powers, for better or worse, just as Afghanistan is enmeshed between Iran and Pakistan.  If we leave Afghanistan, we will go back, only when the situation gets bloody and desperate.  This is not to say that staying in Afghanistan is a good thing or will even accomplish a successful end.  But we must understand that simply leaving for good is not an option.

Korea is a strange place to me and I confess to not understanding and judging it harshly many times.  But when I look past the idiosyncrasies to the heart of the people, I see something worth protecting.  They are hard workers, patriots, entrepreneurs, and family people, imbued with a positive attitude about their own future.  That is what we should be asking ourselves about Afghanistan.  Are Afghanis worth protecting?  Can they be good people and contribute something worthwhile to this world?  If so, then I think we all know what we must do.

War On The Hills

15 Feb

“Even the hardiest Chinese soldiers in the opposing positions declared that the Korean summer was unbearable.  Until winter came, that is.  Then, as men plodded between positions with the studied clumsiness of spacemen, movements muffled by innumerable layers of clothing, they gazed in awed disbelief as the thermometers plunged to new depths. . . . An hour of carelessness in exposing a corner of flesh to the naked air was punished by frostbite.

“There were no officers’ clubs or bars, no drugs or movies or diversions.  There were only the mountain ridges, surmounted by the defenses which both sides now dug with extraordinary care and caution.

“Down the slope from the bunkers, a host of ingenious and intricate devices had been created and deployed to break the momentum of an assault: wire, minefields, trip flares, booby traps, and a few uniquely Korean innovations, such as barrels of napalm or white phosphorous that could be unleashed and ignited by a wire pulled from a foxhole.  The slightest movement observed or imagined in no-man’s-land attracted the sudden pop and dazzling light of a flare.  For no apparent reason, a sector of the front would suddenly erupt into an artillery duel that might last for weeks, with men lying in their bunkers while shells pounded overhead for four, five, six hours a day.

“By day files of men seemed to be toiling up and down incessantly in the Sisyphean labor of moving food, water, and ammunition from the nearest point in the valley below that a truck could reach.  American or Commonwealth fatigue parties were assisted by hundreds of the inevitable ‘chiggies,’ the Korean porters with their A-frames on their backs, whose dogged support even under fire became one of the most vivid of all foreign veterans’ memories of Korea.

“All the UN forces observed a ‘one winter’ rule in Korea.  No man, it was decreed, should be asked to endure more than one season of that terrible cold in the forward areas.”

– Max Hastings, The Korean War