Six years ago when I was working my first job out of college at AMVETS, I was tasked with writing an op/ed about our National Commander's recent trip to Taiwan and South Korea. Naturally, our public relations team sought to use this trip to maximize attention for the organization. After he returned, I interviewed him and the organization's director about their experiences, and from the interviews and loads of independent research, I traveled the distance from only knowing that a Korean War memorial existed in Washington, D.C., to understanding how unique and still volatile this line is between South and North Korea. Excerpts from the article (written 6 years ago now) follow in italics, with comments from my recent visit interspersed.
Recent pronouncements, coming out of Pyongyang about North Korea's nuclear weapons capability only add to unease. And with good reason. The North's surprise attack on its neighbors to the south in June 1950 has hardly been forgotten. The bloodshed that left more than 33,000 Americans dead and another 92,000 wounded also saw the South Koreans suffer hundreds of thousands of casualties of their own. Despite the 1953 armistice, the fear persists that forces from the North could come streaming across the Demilitarized Zone at any moment.
The op/ed was published on May 18, 2005 in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. I didn't know anything about the overseas military-focused publication at the time, but now, six years and one OCONUS tour later, I see it every time I check out at the NEX. My research on the Korean War is what prompted me to want to go to Korea in the first place, specifically to travel to the DMZ and see this buffer space between war and peace for myself. So on September 22, Jen and I loaded up on a tour bus and made the hourlong trip from Seoul to the border with North Korea.
|View of bustling Seoul from the Sky Tower|
When we arrived at the border, we were given lots of instructions... when and when not to take pictures, where and where not to take pictures. We were granted permission to take any pictures we wanted of North Korea, but none of the South side of the DMZ. Our first stop was the Joint Security Area (JSA), which is essentially the meat and potatoes of the DMZ tour because it's the place where you can see North Korean soldiers. Here we received a briefing by a US Army soldier who explained the history of the area and showed detailed maps of the JSA and the areas we were going to see. At no point did he hold back from opportunities to tell us how ridiculous North Korea had acted over the years.
As history has proven, regimes that exploit military power, rely on propaganda and enforce censorship often seek to compensate for their weaknesses. North Korea's weaknesses create untold difficulties for its citizens---something that's difficult to imagine in a country with a constitution similar to ours. Because of collectivized agriculture, 16 million of the country's 23 million inhabitants are dependent on government handouts for their food. Incongruously, Kim Jon Il's regime continues to support a 1.2 million-member military and boast about its nuclear weapons.
One such story of ridiculousness was the flagpoles on the border towns. In South Korea, there is a town at the DMZ called Freedom Village which we drove by. There are very strict requirements as to who can live here, and it's a very successful farming community, growing rice along the lush acres of otherwise untouched land that span the DMZ. South Korea put up a flagpole in the town 100m high. A short while later, North Korea put up a flagpole 160m high in their border town (called Propaganda Village) and now flies a 600 lb. flag from it. Apparently it takes 25 NK soldiers to raise or lower the flag. Also, the reason this town was named Propaganda Village is because there used to be information blasted over a louspeaker at all hours of the day, even when there were only half a dozen or so people living in the town.
The hardship of such policies on the North Korean people is evident. At the DMZ, South Korean troops called my attention to a convoy of trucks carrying rice from the south to the North as part of a humanitarian effort totaling more than $250 million a year.
|We are in North Korea!!!|
I could feel a certain nervous energy emanating from the barbed-wire fences at the DMZ.
After leaving the JSA, we next got out of the bus at a spot where the DMZ border curves and you are surrounded by North Korea on three sides. Again... do you smile in pictures like this? As I looked out over the border area, I couldn't help but think about all of the millions of people on the other side who were living in a world where freedom doesn't exist. No questions it's moments like this that make you truly appreciate what America stands for. This trip to Korea in itself is such a great example of that freedom. I do not need to ask permission of anyone to leave my hometown to travel wherever I so please whenever I so desire. I can talk to whomever I want, ask whatever questions to get more information, worship the God of my choice however I so choose, and say in this very public space whatever the heck I want... all without having to fear anything at all. And having grown up this way, it's hard for me to imagine a place where freedoms like these aren't automatically granted. A place where, in fact, they don't exist at all.
Many wonder, as I do, if there is hope for revolution in a country as isolated as North Korea. After 60 years of being subject to the whims of the Kim dynasty, two oppressed generations of North Koreans have every reason to think the rest of the world lives just as they do. It raises the question: How can a people want freedom if they have no idea what it is?
Writer's note: Special thanks to my editor and former boss Dick Flanagan for turning my research and interviews into something still worth reading six years later.