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Published: February 12th 2012
Two years after my eight-day exploration of the surreal Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) it was time to visit their Southern neighbours, the Republic of Korea, and to compare the divergent paths of a region cleaved by politics and power. My arrival held a few nervous moments for evidence of my North Korean travels (in the form of entry and exit stamps from Dandong in China) could be found in my passport, which may have resulted in a few questions. Thankfully, these stamps were not discovered and all proceeded smoothly.
The differences for the traveller between the two Koreas are immense. In the South a foreigner is embraced instead of feared; the result of one society immersing itself in the international community, the antithesis of the hermit kingdom on the other side. In the South, I could walk alone where I wanted, when I wanted, talk to whoever I wished and had photographic freedom. In the North, a guide and party official escorted me at all times, I was isolated from the local populace and every photograph required prior approval.
The South’s materialism is staggering when compared to the North, perfectly illustrated by the main train stations
in the respective capitals. In Pyongyang, it was a dark cavernous building devoid of colour and filled with masses of drably dressed citizens shuffling along to the sounds of patriotic music. In Seoul, it was a gleaming, bright station lined with shops, whilst fashionable residents engrossed in their smart phones or gravitating towards the station’s numerous Samsung televisions.
In particular, I was intrigued to observe the differing attitude to the Korean War, or as the North term it, the Fatherland Liberation War. For the Northerners, the War remains heavily ingrained in their psyche, whereas the Southerners view it as a comparatively distant event. However, reminders of the conflict can be explored, such as the North Korean submarine on display at Unification Park on the seafront near Gangneung. The submarine ran aground here on 17 September 1996 and its subsequent abandonment by 25 “Red guerrillas” caused a major incident, and it took 49 days of searching before all the invaders were either captured or killed. Authorities consider a repeat incident conceivable as the surrounding coastal road is lined with barbed wire and armed guard posts who seek to prevent further incursions.
This Park enabled me to deduce that the
South views the War with less gravitas than the North. This was evidenced within the decommissioned destroyer, the Jeon Buk Ham
, which served in the Second World, Korean and Gulf wars. The first indication of something unusual was the Indiana Jones
theme music accompanying a video lauding the Republic of Korea’s navy with the message “He who has command of the sea has command of everything”. Tackier displays awaited, for on the warship’s bow sat a photograph of Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet in a famous moment from Titanic
, whilst an adjacent cardboard replica of the same scene, replete with two face holes, that allowed visitors to prove their visit to the country’s most kitsch curio. The relevance between the movie Titanic
and theJeon Buk Ham
is bewildering, but some functionary must have thought it an inspired idea. If there is another military engagement between the two Koreas, I hope this cardboard replica is the first and only casualty of conflict.
Arriving in Seoul saw me visit the grand War Memorial of Korea, that detailed not only the Korean War, but many other conflicts throughout the nation’s history. The areas of greatest solemnity were the Memorial Hall of
the Defence of Fatherland (which pays respects “to our patriotic forefathers who devoted and sacrifice their life for the fatherland”) and the UN Expeditionary Forces room, featuring a sculpture called “The Drop”, made from 1,300 military identification tags formed into the shape of a human tear. There were also historical documents such as the original telegram sent to the US Department of State referring to the initial invasion of North Korean forces on 25 June 1950 - an event strenuously denied by the North who proclaim that the South instiaged the War. For something more vigorous, the nearby Combat Experience Room effectively recreated a night skirmish with noise, light, sound and smoke. For some peculiar reason, it wasn’t popular as I was the only person at the viewing I attended.
Fridays were reserved for a weekly Honour Guard Ceremony with participants wearing military costumes of different eras, but the precision of this show was appreciably inferior to performances in the north. After the Ceremony I returned to the exhibition halls, but upon entering, the sound of squealing children reached my ears. I initially thought it an unruly school group, but it continued, so I marched to the source of
the noise and was startled to see that a sizable children’s playground, complete with oversized inflatable play areas, in one of the Museum’s halls. This was totally incongruent with the intent of such a Memorial, and I departed somewhat dismayed.
The most significant reminder of the Korean War is the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), particularly that at Panmunjeom. Having visited this area from the North (as detailed in my blog Eternal Vigilance Against Imperialist Aggressors
) I soon discovered that a southern visit to the DMZ is far more controlled experience. During my northerly visit, any attired was permissible; but by comparison, the South imposes a long list of clothing bans, including: “Any items of outer clothing of sheer variety”, “oversize clothing” and shirts or tops with “big letters”. Thus someone wearing a Jedi Knight outfit or “Choose Life” shirt would be refused entry from the South, yet these are acceptable from the North.
