Sep 26, 2008

The DMZ: Standoff Tourism

I majored in Political Science, minored in Philosophy, and dabbled in Economics and Sociology. I've heard the refrain before: Social scientists complain and kvetch that they can't do experiments, can't adhere to the scientific method the way "real" scientists like physicists can. It's not like they can set up similar societies with differing economic systems and see what happens. It's not like they can take areas of similar cultural backgrounds and observe the results when different political systems are applied.

To that I say: Korea.

If I were some kind of evil polisci supergenius with an infinite budget and bottomless ruthlessness, the Korean peninsula would be my idea of a pretty good experiment. Take a single nation that shares a common cultural, linguistic, and political background and spit it in half. Apply one set of political and economic realities to one half, and another set of policies to another. Wait fifty years, and see what happens. The result looks something like this:

You may have seen that picture before, as it's semi-well known. There it is, though. The area of the peninsula devoted to democracy and economic liberalism is lit up in bright technological glory, and the side of totalitarianism is literally swathed in darkness. You couldn't ask for a better illustration of the abject failure of communism, especially relative to the alternative.

We had some difficulty scheduling our trip to the DMZ. Tours weren't offered every day, and we had other travel plans as well. Eventually, though, we were able to secure a seat on a bus heading into Panmunjeom, the village that serves as the Joint Security Area between the two Koreas, and is where the two sides sit down to have occasional meetings. Our first stop, though, was at a couple of war memorials. I found them to be an odd mix of bland grayness and strange gaudiness. They were at once colorless and overmuch, triumphal and oddly unmoving.

After the monuments we made a stop at the Reunification Park near, but still outside, the DMZ. (This, by the way, was where J and I downed a few silkworm larvae.) The park itself was a bit more picturesque than the monuments. We climbed a green ridge dotted with pinwheels and white banners, all of which spun and flapped in the wind. Dominating the landscape was a series of wire-framed figures that abutted Moai-like from the ground and stared out into the borderlands.

We got on the bus, followed their gaze, and entered the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone is, oddly, beautiful. The place has been untouched for fifty years, and the vast greenery of it all is sort of odd when one considers how densely packed the nearby Seoul suburbs are. The place's name is also something of a misnomer- it's easily the most militarized place in either North or South Korea.

The tour guide pointed out signs warning of land mine areas, areas of the road that were ready to be blasted apart in the event of an invasion, and sundry other things that all marked the place as tense and dangerous. Our presence there seemed extremely odd when compared with the gravity of the surroundings. The DMZ is tense, it is dangerous. There have been a number of incidents of violence there, and the two countries have never officially declared peace. However, it's tame enough to drive a tour bus through on a routine basis. Weird, that.

Unfortunately, talks were going on the day that we arrived, so we were not able to see the inside of the conference room, the thing that I'd been most looking forward to. We did, though, sit through a rather over-enthusiastically narrated presentation on the history of the DMZ. The man who got on stage and informed us spoke in a kind of English that I seldom hear in Japan: the bad, loud kind. What the guy lacked for in basic grammar skills he made up for in sheer volume and pro-South enthusiasm. He particularly emphasized how childish the North was for insisting on having a bigger flagpole on its side of the DMZ. It's the biggest flagpole in the world, as a matter of fact. A great, big, Communist, penis substitute. Here's a picture of it:

It's 160 meters high, 100 meters higher than South Korea's also-enormous standard.

After the presentation we took a few pictures at an observation point, looking into the distance at the above flag, and into the North Korean side of the peninsula. It was weird to think of myself standing about fifty meters away from totalitarianism. Not just authoritarianism (I've been to China, after all) but total dictatorship. Fifty meters away from me was somewhere where reason stopped working, where citizens wear pins on their clothes displaying either Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, where the government has banished religion by becoming a worldly cult.

I'll admit that I'd love to go to North Korea properly, to see it. Me and my blue American passport (and prominent Japanese visa) probably wouldn't ever be allowed in, but I'm perversely curious. Of course I want things to change, of course I'd love it if Kim Jong Il choked on his kimchee tomorrow, thus bringing about the destruction of the North Korean state. Of course I'm for that. But that part of me that's a curious political scientist would love to see the inside of the enemy's lair. More realistically, though, I'll have to settle for this- me and the gigantic Northern banner in the distant background.


Kori the tomorrow lady said...

you are so hot with a beard.

I can't see the banner. perhaps I'm distracted by your hotness.

I'm sad you left out the part about the dress code, it was my favorite part of the story.

Seph said...

No! The dress code is MINE! MIIIIIINE!

Also, not to be too nitpicky, but the South Korean flagpole is 100 M tall. And the North Korean flagpole is a tiny vertical line, about a centimeter left of SonicLlama's chin.

SonicLlama said...

Ok, you're right on the flagpole. I can't believe I didn't put in the dress code bit! That must be remedied!

SonicLlama said...

And thank you for the hotness vibes. It makes me feel all tingly and stuff.