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On the line: A firsthand account of the Korean Demilitarized Zone

Thu., Aug. 10, 2017, 5 a.m.

South Korean soldiers look north from the Joint Security Area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, a village straddling the border with North Korea. (Nick Deshais / SR)
South Korean soldiers look north from the Joint Security Area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, a village straddling the border with North Korea. Nick Deshais THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Nick Deshais)

I set foot in North Korea last year.

I’d spent the morning traveling north from Seoul, watching as the skyscrapers and dense urban neighborhoods gave way to guard towers, razor wire and soldiers with guns along the Han River.

After being briefed on the U.S. military’s “fight tonight” mentality at the Yongsan Garrison, and its war readiness in case hostilities were unleashed between the two Koreas, I found myself dubious. How could these soldiers be thinking of war in thoroughly cosmopolitan Seoul? The same city where just nights before I had watched 17 K-pop bands parade across the stage of a live television show, competing for the hearts and votes of the howling teenage audience? A city of 25 million people, one of the largest in the world?

But as my group made its way to the Korean Demilitarized Zone – referenced more commonly by its acronym, DMZ – through checkpoint after checkpoint, and swapped our tour bus for one controlled by the South Korean military, the martial warnings were suddenly not so laughable. These countries were at war.

As threats of strikes and retaliation echo across the globe, from both the North Korean dictator and our own president, I’m reminded of my week in South Korea last December as a Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at University of Michigan.

We came expecting a different type of political tumult. The day before our arrival, the South Korean National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye in the aftermath of a corruption scandal. A million people marched in downtown Seoul every Saturday, right in front of where we were going to stay, and I couldn’t wait to see such a throng demanding a peaceful and democratic solution. With the impeachment, I wondered if the crowds would materialize.

But then President-elect Donald Trump suggested our military relationship with South Korea was a misuse of American resources, and a different type of tumult emerged.

A few days before our trip to the DMZ, we went to the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and heard from its president, Hahm Chaibong. He spoke of the Korean Peninsula’s place in Asian politics, one that, until recently, had been just a stage for more powerful nations’ battles, or their occupations. With the bluster from Pyongyang and Washington, D.C., not to mention the staging of Chinese warships in the Yellow Sea and Bohai Gulf, I think back to his talk and Korea’s unfortunate placement in the middle of world affairs.

The Joint Security Area – the only place on the peninsula where troops from North and South Korea stand face to face – is in Panmunjom, a village in the DMZ. The zone is a 2 1/2-mile-wide ribbon of largely wild and uninhabited land that runs across the entire 160-mile border between North and South. The village itself straddles the border.

As our tour bus approached the village, signs on either side of the road warned of land mines. Our guide, a young soldier, told us of the deer that wandered through the thicket. It’s become something of a protected natural area. I asked him if the deer ever set off a mine. He said yes.

In Panmunjom, we stepped from the bus and walked in a line to the border. A single North Korean soldier monitored our movements. Our young guide led us into one of the blue buildings astride the border, into a room where diplomats from the two countries used to meet to discuss the tied fortunes of the twin countries. Inside, a silent South Korean sentry watched us from behind sunglasses, unmoving.

I crossed the center line of the room under his sober gaze. For a few minutes, I was in North Korea, with no passport stamp to prove it.

Hours later, back in Seoul for the last night of our trip, some of us went out to see if anyone would show up to the large demonstrations I’d only read about. Some did, but nowhere near the million I’d hoped for. Small crowds gathered here and there, some carrying monster-sized puppets of Park and her allies.

As we walked, we were spotted by a group of young people singing holiday songs. They called us over, excited, and we sat with them. The gulf between our languages was wide, but we found common ground in melody. We sang “Feliz Navidad,” and when the time came, we all knew the words to sing “Prospero ano y felicidad.” A prosperous year and happiness.