(The Hamilton Spectator – Thursday, October 24, 2013)
PANMUNJEOM, SOUTH KOREA ✦ We’re at the border of North and South Korea, at the planet’s hottest line in the sand, and the guard – a youth in military garb and dark sunglasses – tells my wife to change her footwear. She has open sandals and the North Koreans, even from a distance, might see her feet.
Which shows that while war may be hell, it’s strange too, certainly this pseudo-war at Panmunjeom, the UN’s demilitarized zone, the so-called DMZ separating these two Koreas, countries that stopped formal shooting 60 years ago but still without any treaty.
We’ve arrived on a bus driving up Unification Road from Seoul, a city of glass and super-highways and sliding doors and immaculately-tiled subways and 10 million people with what must be 10 million smartphones, all apparently Samsungs.
Unification Road because unity is what Koreans really want, that deeper connection that you can only find in other human beings, in your own flesh and blood even when they’re on the other side of hope.
Yes, this is just like of old Berlin, my own native city, divided, just without a wall and without any sledgehammers and without any end in sight. The feeling in the south is that, besides the communists in Pyonyang, it’s decision-makers in China and Japan and maybe even Washington who prefer it this way.
And so Korean nationals aren’t allowed to set foot at this exact line. Just tourists, where in the gift shop – besides emergency shoes – you can get your DMZ t-shirt and North Korean ginseng brandy and other trinkets showing you were here.
My wife and I have been in South Korea to share about our development work in Africa. But today we’re with others from Sweden and Australia and Poland and everywhere, really, with our closed shoes and proper jackets and voyeuristic curiosity, side-by-side now, lined-up straight, looking north.
“Okay, take pictures NOW!” our guide yells, followed shortly by “Don’t take pictures NOW!”
This is it, this strange mix of testosterone and tourism where the guards have hard helmets and hard faces clenched as tight as their fists, so motionless for so long that you’re forgiven if you think they’re actually strategically-placed dummies.
On the other side it’s the same. Tourists from the North Korean side look south over the divide, straight at us. The distance between is shorter than a 100-metre dash, short enough to make a hell of a run for it and maybe survive, which happened when a Soviet translator once defected at this spot. He lived, but in the ensuing firefight some guards on both sides didn’t.
It might happen again. Maybe today. Are you ready? Tens of millions of Korean civilians, young men on both sides of this line, are ready with at least some mandatory military-type service.
A few minutes away, still in this borderland, is another picture to remember. It’s the children and it’s a bridge, Freedom Bridge, where 12,000 freed South Korean POWs once crossed, now a symbol of thankfulness and hope amidst the uncertainty.
The children are South Koreans on a school trip – nationals are allowed to this site – with colorful umbrellas. They walk across old wooden planks under a light rain toward a display of their national flags, all close to other markers and wishes for unity, near rows of barbed wire.
The children look at you and you look at them and it makes you wonder about that other war, that war that any of us fight, the one that has to do with surrender more than anything. Because success and security are important, but not as important as finding your personhood, not as important as becoming fully human, this by looking at your enemy and seeing yourself.
This is what falls on these children, like any. So they walk across Freedom Bridge and you watch them and wonder how they will do with it all, that other war, if they’ll do any different than their parents and grandparents.
Then you raise your camera and take your photo before you finally walk away with your thoughts because the bus is leaving and you are with it.