On my very first visit to the Korean peninsula, I felt it important and interesting to visit the infamous “DMZ” – Demilitarized Zone.
This buffer land separates two countries populated by the same people.
Through no planning or intention, we came to South Korea during a particular time of heightened tensions and overt hostilities. On the specific day of our visit to this fortified border, The US Vice President, Mike Pence arrived on his first official visit the Republic of Korea (ROK – as opposed to the Northern DPK – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). We figured war would be held off at least until he departed.
After several recent trips to Cuba – another vestige of the Cold War – the political situation between the two Koreas is academically interesting. Technically the two sides are still at war. With some subtlety, the air of conflict is perceptible, although by no means palpable. Residents of Seoul are more concerned with dinner and fashion than conflict with their relatives.
The drive from Seoul north to the border takes less than an hour. The barbed wire and centennial posts appear as soon as we neared water.
Whilst being heavily armed and seriously fortified, the border experience felt very much like the days of the Berlin Wall. Free and friendly on one side, presumably cold and austere on the other.
From the South Korean perspective, the DMZ is now one of many major tourist attractions. The South Koreans I spoke with seem genuinely sympathetic to the plight and misery of their northern cousins and notably disinterested (or numb) to the threat of war.
They are very matter of fact about the North. It is an oppressive dictatorship surviving through isolation and ‘Kim’ family cult. To quote Christopher Hitchens; “
To quote Christopher Hitchens; “I’ve been to North Korea. It has a dead man as its president, Kim Jong-Il is only head of the party and head of the army. He’s not head of the state. That office belongs to his deceased father, Kim Il-Sung. It’s a necrocracy, a thanatocracy. It’s one short of a trinity I might add. The son is the reincarnation of the father. It is the most revolting and utter and absolute and heartless tyranny the human species has ever evolved…”
I have not been to North Korea. As a traveller, I am mildly interested, but I really think I know what I would find. The same misery I see in austere, controlled places the world over – yet with less opportunity to interact with the residents. This sounds a lot like Saudi Arabia – but I am not even allowed into that country.
The geopolitics of North Korea are important but – in my opinion – overblown. The backwards Soviet fiefdom is trying desperately to develop a nuclear arsenal, but this is really for survival. North Korea’s neighbours are; South Korea (50 million people, a huge army and massive international support), China, Russia and over water, Japan.
It cannot win a war. But it can – much like a cornered animal – inflict an inordinate amount of pain.
Massive Seoul is only 56 km’s (35 miles) from the border. Just one bomb could kill millions. Attacking the North would cause untold casualties.
Life in North Korea is, by all conceivable accounts, miserable, but war makes no humane sense whatsoever. We should care about the plight of North Koreans under the Kim Dynasty, and we should care about Saudis, yet they remain a favoured trading partner! A little consistency could go a long way.
If the entire Iraq debacle teaches us something, then please do not try to ‘liberate’ people by bombing them. The current sabre-rattling from Mr. Trump’s government is not needed and not helpful.
The city of Seoul is impressive. My news feed is crammed with North Korea and war, yet on the streets, people were busy enjoying their holiday weekend and clearly not afraid of imminant conflict.
The food is excellent – albeit spicy – and the people are extremely friendly. This is a huge city – 10-25 million depending upon the radius. I am quite taken by Seoul, despite my resistance to pollution and large cities.
War – killing – is unnecessary. Let North Korea wither and fail as did other Soviet satellites. The people of the North know the misery they live in. It is awful and tragic, but causing them to fight in a conscripted army – and to suffer bombings – is simply an added injustice.
Let us not exaggerate North Korea’s value or strength. It is isolated, poor and alone. Leave it be.