We live only two kilometers from the last remnants of the Cold War, the Demilitarized military zone (DMZ) that runs across the width of the Korean peninsula, dividing north from south, separating brother from brother. Close by lies an observatory where you can go to look in on North Korea and buy products made in the north. At night, the divide is highlighted by lights; lights that illuminate the south side, including the independence highway that would link Seoul with Pyongyang, highlight the prosperity of the south. The lack of lights across the river shows more than the darkness hides, a lack of lights highlighting the electricity and infrastructure problems that the North suffers from.
|View through the barbed wire to North Korea.|
The north-south divide puts the capitalist South up against the Stalinist North. The division of the country at the 38th parallel was performed arbitrarily in 1945 by a member of the U.N force stationed in the peninsula. Legend has it that he only had a Korean map obtained from a National Geographic magazine to undertake this duty. While roughly dividing the country into two equal parts, the North was left with precious little arable land while the south missed out on the mineral wealth and the industry of the North. It is now a 4-kilometer by 250-kilometre scar that divides the country roughly in half along its entire length. Military from both sides are (supposedly) excluded from the area, which ironically now consists of the best-preserved temperate zone in Asia. Birdlife including rare cranes and waterfowl breed prolifically in the DMZ, a situation environmentalists hope would continue after reunification. Some people swear that tigers may still prowl the area, but no convincing proof has been released publicly. As the two Koreas are still technically at war, there is still a large military buildup on both sides of the border with North Korea boosting one of the world’s largest standing military while the South still has compulsory military conscription for all men that lasts two years.
The split was supposed to be a temporary one, with reunification under one government through elections in 1947. These elections were opposed by the Soviet Union and hence the Soviet North and elections were held only in the South the following year. Later that year, the north was formally declared a communist state. For two years, the two sides shared an uneasy peace with both claiming sovereignty over the whole country. The peace was shattered in June 1950 when the North launched a surprise attack, sanctioned by both the Soviet Union and China. The communist forces quickly took a large chunk of South Korea, including Seoul, and would have taken the whole country if it wasn’t for the intervention of UN forces led by America. By August, the allied forces clung to only a small portion of the peninsula called the Busan perimeter, centred on the South’s second city in the southeast corner of the country. The communists mounted several attacks but could not cut through the allied defenses, which included soldiers from sixteen different countries, the majority (480,000) from the United States. In September, the war had a major change in direction with the Incheon landing, a surprise move led by General McArthur that landed behind enemy lines near the port of Incheon in an amphibious attack. The move was initially criticized but the doubting Thomases soon had to rescind their criticism as the tactic cut the communists off from their supply lines. The invasion swiftly gained momentum and by the 1st of October, not only had North Korean soldiers been ejected from the South but the 38th parallel was crossed and several North Korean cities taken. The allied forces pushed on, trying to achieve a complete surrender before the harsh winter set in. Before they could achieve this end, Chinese forces swarmed over the North Korean border, eventually repelling the allied forces and pushing them back to set up a stalemate around the artificial border created around the 38th parallel. Seoul changed hands a couple more times before the opposing forces dug in along a line just north of the 38th. Two years of often bitter and violent fighting continued with little material gain for either side.
|General McArthur is both respected and reviled in the Republic for his war-time deeds.|
During this time, McArthur pushed for total war, advocating dropping bombs on Manchuria and northern Korea, a push that put him in direct conflict with US president Truman, who eventually terminated McArthur’s command. McArthur’s willingness to use nuclear warfare in China and North Korea has caused a revision in the revered status he holds in the South, particularly in the older generation. The war meandered on with little gains for either side until an armistice was signed by representatives from North Korea, China and the UN Command in July 1953. South Korea played no active part in signing the armistice, with South Korean President Rhee attacking the peace process. However, the uneasy peace has survived since 1953, not withstanding multiple infractions on both sides, but mainly from the North. At the conclusion of the war, a million South Korean civilians, half a million allied forces and one and a half million communists troops had been either killed, wounded or MIA. Atrocities had been committed by both side; the north killing prominent South Koreans and committing a couple of large scale mass killings of captured American forces on their excursions south while the South massacred communists and their sympathizers, real or alleged, in both North and South Korea. Some of these indiscriminate killings predated the war, like the mass killing of alleged communists on the southern island of Jeju in 1948 in an event now known as the Jeju massacre. Some of these atrocities have only come to light, with questions asked on the compliancy of the United States in these proceedings. Recent documents may suggest that American commanders failed to protect civilians properly and at times may have ordered the strafing of refugees fleeing the North for fear that included amongst them would be communist sympathizers.
|Razor wire is a feature along the DMZ|
People can visit the DMZ on organized tours and a visit to the DMZ may be the most surreal experience I have had, definitely in my time in Korea. Visitors to the DMZ are asked to dress respectfully with no shorts or T-shirts with slogans or logos (in case the North used images of shabby foreigners in its internal propaganda). South Koreans are only allowed to go under exceptional circumstances. Security was strict with multiple passport checks, both at the USO office where we left and before our arrival at Camp Boniface, the US army base at the DMZ. First stop on the tour is Panmunjeom, a village that lies on the South Korean side of the DMZ, which is where the Armistice Agreement was signed. Here, discussions between north and south take place in UN blue buildings that straddle the DMZ. On arriving in Panmunjeom, you can see what is billed as the world’s most dangerous golf course, a par 3 that runs alongside a live mine field. Etiquette and protocol is taken seriously and you are educated on what is considered to be correct behaviour in a briefing that is part warning, part safety and part propaganda. You sign waivers that state in part ”that the visit will detail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” After signing your life away, you get lead down to the border, to the blue meeting houses where the demarcation line is marked by concrete blocks.
