Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The DMZ is our home

Last weekend, I finally made it to Korea's number one "tourist attraction." The world's most fortified border, and easily one of the strangest places on earth.

The Seoul USO office and the bus to the DMZ was surreal on it's own. Not only was it pretty much all white people, it was pretty much all Americans. Being on a packed, I don't know, 70 person bus where 80% of the passengers were Americans and English was the only language being spoken was definitely strange for me. Plus, while my people, English teachers, were certainly well represented, the bus was chock full of middle aged people from places like Atlanta that were in town for reasons other than teaching English, and were staying for periods considerably shorter than one year. People who didn't even know what bibimbap is, based on conversations I over heard. Bibimbap, by the way, is an extremely common and tasty rice dish. It's like being in France and not knowing what a baguette is. I dare say, maybe even actual tourists. I've been here over a year, and it's the first time I've ever seen one. It didn't make me homesick.

The DMZ itself - something else. 6 foot 6 South Korean soldiers at the border, wearing cool Ray Bans at all times, fists clenched. The North soldiers weren't around, at least visibly, at the immediate border, but I'm fairly certain that they were around somewhere, guns trained on my tour group.

The DMZ is 4 kilometers wide, 2 km per side to the actual border proper, ie, the MDL, or Military Demarcation Line. Within the DMZ itself, but a little bit away from the border where the soldiers were, there are two villages, one on the south side, the other on the north side. The southern village has a few houses, actually American-suburban looking houses, where the small, government subsidized population lives. The south side villagers are all farmers, and they make something like 80 grand a year tax free, but when they farm, there are armed soldiers (US and Korean) with them on their fields at all time to defend against a northern invasion. The southern village has a 100 meter tall flagpole donated to them shortly before the 88 Olympics. The other village, predictably, is on the northern half of the DMZ. It is known as "Propaganda Village" in the south, largely because the northern village is uninhabited. There are some buildings that look like apartment blocks, but when viewed with binoculars, it becomes clear that none of these buildings have any windows. This village, not to be outdone by it's southern counterpart, built a 160 meter flag pole, the highest in the world. That's 525 feet. The village is known as Propaganda Village, by the way, because it used to broadcast North Korean propaganda via loudspeaker 16 hours a day or so. The north also use to have a number of signs on the mountain faces saying things like "Follow the way of the Leader" and stuff like that, and the south likewise had a number of lit up signs promoting democracy (The north never lit up their signs, because, you know, power shortages). Sadly, both sides agreed to remove their outward, intrusive propaganda two years ago. I was really looking forward to seeing that.

At the end of the tour, we saw a fairly hilarious Korean-made video. It was in English, and the narrator sounded like a native English speaker, but it was still full of terribly put together and likely mistranslated lines such as "The DMZ is our home." It also made reference to the natural aspects of the DMZ (which is a true statement, a 4 km wide swath across the peninsula, most of which has had no human contact in over 50 years) but went too far, saying that a visitor to the DMZ can see "extinct species." After hearing that, I was really pissed that I didn't see a stegosaurus.

More to come later on this, along with some cool pictures.

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