It was around a year ago, November 23, 2010, when North Korea fired scores of artillery shells at a South Korean island, killing two soldiers, in one of the heaviest attacks on its neighbor since the Korean War ended in 1953. The attack came as the reclusive Northern part of Korea and its ally China pressed regional powers to return to negotiations on its nuclear weapons program –Pyongyang is indeed fast developing another source of material to make atomic bombs. It also followed moves by leader Kim Jong-il to make his youngest, but unproven son his heir apparent, leading into assumptions whether the bombardment might have been an attempt to burnish the ruling family’s image with the military.
Amidst the alarmingly bad bilateral relationship between North and South Korea at that point of time, I was still yearning for a year-end visit to the borderline between North and South Korea, which is hallmarked by the Demilitarized Zone and Civilization Village. An (alternative) history freak I am, it didn’t take a second to book the cheap air-ticket to Seoul from Tokyo –a place where I currently live. Don’t get me wrong, my reason to visit Seoul isn’t galvanized by the fancy Korean wave Hallyu culture, but more into culinary errands and the curiosity over “Demilitarized Zone”, the last living relic of Cold War.
The 38th parallel north—which divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half—was the original boundary between the United States and Soviet brief administration areas of Korea at the end of World War II. Upon the creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, informally North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, informally South Korea) in 1948, it became a de facto international border and one of the tensest fronts in the Cold War.
The Bridge of Freedom
It took about 3 hours from Seoul to reach the borderline. The first place we visited was the Freedom Bridge. It was around -18 Celsius when I came there around December last year. Freezing cold, I can’t stop to ponder about people up there in the alienated areas in North Korea, trying to survive with barely electricity and food. On 16 February 1952, Freedom Bridge, a focal point of worldwide attention during the Korean War, was officially opened and became a major link between the truce site of Panmunjom and Seoul, Republic of Korea. In 1998, a four lane bridge called the Grand Unification Bridge was build, and replaced the function of its predecessor Freedom Bridge.
The message of unification and peace is particularly strong in this place, envisaged by the handwritten messages of the families whose members were separated after the peninsula was divided into two. Indeed, the messages were conveyed by the South Koreans longing to reunite with family members in the Northern part, as the fate of the mentioned family members in the North was still unbeknownst.
The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel
My next stop after Freedom of Bridge was 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. The Third Infiltration Tunnel is a tunnel under the border between North Korea and South Korea, extending south of Panmunjom. It was the third tunnel to be discovered running under the border between the two Koreas. It is apparently designed for a surprise attack on Seoul from North Korea, and can easily accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weaponry. Its description as a “tunnel of aggression” was given by the South, who considered it an act of aggression by the North part.
I didn’t take pictures here because I simply wasn’t allowed to. In order to enter the tunnel, visitors ought to wear protection helmet and left our belongings in the locker provided. It is actually quite hard to imagine the laboring task of digging underground tunnel from Pyongyang to Seoul without proper equipment; and that was actually done by the soldiers of North Korea, hoping to secure some access points for a surprise attack.
Despite the continuous betrayal and the breach of truce by the North Korea counterpart, it seems to me that the South has better intention to make up for the past and reunite in the near future. For that reason, Dorasan railway station, which will be connecting Seoul and Pyongyang was built in spite of the absence of real trains and infrastructure. Plans to begin regular passenger service across the Imjin River to North Korea have yet to be finalized. However, a tourist visit in January 2010 showed clearly that the station was completely shut to all train travel, and that the station was only open for tourists. The train station is also expected to connect the Korean peninsula up way crossing the Russian Federation.
Some people developed certain misconceptions about North Korea beforehand, and I do too, in fact the impression that the North Koreans are belligerent warmongers still occupy my mind after a set of visits to the borderline. In the propaganda billboard featuring the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il, they show the well-built manly figure of North Korean men far from the K-pop boyband stereotype, and the old-fashioned women with 1970s outfits and plain our-Mother-era hairstyle far from the image of SNSD or Wonder Girls. The truth I hear from my tour guide is rather quite different from the image, that the average men are actually quite short in Asian standard (around 155cm?) due to the lack of nutrition and harsh living condition. Furthermore, there is a mandatory military service of (almost) 12 years for both men and women, as the country puts so much emphasis in military aspect since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
North Korea and South Korea, Pyongyang and Seoul, is like a tale of two cities. Both roots from the same ancestors, used to be family members, and used to be one inseparable entity in the past. War (or the World War II), is one that separated them into two alienated twin brothers with different fates and providences to face the future. Quoting Lennon, maybe people should –for a while- imagine there’s no countries, then there will be nothing to kill or die for~ and people will live life in peace. I believe Lennon is not alone, far away from Korean peninsula, we too, hope for the (unseen?) war to cease, for the leaders to abandon ambition of mastery and return to state of antebellum, and for the people, to free themselves from the mandatory military service of years altogether with the continuous hostility of their countrymen and use the time to spread the message of love to the world, and live life to the fullest.
Note: a piece of work submitted to Indonesian Professional Association Journalism Club in Singapore in which I become a resident writer.