Wednesday, July 4, 2012

DMZ Dreaming

Published as "Different Colours, One People" in the Fiji Times' Off the Wall with Padre James Column - Wednesday 4th July, 

One of the most frequently asked questions I face from my friends in Fiji is, “Have you been to North Korearethis is, “No.” However I now have to moify this response as a result of my experiences last week.

I first learned about the divided Korea in high school history classes, studying conflicts. During those classes, I learned about the circumstances surrounding the Korean War and the division of North and South Korea. However it was not until I came to Seoul, that I began to understand how deep the wounds of the war and this division are. One Sunday, in Church, I watched a video about how Christians were persecuted by communist soldiers during the war. As I read more about the situation in the North and listened to stories, and witnessed the frustrated hope of those in the South for eventual reunification – some not knowing whether their relatives are alive or dead – I began to appreciate what I was learning, for this is an important part of understanding modern Korean society.
Crossing the line of Civilian Control - entering the DMZ

As a result, last Friday I found myself at the USO office at Camp Kim. The United Service Organizations Inc. is a private, non-profit organization whose mission is to lift the spirits of US troops and their families, with programs and services and 160 centers worldwide. At about 7.30am I got on a USO bus headed to Panmunjeom, a point near the 38th Parallel known as the United Nations Joint Security Area (JSA), which is on the boarder of North and South Korea. An hour after leaving Seoul, I crossed the  Civilian Control line marked by an electric fence that runs the entire width of the country and entered the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, a buffer zone which stretches for two kilometres on either side of the border.

I am no stranger to buffer zones. Four years ago I visited the Sinai Peninsula and toured the Area of Operations in which Fijian Soldiers with the 2FIR Fiji Infantry Battalion serve in the Multinational Force and Observers between Israel and Egypt. To visit each of the Observation Posts, Checkpoints and Sector Control Centres (Fiji forces being based in the most dangerous location) required wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet and riding in an armoured vehicle with an armed escort. On the tour of the DMZ, however while we has a military escort, only toured the areas designated for such purposes and so no vests or helmets were needed. This despite the fact that in the Sinai there is a 1979 Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel. There is no such treaty between the North and South, only a ceasefire agreement and so the two Koreas are still technically at war. Signs warning of minefields along the road that leads to the United Nations Joint Security Area and the scene that presents itself at Panmunjeom bear witness to the tension between North and South.
"In Front of them All" : The United Nations Joint Security Area - facing North Korea, only 100metres away...

Panmumjeom lies 50Km north of Seoul. It is where the ceasefire or armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. Presently, Panmunjeom is the current location where South and North dialogues take place. The Joint Security Area (JSA), is set up on the Military Demarcation Line within the UNCMAC compound and reserved for talks between the United Nations Command (UNC) and its Communist counterparts (North Korea and China). On entering Camp Bonifas, the base camp for the United Nations Command visitors must sign a voucher where you agree to accept responsibility for "injury or death as a direct result of enemy action". This serves as another reminder that we are in a “war zone”, known as the most heavily fortified border in the world. For this reason, the soldiers from the United States, South Korea and the 14 United Nations member countries who provide military support have as their motto: “In Front of Them All”. (Visit: for more on Camp Bonifas and the UN/JSA)
Inside the conference room straddling the North/South Korean border

After a security briefing we are shown to the conference rooms that lie on the actual border, half of the building in each of the “Koreas”. The conference table is on the border with the UN flag and row of microphones marking the actual border. It is in this room that I am able to symbolically “cross into” North Korea, under the watchful eye of a US Army Corporal and a South Korean soldier. Outside the northern door is North Korea. It is a door closed to us.
UN-JSA conference room, the flag and line of microphones mark the border - taken on North Korean side

Even though there is a ceasefire, ideological battle between the two Koreas continue. North Korean soldiers regularly make obscene gestures and insults to their Southern counterparts who stand stoically in a modified tae kwon do stance with dark sunglasses on, unflinching and intimidating as they face the North.
"My brother/My enemy"... Facing the enemy - South Korean Soldiers in position on the border
- the concrete line in the middle of the picture is the border

The Bridge of No Return -
the posts on the bridge mark the North/South border
Our tour of the Joint Security Area takes us to the “Bridge of No Return,” used for the exchange of  prisoners of war after the Korean War ended in 1953, and an observation post from where we are able (surrounded on three sides by North Korea) to see the North Korean “Propaganda Village” of Kijong-dong with what is the third tallest flagpole in the world (160metres) . As we leave the JSA and continue in our DMZ tour we pass the South Korean village of Taesong-dong, the South’s “Freedom Village.”

Inside the Third Infiltration Tunnel
Our next stop is the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of the tunnels built, apparently for a planned invasion of the South by the North, and discovered in 1978 after a tip by a defector from the North. It is over a kilometer and a half long and is 350 metres underground. Although its still It is estimated that approximately 10,000 soldiers can move through this tunnel in 1 hour. 

Tourists peer into North Korea...

From the Mount Dora Observation post we peer through the haze for a final glimpse of North Korea before heading to Dorasan Station, the northern most train station of South Korea. This station connects the South to the North, and was envisaged to connect further to China, Russia and Europe. In operation between 2007 and 2008, today it sits empty, disused.

Rail tracks leading towards North Korea which lies less than a kilometre away

On the way back to Seoul, I felt I had just awoken from a surreal dream. There are many signs and symbols of the hope for reunification – but this is at yet still a dream. A dream of a people bound by blood but separated by ideological differences of their leaders.
A sculpture promoting unification of north and south at site of the third tunnel

Sitting in the bus back to Seoul, as the images of the DMZ became a blur in the past a feeling of frustrated hope was burned in my heart. As I reflected on the situation in Korea and what I had experienced during my tour of the DMZ, my thoughts drifted home to Fiji. Sure we are a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious country, but is it possible to be, in the words of the late Lucky Dube, “different colours-one people”?

A literal reminder of  the metaphorical minefield of national unity

The barriers for a unified, reconciled, peaceful and just Fiji are not the concrete, barbed-wire and explosive barriers I saw at the DMZ. The minefield we face is ideological. It is the minefield of insecurity, ignorance, arrogance and greed. But we are slowly negotiating this minefield. Let us keep focused on where we are walking; guiding and helping others who are walking with us. Let us also stretch out our hands to those who are walking towards us from the side. They are taking the same risks as we are. For either of us to put a foot wrong now could be disastrous.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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