Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The one I've been really excited about posting, but kept putting off because I've knew it would take at least an hour to write... AKA: my family's trip to the DMZ.

(Believe it or not, I've had no caffeine today... mostly because I had three coffee dates with three different groups of people two days ago, and, well, I can still feel the affects... especially when I watch videos about caffeination.)

Okay.  I really am excited about this.  I've been secretly working on this post since 2011 (Dec. 31).  The short story is that on December 31, instead of getting drunk and making things explode, like the rest of the world, my family decided (well, I decided, and my family decided not to rock the boat) to go visit the front lines of a war (The Korean Demilitarized Zone) that's been waging for the past 70 years.  Yup.  70.  That's the very cold, calus version of what happened.  Here's how it happened in my head/heart:

We spent the night in Seoul, sot that we wouldn't have to get up even more insanely early to get to the USO in time.  As it was, I was incredibly stressed, trying to make sure we got there before they started turning people away.  I think I upset my family, but I hope they understood why I was so stressed.  They joked later about it, and how they were calm, because they couldn't understand the cabbie saying he had no idea where he was going, whereas I did... so I think they are chill about it now.
I felt a little awkward taking this picture, as I did about all the pictures we took while smiling on this trip, but I was so happy to be sharing this experience with my family, and I realized that the last family photo we got was in... maybe '09???... so I knew we needed some more... preferably with us looking happy to be around each other.
In between many successive games of Catan and our briefing from the military, I got picture number one of my whole family.  We were all tired, but I think it turned out pretty well.

The military personelle encouraged us to take many pictures and videos during the briefing, but asked us to turn off our flashes, as they had to memorize their spiel verbatim.  The way they talked about it, it sounded like they were trying to tell us that there was a lot more to the story than what they were allowed to tell us (duh).  I couldn't help but note that I never heard a cause for this war, and I never heard a cause to most of the fighting incidents between North and South Korea.  This is where my agitation began in the trip.  It grew throughout the day - a continual frustration at a war separating families and friends, all over what seems to be the selfish desires of some political leaders.  Why must our governments think only of themselves and rarely represent the people?

I'm including this photo, as we were never allowed to photograph Taesongdong (or anything on the South side of the DMZ, really), because it is such an important part of the DMZ.  Both North and South Korea are allowed a village within the DMZ, but the purposes of these villages are as vastly different as the political strategies of each side.  The people whose lineages are from Taesongdong are allowed to maintain a residence within the village.  There is a strict 10pm curfew, and residents must spend somewhere in the order of 340 nights a year within the village (students are granted an exception).  Failure to comply results in the immediate removal of your nuclear family.  Women may marry into the village, but men may not.  Students are given full scholarships to attend any university in Korea (this is a HUGE deal).  This is a major show of faith on the part of South Korea.
(I will write about the North Korean village in a little bit.)

Our guide/guard, Pfc. Futch, was both informative and entertaining, exactly the right combination to keep me from getting to introverted on this trip, and leaving feeling entirely frustrated/depressed.  He expressed an interested in attempting to transfer to Germany, so I spent some time talking with him about what to expect there.  It was nice to find someone else excited about that place.  I think the best part, though, was that he kept us feeling safe the whole time we were there, despite the fact that we were staring down a member of the Korean People's Army (North Korea) the whole time.
We were so close to North Korea... it sends little shivers down my spine, thinking about it.  Would this man kill me, given the chance?  Most likely.  I'm having trouble finding words to express the sadness-thrill-fear mix that is engulfing my stomach right now.  So I will here reiterate my constant desire for the world to see that peace cannot come from violence.  And I will voice for you your "broken world" counterargument, and we can all move forward.
Republic of Korea (ROK) (South Korea) soldiers face off with a KPA soldier in their modified taekwando stance and dark aviator sunglasses, designed specifically to prevent their showing any emotion toward their North Korean counterparts.
While observing this, I couldn't help but reflect back on my many Civil War class lessons, and the discussion of brother-on-brother fighting.  How many families are forced to fight and kill each other because of this war?  How many lives are ripped apart?  How could this possibly be worth it?