Fi (who accompanied me during my North Korean visit) joined me for this day tour. The bus left Seoul and to establish the appropriate mood, my MP3 music of choice for the journey was Tool’s Ænima
. Leaving the capital’s usually busy streets we headed along increasingly deserted roads until arriving
at a spacious bridge with numerous barriers. Passing through the checkpoints (including a passport check), a military guide boarded the bus and we headed to the Visitor’s Centre at the Joint Security Area (JSA). It was obvious from the commentary that sighting North Korea was a major attraction of this tour, but the thick fog that morning greatly hindered visibility.
Arriving at the JSA Visitor’s Centre, all present were given a declaration to read and sign which commences with the following reassuring words: “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” There followed a briefing by an officious yet entertaining US solider who informed those gathered of further restrictions; photography was only permitted in a northerly direction, pointing was prohibited, and no bags could be carried. There were no such restrictions in the North.
After a brief but fruitful stop at a souvenir shop, we drove pass the “World’s Most Dangerous Golf Course”, a one-hole feature surrounded by land mines on three sides, and finally arrived at Freedom House on the south of the JSA. With surging anticipation,
our group briskly walked towards the row of squat structures straddling the border backed by the North’s imposing Panmungak. In 2009, I was disappointed that opposing soldiers were not present simultaneously, so you could imagine my joy when a North Korean soldier strode onto the same steps of Panmungak that I had walked two years earlier. He was largely inanimate, save for two movements which involved bringing a pair of large binoculars to his eyes and then down again. The curtain of a window was drawn back, and was probably needed as the North had very few security cameras compared to those occupying Freedom House. This was not something obvious on my previous visit, but seeing the JSA from both sides enabled such comparisons.
Our group entered the Military Armistice Commission (MAC) building, and it felt slightly odd to be crossing into here again, but from the southern door this time. Two tall motionless and expressionless guards wearing large dark glasses were the only occupants upon entering. Once in the building, the onerous conditions imposed on visitors from the south continued. In 2009, I was able to sit at the head of the meeting table and pose for a
photograph. However, we were informed that we could not even touch the chairs or table let alone ensconce oneself in a seat. I also noticed a small UN flag standing on the table, an absent item during my previous visit. This is perhaps due to the North’s belief that the UN has no official role in the South and any foreign troops are indicative of imperialist exploitation and aggression.
After five minutes, the group was ushered to the bus and we drove to the “The Bridge of No Return” where US soldiers from the captured USS Pueblo
crossed to the South after their release. The remaining tour time was spent trying to espy North Korea through the fog at Dorasan Observatory, which contained a line marking the furthermost point where one could photograph. Again, no such regulation was imposed on me from any Northern observation points. Others strained to see the Northern city of Kaesong through the fog, but since I had actually eaten lunch in that town, the obscuring weather held no disappointment.
Leaving the DMZ we proceeded to one of the infiltration tunnels carved underneath the border. The North claims this 1.7 kilometre excavation as a
mining tunnel, thus dismissing the South’s assertion of its usage for the passage of hoards of North Korean soldiers through its two metre wide and high construction. This is akin to the North’s claim that the South has constructed an illegal wall along the DMZ, but the Southerners claim it is a protective barrier. Truth is difficult to decipher after decades of dispute.
After a brief stop at Dorasan station (which lies at the country’s most northern end of the unused Seoul-Pyongyang line) the tour concluded and during the drive back to Seoul. We passed long sections of rivers guarded by more towers and blockaded by barbed wire, constructed after Northern soldiers had used the river to gain access to Seoul decades earlier. It seems a good portion of the armed forces in the South are utilised in repelling these infrequent intrusions.
Fi and I excitedly discussed the differences in visiting from both sides, in addition to taking questions from the South Korean tour guide who was most interested in hearing more about the North. I deduced that the visitor freedoms at the DMZ from the North is derived from the belief that either the South was
unlikely to retaliate if someone carried an oversized camera or pointed, or that the North wished to provoke retaliation by the South with such behaviour. Whereas the South, being more concerned about the potential for the North to interpret the most innocent of actions as imperialist aggression, has much stricter regulations.
So which of the two Koreas, in my opinion, is the superior? One could offer that the South’s evident wealth is a measure of their triumph over the North’s Juche (self-reliance) ideal. I shall not denigrate either side under the other, but one must consider a nation’s definition of success; the North’s pursuit of the collective within a strict totalitarian system has undoubtedly been successful, whilst the South’s relentless pursuit of consumerism is also an outstanding success. Any final opinion depends on one’s attitude to the communal versus the individual, control versus freedom, austerity versus excess.
Though there are the obvious commonalities of culture, language, food, and people, the immense societal, economic and political differences make it difficult to envisage how these opposing countries can find unity in the current circumstances. Thus, my intention in this tactful answer is to demonstrate that in this tensely disputed region,
the key to an enduring peace must involve a generous measure of knowledge, empathy and diplomacy.
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