The Happiest Border Crossing on Earth (Part 1)
In April 2016, I got a chance to visit South Korea. Immediately I had the idea of visiting the DMZ — the desolate wilderness between North and South Korea.
The DMZ runs along the 38th parallel — which is basically just a line of latitude running around the globe. In 1945 when this line was first draw by the American military this is all it was; a hastily drawn yet strategic line dividing North and South Korea where the Soviets and Americans could share the Korean peninsula. At the end of World War 2, Korea was occupied by the Japanese, but with their surrender this meant that the Americans moved into the South part and the Soviets into the North. After a few years, the Americans relinquished military control to the South Koreans and the Soviets withdrew from North Korea. But within a year the fighting started again which increased the US concern with the security of the Pacific region and they had to get involved again. And so did the Russians and the Chinese, again. By the start of 1951 after millions had died in the fighting, peace talks were finally established but the fighting continued along the DMZ. The violent conflict eventually stabilised, the physical and cultural divide between the two countries increased and the DMZ started to become what it is in 2016 — more of a tourist attraction than a reminder of brutal East Asian history.
This history is important, as before visiting the DMZ it sets some expectations for me. Two countries ostensibly still at war and stories of post-armistice violence and oftentimes fatal confrontations (in 1976 two American soldiers were bludgeoned to death by axe wielding North Korean border guards. The Americans were cutting down a tree allegedly planted by Kim Il Sung) give a sinister mystery and evokes a mixture of emotions from sadness to curiosity.
The barbed wire fences and ominous watch towers lining the Han River past Gimpo on the drive from Seoul to Munsan and then finally the gateway to the DMZ — a place called Imjingak — meant that things are going to get a bit more intense at any moment and that it’s time for some introverted reflection on war and peace.
But I waited and waited and no, this is not what Imjingak had to offer. We arrived into a huge open air carpark and battled for a car space. On the Hill of Music behind us people flew brightly coloured kites shaped like butterflies and hawks. Just next to that in a place called Peace Land, a fun fair raged, with the occasional blasts of gaudy, electronic funfair music and frenzied shrieks of day tripping families on the roller coaster. Mixed with the over amplified, noise clipped Korean songs of peace being blasted out on the PA system, it was hard to imagine that this was once the site of some horrific fighting.
I felt slightly let down. Nothing that I read before this trip had prepared me for this jovial scene. Instead of my guide book and book about the history of the Korean peninsula, I should have read the Imjingak “Tourist Resort” brochure before coming, which describes the place as “one of the most famous tourist attractions in Korea” and visited by “more than 5 million people from Korea and overseas”. I could have then been a little prepared and have at least nestled my tongue in my cheek. It was also a beautiful sunny springtime afternoon which did add more vibrancy to the atmosphere of Imjingak.
After queuing up for tickets to the one of the shuttle bus tours of the DMZ, I got my first glimpse of North Korea from the observation deck above the Imjingak Monument. I felt slightly relieved that the landscape was just as bleak as I had imagined. Just hills, barbed wire fences, a bit of open space and watch towers. There was also a the support columns of a dismantled structure that was once a bridge still spanning the river, called Freedom Bridge. Running along side that is a railway line, still intact, waiting in anticipation to transport passengers between the two countries. This bridge once was the place where in 1953 13,000 POWs from the Korean War were exchanged.
We walked down to the start of the walkway part of Freedom Bridge. It has now been fenced off with huge barbed wire crowned barricades but they have been adorned with colourful ribbons and flags and cloth with emotional messages of peace scrawled on them, most in Hangul writing. As I watched these colourful strands of cloth gently fluttering in the breeze, I got an overwhelming feeling of sympathy and the scene struck me as such a vivid reminder of the unwavering positivity of South Koreans and that one day the two warring countries could be reunited.
I suddenly got the urge to be part of this passive show of sympathetic solidarity and to add my thoughts to the thousands of other expressions of hope. There was a kiosk nearby selling the ribbons along with a desk and pen and rubber stamps to decorate the ribbons with. It was even complete with the essential element of a souvenir shop in a former battle zone — a shopkeeper dressed in assorted military surplus.
I bought a white ribbon and wrote on it “South Korea will have made this the happiest border crossing on earth!!” then solemnly took a photo and then tied the ribbon to the fence, behind an abandoned train. The abandoned train is another story, but a short version is that American soldiers apparently went a bit trigger happy on this magnificent steam locomotive — a train used by the UN — to stop it from falling into enemy hands inside the DMZ, which is where it rusted like a discarded kitchen utensil until it was eventually moved to Imjingak.
After feeling incredibly moved by the visual show of harmony of Freedom Bridge my mood changed a lot. From then on, this became a very sombre trip again and commanded more respect than just writing the DMZ off as a tourist attraction. But yet my mood didn’t become melancholy. The symbolism that I had just seen completely changed how I was perceiving the trip. An extreme contrast was really evident; this was a place with such a shocking and blood soaked history, but yet it has become a symbol of such genial optimism.