I visited the DMZ on my first trip to South Korea, Dec 2009.
The North Korean side, behind the soldiers has chainlink fences topped with razor wire. Behind these, troops, who we were not to engage with or provoke under any circumstances. No pointing, joking, gesturing.
North from Unification Hill, the Songaksan Mountain over the border looked bleak. No trees, all cut down for fuel, in stark contrast to the South Korean side, which was positively lush. Through binoculars, I could see North Koreans going about their day. Pushing carts up the hill and farming bare fields. As dusk fell, no lights flickered on in the villages.
I was a Peeping Tom looking into a harsh and different world. The ability to see both countries at once is believed to be a message for reunification (hence Unification Hill), but seeing North Koreans going about their day, trapped in the most repressive regime on earth, I questioned what I was doing there.
There is an argument that DMZ tourism can help reunification efforts. My South Korean guide was adamant about this: when Japan surrendered in 1945, the Korean peninsula was split into two: the U.S.controlled South and Soviet-controlled North. Amid growing Cold War tensions between Moscow and Washington, in 1948 separate governments were established in Pyongyang and Seoul. Koreans born after 1945 have never known their peninsula united. It’s a sobering thought.
I found visiting the DMZ in 2009 served only to indicate how divided the country remained. North and South Korean troops stared at each other with a belligerence so tangible you can almost feel it.
Today, that aggression has dropped down a notch. Let’s hope.
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