Imaginary Lines

Much of what we think of as the real world is actually collective dreaming. Money, laws, social mores, nation states don’t exist in any absolute sense; they’re not real the way rocks and trees and gravity are real. They’re shared agreements that could evaporate in an instant, and sometimes do.

Confronted by a national border, we are suddenly reminded how arbitrary our shared agreements are: the money in my pocket can be exchanged for goods on this side of the imaginary line, but not that side; I can relax here in the shade of this tree, but if I try to rest in the shade of that tree over there, armed men will stop me unless I go through a particular ritual involving specially prepared documents.

The DMZ — the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea — is an especially arbitrary border, the result of hasty decisions at the close of World War II and a military stalemate in 1953. It’s also the site of a bitter struggle between competing collective dreams, where each side has been preparing for 64 years for the other side to wake up and adopt the worldview of its opponent.

Dorasan Station

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A full-day tour of the DMZ begins at Dorasan Station, the northernmost point on the South Korean railway system and a monument to a South Korean dream of unification. The fully functional station has been used exactly once, for a test run into North Korea during a thaw in relations. It sits waiting for the moment when rail service to points north becomes possible. You have to buy a ticket to go to the platform. On the way in, I noticed a South Korean tap his paper ticket to the top of the turnstile, the way you do with your digital transit card in an operational South Korean train station. Nothing happened. Nothing ever happens here.

The Third Tunnel

For all that borders and nation states are imaginary, certain things are all too real: the landmines that make the DMZ impassable, and the tunnels the North Koreans dug at various points in attempts to infiltrate into South Korea. We visited the Third Tunnel because it’s the closest to Panmunjom. Surreally, you enter the tunnel in a little open train that feels like a kiddie ride at an amusement park.

Like everything else along the DMZ, the tunnels are the subject of a propaganda war. The North Koreans first claimed they had nothing to do with the tunnel — discovered by the South Koreans in 1978 because of underground explosions — then later claimed it was a coal mining operation, though the walls are obviously granite and the odds of finding coal in such a location are exactly zero.

Outside the tunnel, big letters spelling out DMZ are a kitschy place to take a photo, while a statue of young people pushing a divided world back together unfortunately made me think of Humpty Dumpty.

In a small garden at the edge of the compound, you could hear music drifting in on the breeze: South Korean propaganda being blasted at the North. This audio war, in which the North and South played music and taunting messages at ever increasing volume, had fallen into an armistice during the period of the Sunshine Policy, but the South started it up again a couple of years ago in response to some North Korean provocation or other, and now any North or South Koreans close enough to the border are subject to the whimsical musical choices of whatever South Korean colonel is in charge. On this particular day, I caught a bit of an old pop tune from 1994. (Thank you, Shazam.)

Looking down

From the tunnel, you continue on to Dorasan Observatory, where you can finally peer down on North Korea itself and see its enormous flagpole — once the highest in the world — which was built to overtop a South Korean flagpole. There’s a village down there that US officials say is empty and always has been: a Potemkin village that would be more laughable if we hadn’t just visited South Korea’s Potemkin train station. And you can see out to Kaesong, the industrial complex that was once the site of South Korean businesses operating in North Korea but is now shuttered.

There’s a line of mounted binoculars at Dorasan Observatory, and for 500 won you can take a closer look at the mysterious country beyond. I managed to catch sight of some fieldworkers — most clad in white, a few on the edges in gray, maybe supervisors or guards or who knows what. There was a frisson to seeing actual North Koreans, like spotting a rare animal on safari, and also a kind of sickening feeling about such voyeurism. It’s true that I’ve taken photos of poor peasant farmers in Laos and Myanmar without feeling particularly weird about it, but at least those folks could engage with me if they had wanted to. I was looking down on North Koreans who had no way of looking back.

Human beings

A DMZ tour isn’t really about North Koreans as human beings. At no point did any of our tour guides, South Korean or American, mention North Korea’s awful human rights record or the recurring famines that continue to torment the North Korean people. One way the DMZ works as an imaginary space is by turning North Koreans from individuals into representatives of their state: Bob the soldier, or tiny little dots in the distance seen from Dorasan, or anonymous tunnel diggers. But I know about all these things. I have friends who grew up on the other side of that border, and I know some of the hardships they endured, some of the traumas they still carry with them.

Perhaps that’s why the most affecting moment of the tour, for me, was a brief stopover after lunch, at a kitschy little tourist trap in Paju, close to the border. There we saw the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged and had the option of choosing one or the other Korea to stay in. To consider the bridge was to think about the individuals crossing it, the reasons they had for choosing one side or the other and the sacrifices this must have entailed. We also learned about a shrine where people with North Korean roots come to do ancestor worship on the major Korean festivals, when all the other Koreans are heading to their hometowns. The thought of those people cut off from their roots was ineffably sad, and it made me think of the Book of Lamentations and the suffering of Jews in exile who could no longer reach their beloved Jerusalem.

Panmunjom

The highlight of the tour was our visit to the Panmunjom Truce Village. South Koreans aren’t allowed to join this part of the tour, and it’s frankly weird that anyone else can go there. We switched from our tour bus to a different bus, leaving our bags behind, and now we were under the care of a young American infantryman with a pistol prominently at his side.

The truce village itself isn’t much to look at, just some military buildings and some sheds in the middle, but everything is formal and tense. First we were given an introductory slideshow, narrated by our American soldier. We learned about the incident in which North Koreans hacked to death with axes two Americans who were trying to cut down a tree that blocked their view. We learned of a firefight that broke out in the 1980s when a Soviet journalist bolted for the South Korean side. We learned that the North Koreans never give the South Koreans or the US any information about what they plan to do, but that the South Koreans announce the day’s schedule and activities through a bullhorn each day to try to minimize the chances of any incidents.

