Friday, September 30, 2011

A Glimpse of North Korea

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
The Koreas that once shared a common government, history and culture are now worlds apart. Alive with production, South Korea continues to grow economically stronger. Its capital city, Seoul, bustles with skyscrapers, shopping, theater and industry. Indeed, many American veterans of the Korean War who have returned after half a century of capitalism marvel at the sprawling metropolis that replaced a once-desolate area. I was amazed at the city's productivity and the positive attitude of its citizens, despite their close proximity to the communist North --- a scant 25 miles.

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!!!
Once the briefing was over, we loaded up in unmarked buses and headed to the actual Joint Security Area. Our first stop was in a conference room, which marked the official line of the DMZ. On one side of the table you were in South Korea, and in the side Jen and I were standing on, we were technically in North Korea. Behind us, a Republic of Korea soldier is standing watch R.O.K. ready. Jen and I had fun taking pictures of us with the South Korean soldiers... until we discovered that if you looked out the window, there were North Korean soldiers just outside!

I could feel a certain nervous energy emanating from the barbed-wire fences at the DMZ.

After leaving the conference room, they lined us up so we could get shots of the whole JSA compound, at least the side facing North Korea (still no shots of South Korea allowed). The blue buildings are the United Nations'. The conference room we were just in (blue building on the left) is where peace talks or discussions between both sides are held. As you can see, for a place called the "Demilitarized Zone" there's nothing demilitarized about it. Throughout the day, North and South Korean soldiers face off against each other, as if they're just waiting for someone to do something malicious and start up the war all over again.

No question it was a strange thing to be ogling and taking pictures of. The US Army guide of ours reminded us it's a misconception that the Korean War ended in 1953. Technically there was an armistice signed that merely stopped the fighting at the 38th parallel and designated the 2.5-mile wide strip of land running the length of the Korean Peninsula as a buffer zone where no one was allowed to enter. So essentially, it's still considered an active war zone, particularly because North Korea apparently does not recognize many of the things supposedly agreed upon in the the armistice. Our guide gave example after example of how childish (making offensive gestures at dignitaries through the windows) and difficult to work with the North Koreans have been over these decades of disagreement.

North Korea has also posed a challenge to the United States in collecting the remains of our military personnel missing from the Korean War---8,000 are unaccounted for. Speaking with forensic scientists at the U.S. Army's Central identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, I learned it was not until 1996 that the North Koreans would allow the U.S. military to search for remains on their soil. So far, about 220 sets of remains have been recovered.

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?

As we left the DMZ for our Korean lunch and the rest of our last day in Seoul, I definitely had a greater appreciation of America's involvement overseas. Had we and the half a dozen other nations not chosen to become involved, this beautiful city and thriving country would likely have been overtaken by North Korea and, subsequently, extreme communism. A whole extra nation of people would be holed up as prisoners in their own land. And it's true, we lost tens of thousands of our own in this conflict; but it does make you stop to truly consider the worth of such extreme sacrifice in exchange for freedom. I am left wondering if North Korea will ever experience a revolution toward freedom in our lifetime... and if so, what the cost would be to get there. Time will tell. Until then, war stands still at the 38th parallel. Watching... waiting...

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.


  1. I am so glad that you included your article in excerpts in your blog- so interesting! What an amazing trip and experience. I think you summed it up well with your statement regarding two generations of oppressed people. I am interested to see what happens next or if anything will open their eyes. With so much humanitarian aid going through, what will it take for them to realize something is wrong? Thanks for the great blog Peyt!

  2. Wow what a cool trip! (I love the one where you are being watch by the man with binoculars!) And the clips from your article are really, really good. I was kind of shocked by the amount of money spent by S. Korea on humanitarian effort. I wonder what it is now? I lived on Osan AFB for 2 years as a kid, your pictures are taking me right back there.


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