Sunday, September 21, 2008

There's really no way around it. I live 30 km from Seoul, and Seoul is about 50 km from the North Korean border, and Pyongyang is another 205 km from the border. At the North Korean border less than 100 km from here, roughly 700,000 soldiers from the Korean People's Army are stationed, no doubt matched by a good chunk of South Korea's 600,000 soldiers and their American allies. The border on both sides is surrounded by a two-kilometre buffer space that consists mostly of untouched greenery and land mines, what we know as the DMZ.

Today I went to the DMZ, an eerie mixture of serenity and morbidity that's astonishingly close to Seoul and its 20 million people. The mountains and grass on both sides are breathtaking, but it's eerie to look into the distance and know that you're looking into North Korea, the most reclusive, most brutal, and most totalitarian state in the history of the world. I've never seen so much barbed wire in my life, never mind signs warning of landmines. Everything you see in some way, shape or form has to do with defending from North Korea.

I didn't see the propaganda billboards facing the North or the concrete blocks overhead on the highway, designed to render the highway useless in case of an invasion, but I saw observation posts on the Imjin River every 100 metres or so. Even rivers contained within South Korea had barbed wire on both sides of the bank to protect against a potential invasion. I did see the world's tallest flagpole, roughly 500 feet, and the nearest North Korean city, Kaesong. Using binoculars, I looked into the North Korean border village of Gijeong-dong...and saw nothing and no one, because it's an empty cluster of buildings designed for show.

There are South Koreans who live in the DMZ, a curious group of farmers numbering in the few hundred who don't pay tax or serve in the army, is compulsory for all Korean men around my age. This is why I will never meet any Korean males that are the same age as me: they have all been conscripted. There are not, as someone mused, any North Koreans, nor are there commercial flights permitted over the DMZ, as another tourist wondered, and no, those soldiers you see everywhere are South Korean, not North Korean and, yes, you can be sure of that.

Anyway, I snapped a picture of the world's tallest flagpole just for you guys. The flagpole is over 500 feet tall and the flag weighs 300 lbs. I had to take it from behind a certain line because of "national security" according to the soldier I asked, and there were many rotund tourists in front of me. Yes, that's a North Korean flag.

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