|Looking towards the North Korean side.|
In between the buildings, armed soldiers from both sides stand and face the enemy. The South Korean soldiers stand in bizarre, protective Tae kwon do poses with unflinching facial expressions, clenched fists and sunglasses. They are supposed to be at least 177cms tall and will have a black belt in either Taekwondo Do or Judo. The North Koreans have two soldiers facing each other in rigid military posture. They face each other so neither can defect while a third stands with his back to them to try and deter others from defecting. South Korea and North Korea both have buildings here whose heights have been added to so each side could claim the bigger, more impressive building. You can then walk down from the South Korean building to a UN building where meetings between the UN forces and North Korea are still conducted. There are two doors into these small rooms, one leading into North Korea and one coming from the south. A table where meetings are held holds the laminated flags of the participating countries (legend has it the flags were changed from cloth to plastic when some North Korean soldiers used the flags of the allies as toilet paper). A South Korean soldier stands between you and the door to North Korea, lest you get kidnapped and drawn down the rabbit hole, into the wonderland that is the North.
|In one of the UN buildings. Here, I'm standing in North Korea but I'm protected by a ROK soldier.|
From there, things maybe get weirder. You go to the area where North Koreans hacked to death three American soldiers with tomahawks, who were trimming a tree that blocked the view from a lookout point. You go past the bridge of No Return where captured soldiers could cross after the war either to the North and South, probably aware that their choice would mean that they would never see their family again. Then, you see the world’s largest flag near a phantom village; a village where it is claimed villagers are shipped in and out of daily. All around is the conspicuous birdlife, conspicuous because of the lack of birds seen in Seoul. Majestic Manchurian cranes, rarely seen now, were commonplace in the air and in the wetlands. They were spectacular, a reminder what interrupted human interference can have on nature. From Panmunjeon, we went to the Odusan lookout observatory for views over North Korea to the industrial city of Kaesong. Using the telescopes, on a clear day like we had, you can pick out a giant statue of Kim Sung Il, gold or copper plated, a monument to megalomania, standing proud in a park. There wasn’t the same tension here as at the DMZ, apart from the tall ROK soldier who told Mary that if she took photos over the banned yellow line one more time, he would confiscate her camera. It didn’t matter that she was taking pictures of the South, he said. It was still a matter of national security. The day’s final step was a trip to the three tunnels, discovered by the South, dug down from the North. The tunnels would have allowed North Korea to infiltrate deep into the south, bypassing the fortified DMZ. An estimated 10,000 soldiers could apparently march through these tunnels (these 10,0000 must have been small, small people because I had to duck my head all the way along and I wasn’t carrying a rifle or pack). The North initially denied the tunnels were their doing, until the South pointed out that the drilling marks definitely pointed south. Game, Set and Match, South. Further tunnels have subsequently been found popping up into the south, some disarmingly close to Seoul.
|The tunnels are small and claustrophobic but could have allowed North Koreans to swarm across the border.|
In what I call the war trifecta, (a DMZ tour and a visit to the national War museum in Seoul that has in-depth displays on the Korean War), the third leg is a visit to the U.N cemetery in Busan. As you may recall, Busan had been the last stronghold for the South Koreans and allied forces in the early part of the Korean War and was the only major city not to fall to the communists. In 1951, the South Korean government gifted the land to the U.N, for use as a cemetery to bury foreign soldiers. 2,300 men lie here from Canada, Australia, France, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, South Africa, Turkey, the UK and the US. Many others were originally interned here but were subsequently repatriated to their respective home countries. The cemetery remains the only one in the world maintained by the UN and they do a great job in maintaining it. The lawns are immaculately groomed and trees well pruned. The cemetery lies on a hill above the port, peaceful but unbelievably poignant. It was especially moving when we found New Zealand’s section.
|New Zealand's war memorial at the Busan War Cemetery.|
Of the 6,000 New Zealand soldiers who served here, forty-five soldiers died; 34 have found permanent residence in this cemetery with two others whose bodies were never found also commemorated here. A granite memorial had been raised, with messages in Maori, English and Korean. It features a design based on a moko, a Maori woman’s chin tattoo. This design was chosen as a moko was traditionally conferred as a sign of obtaining adulthood, an indication that the woman could take pain and also take on responsibilities. Here, it is used as a symbol of the loss felt by women in war, both literally and in the sense of New Zealand as the mother country losing some of her sons. There are 45 cuts on the stone, each one marking the life of one of the dead countrymen. Each country had similar memorials, although we, of course, focused on New Zealand’s part of the cemetery. Times like this always leave me grateful that I’ve never had to endure the horrors of war and always makes me wonder what I would be like under fire. Hopefully, I’ll never know.