View From the DMZ


DMZ, SOUTH KOREA—“Feel the sorrow of a divided country!” bids a glossy tourism brochure. “The DMZ is the most fortified border on Earth that only Korea can offer.”

As an attraction, the 2.5-by-151-mile demilitarized zone that cleaves Korea into North and South is not unlike Disneyland—a man-made, carefully contained space where dreams hang in the limbo between fantasy and real life. Its advent was dark magic to the average Korean: In August 1945 an American official picked out the 38th parallel because it was easy to find on a map, and by the Korean War’s end the Cold War superpowers had along that line split one people indefinitely in two. Some 10 million Koreans today have family on the opposite side they have not seen in over half a century. Yet largely overlooked in the current debate over how the Bush administration should blunt an apparently nuclear North are the stakes for Korean humanity.

For 50 years the South has embraced U.S. tenets of corporate capitalism and foreign policy—too closely, critics have said—while the North, about which much less is known, remains an icon of Communist extremism and underdevelopment. Yet recently the two halves of Korea have worked to mend their divide, collaborating on building North-South railroads that would link people and businesses, exchanging a bit in economic production, and hosting a few brief, heart-wrenching reunions among a small fraction of the tens of thousands of separated families. Neither hard-liners on both sides—nor the constant, 37,000-troops-strong reminder of U.S. interests in the South—has managed to halt progress toward reunification, or tongil.

Despite the Bush administration’s October announcement that the North has apparently violated a 1994 non-proliferation agreement by enriching uranium to weapons-grade, tongil for now presses on. The U.S. last week halted oil shipments to the North agreed to in the pact, which enabled food production in a land where an estimated 3 million face starvation. But Seoul has promised to keep de-mining along the border in order to extend rail lines and has continued to hold economic talks with Pyongyang. And non-U.S. media at least have reported the reasoning of the other side: that the U.S., in not fulfilling major aid portions of the 1994 agreement nearly 10 years later, has itself effectively violated the pact. And that George W. Bush, by including North Korea in his “axis of evil”—and by vowing in the next breath of his January State of the Union address to “develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect America and our allies from sudden attack”—may himself have set off nuclear alarms.

The North has not threatened to nuke anyone, but instead—perhaps reacting to the Bush administration’s hawkishness—demanded a non-aggression pact and diplomatic and economic relations (which it already has with many U.S. allies). In D.C., cowboys and pacifists bicker over how to respond. Hanging in the balance is that concern so basic yet perpetually knotty: whether a people will be reunified before all the long-parted loved ones have died.

In the DMZ that question pervades every last speck of dirt. About an hour’s drive up from bustling, corporate Seoul, the landscape here rewinds decades into languid hills and lush rice paddies. Farmers swing scythes in the fields. But they wear bright orange vests to mark themselves clearly—a tour guide says they earn generous, tax-free state salaries to live in the danger zone and cultivate a semblance of tranquility. The highway that wends around the paddies is edged with endless postcard-sized signs—white with black skull-and-crossbones or red warnings in Korean indicating live mines.

There is no traffic for miles—just the occasional military truck or tour bus—and no humans besides carefully herded tourists, young soldiers in camouflage, and the few farmers. When visitors leave and night falls, it must be deeply quiet. The DMZ contains one of the planet’s purest ecosystems, home to several endangered species including cranes and tigers, for a human foot has not touched vast stretches of the soil in half a century.

A gleaming ghost of a train station stands in the DMZ, stocked snack kiosk and all, “just waiting,” as one visitor says, for North-South travel to start. Blown up on a wall of the station is a speech Bush gave near the DMZ in February. “When nations accept the rules of the modern world, they find the benefits of the modern world,” he said. “And as I stated before the American Congress just a few weeks ago, we must not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the most dangerous weapons.”

Near the train station is an observatory featuring worn binocular stands where visitors can pay for a cloudy peek across the border. Out front, there is a stone fountain brimming with cold mountain water that flows down from the North. There are plastic drinking ladles for sampling. A sign indicates that visitors may at least take a sip of the unreachable.

In a tourist gallery filled with photos of war’s aftermath, a large image of an old man hangs by itself at the far end. His eyes are closed and a shock of white hair tops his dark, wrinkled face, which is lowered to meet his fist. He grips a length of razor wire, the toothy kind stretched along the DMZ.

Last spring the papers reported on Chung In Kook, 82, a South Korean who took a cab as far north as he could and then walked to the edge of the DMZ. He jumped from a bridge there to his death. Later it was discovered he had despaired after losing for the fourth time the lottery that picks participants for the rare North-South reunions.

As a U.S. citizen, Seung Hye Suh last year got to visit relatives on her father’s side in the North. She is a founder of the New York-based Nodutdol, a group that advocates for tongil. “I had heard so much about the differences from the South,” she says. “What hit me were the similarities: the same summer heat, the sound of cicadas, my grandmother’s own Hamwom [regional] accent. My family there are farmers. They came to meet me in Pyongyang and brought me apples from their farm. Biting into these apples made it all real for me. Pyongyang and Seoul are a half-hour plane ride from each other.

“We hear phrases like ‘axis of evil’ and maybe some U.S. image of the North Korean leadership comes to mind. But behind that are millions of people like my relatives who get up in the morning and work on their farm. We’ve been separated for over 50 years, but the desire for families just to see each other’s faces remains powerful.”

Research assistance: Josh Saltzman