Momma, me, and Daddy in at the Joint Security Area (JSA), yards from the North Korean line.

This table marks the North Korean line, within a South-Korean-controlled building (so it's still technically South Korean).  I (and a lot of other people) did, however, get a bit excited about crossing the line "into" North Korea.

These posts mark the line over which we CANNOT stray.  Don't be fooled, it's heavily guarded by posts and checkpoints along the way.

Kijongdong, the North Korean village within the DMZ, more commonly referred to as  Propoganda Village.  Atop the 525-foot Tower flies a Democratic People's Republic of Korea flag, weighing in right around 600 pounds.  This flag is so heavy that it must be lowered in storms, or else it will tear under its own weight.
The major difference between Kijongdong and Taesongdong are the requirements to live within the villages.  While Taesongdong is rather strict, the rules to live in Kijongdong are rather simple, surprisingly enough.  From what I can tell, here is the one rule: DON'T.  After several defection incidents, North Korean citizens are no longer allowed this far south in their country.
So why the village at all?  Well, that answer lies within it nickname.  For many years, vast amounts of propaganda about the wonder of North Korea blared, deafeningly loud, from a speaker in Kijongdong, eight to ten hours a day, encouraging their neighbors in Taesongdong to defect to the "wonderfully prosperous village."  Those who did would be unknowingly met with a sickening surprise: The village is nothing but an expensive, vast Hollywood set.  The buildings are hollow, with painted on doors and windows.  A few buildings have actual holes for windows, so the South Koreans could see lights within them.  This plan is actually what proved their lack of floors, as the light is very bright at the top of the building and gradually gets more dim on the way down.  No, the only thing that would be there to welcome these defectors are KPA military, no doubt to interrogate and kill them, on accusations of espionage.  (Call me biased, but I dare you to prove me wrong.)

This is a memorial, marking the spot where Captain Arthur Bonifas (for whom the U.S. military base is named) and one of his men were brutally axed to death by KPA soldiers.  The event, known as the Axe-Murder Incident, revolved around the removal of a tree that had grown so tall as to block off some rather crucial sight-lines between two check points, one of which included a bridge between North and South Korea.  This apparently seemed like a crucial piece of strategy to the KPA soldiers, as they attacked in a swarm to prevent its removal.

This is the aforementioned bridge, also known a The Bridge of No Return.  There was a decent-sized POW exchange here, in which the POWs were told to pick a side, but, after they did, they would never again be allowed to cross the line.  I can't help but break for those people.  Again, there are so many families broken in half by this line.  How do you chose which part of your family to never see again?

Between this picture and the last, my dad and I opted to join the group touring the "3rd Tunnel."  A series of tunnels were found, leading from North Korea, under the DMZ, and surfacing, each about an hour away from Seoul.  We went all the way down to the North Korean line, where we could peer through a window, cut in on of the three walls now blocking the two sides.  In case that's not enough to stop someone, there's also a considerable amount of razor wire, and I'm pretty sure there are explosives.
There are four tunnels reported to be found, and about sixteen that are reported to be unfound, but I have a hard time believing that they still unknowns.  Maybe I have too much faith in our military, but I'm willing to bet that they were all found within a month or two of the first one.  Whether or not the military wants to report that is on them, but I know I wouldn't.  That's just bad strategy.

The photo above was taken at Dorasan Station, the last operating South Korean station before North Korea.  There used to be another one, further North, but the DPRK abused it, and so it was shut down.  I can't help but be excited about this station.  One day, when Korea is unified again (and I firmly believe it will be), this station will connect Busan (the Southern-most train station in Korea) to Lodon.  I fully intend on traveling the whole length of these tracks within my lifetime.

One day, I will show this picture to my grandchildren, as so many grandparents showed us their pictures of the Berlin Wall.  I will tell them how so many people thought that the cities down these tracks were closed of forever, and I will tell my grandchildren how those people were wrong.  I will tell them how my fingers were not a "V for Victory," but a sign of peace, my hope for the future and the legacy I want to leave behind.

Family portrait number two - at the crossroads of Korea.

Pray for peace.  L-rd knows, this world so desperately needs it.

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