Then, as we marched out into the open, we were told not to stop for anything, not even to tie our shoes, and not to try to signal to the North Koreans in any way. We stood outside for a bit, gazing across at a lone North Korean soldier standing in front of their rather formal building. The Americans call him Bob because he likes to bob in and out of the columns when the tourists come. South Korean soldiers stood around here and there, facing both north and south, motionless and intense in their taekwondo stances. (Their shifts are three-and-a-half hours.)

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Finally we had our turn to go inside the conference room. The American cheerfully said, “You’re in North Korea! You’re in North Korea!” as people began crossing the dividing line at the center of the room. Also in North Korea were two more of those motionless North Korean guards, there to prevent anyone from doing anything interesting. We stayed there for a few minutes, then filed out again.

Self-defense

Once we’d departed the truce village, I asked the American soldier about his life in Korea. He’s never been able to go down to Seoul, but sometimes he goes drinking in the nearest South Korean village. (Villagers near the border get free land and exemptions from taxes and military service, but you have to have North Korean roots to get the deal, and you also have to be back in your village before dark each night.)

He also said that being a tour guide made him the laughingstock of the infantry. “I got buddies who’re going to Syria, to Iraq, to Afghanistan,” he said. “At least they can defend themselves.” Then he paused. “I probably shouldn’t say anything.”

I wondered what he meant by that. Are American troops at the DMZ supposed to retreat or surrender if fighting breaks out? Maybe. I think the US would rather lose a few soldiers as prisoners and have time to negotiate or calculate a response rather than have an escalating military engagement in which North Korean soldiers are killed or wounded. This is probably not much fun for the US troops involved to contemplate, but it makes sense.

Back to our reality

And then, with one final visit to a gift shop, our tour came to an end. You can buy I Heart DMZ merchandize, which has a certain absurdist charm. I bought an armband like the ones the South Korean soldiers wear.

Then we rode the bus back down to Seoul, and my friends and I headed for Hongdae and its Saturday Night crowds. We ate barbecue and bingsu, watched buskers, bought some swanky new clothes at Aland. Some rampant capitalist indulgence felt good after a day spent contemplating one of the least compelling alternatives ever devised. But it also felt a little less real, a little more imaginary than usual. 

The Korea Situation

Here on the Korean Peninsula, something big is happening and everyone knows it. What was once a stable regime now has an uncertain future. You see signs of the political changes everywhere.

Literal signs.

I’m talking, of course, about the South Korean election, which is the most significant thing happening here, at least from the perspective of most South Koreans. There are election signs everywhere!

Why, what you you thinking?

Nothing has changed

I’m aware that for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the Korea expert for a lot of people I know. My credentials extend as far as a couple semesters of politics courses focused on the region plus a few years in a minor role in the South Korean government a decade ago, plus I read things and I live here. So read on with that in mind.

So yeah, the North Korea nuclear thing.

North Korea has nukes and has had them for a while. North Korea has missiles and has had them for a while. North Korea is developing longer-range missiles and has been developing them for a while. There’s nothing happening this week that’s substantively different from what was happening six weeks ago when no one was talking about North Korea. North Korea has had the ability to nuke Tokyo for maybe a decade, and we’ve lived with it, just as we live with Pakistan having both nuclear weapons and a very serious Islamist insurgent problem.

Tensions are high, but the US is going to great lengths to signal that we’re not going to war. The secretary of state and vice president assured South Korea that the US wouldn’t launch an attack without Seoul’s approval, which is not likely to be forthcoming. There’s zero panic in South Korea, and no real reported panic in North Korea either.

We’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again. As it goes on, ignore right-wing cranks who insist that this is the red-line moment and that the situation demands action now. Ignore left-wing cranks who insist that this is all American provocation and North Korea is just misunderstood. None of that is true. North Korea’s regime is brutal and murderous, with a horrific human rights record. They just killed a guy in a Malaysian airport. They’re not nice. They’re also not nuking anyone next week. And the best solution to the situation is not outright war, just as you don’t resolve a hostage situation by blowing up the whole neighborhood (well, maybe Russia does).

So take a deep breath. If you’re American, calm down and keep protesting the president for the actual awful things he’s doing. If you’re South Korean, make sure to vote in the upcoming election. And if you’re president of a nearby country, please see if you can avoid starting a war.

 

What I want from Korea’s next president

  1. Cleaner air.
  2. An end to South Korea’s antiquated ActiveX security requirements, which keep this country stuck on IE even though Microsoft is no longer developing it.
  3. Public trash cans.

Also, like, an end to endemic corruption, a balanced policy of limited engagement with North Korea, a social safety net that protects the elderly even if they have kids with money (South Korean welfare is based not just on your own wealth, but that of your children) and distributes the burden fairly. But cleaner air, an end to ActiveX, and public trash cans would go a long way toward improving my quality of life.

Normal Life

A quiet evening, listening to soft jazz as the rain falls outside. After work, I went to the office gym. Then I took the shuttle bus to Yangje Station and walked home from there, a couple of kilometers, stopping to pick up dinner at Mos Burger on the way. It was cool but not cold, and not yet raining, and it felt good to stretch my legs.

At home, I called the dry cleaner to get some shirts picked up, and then I watched a couple of episodes of Archer on Netflix while I ate my burger. After that I had a long phone conversation with a well-known North Korean defector. We have a bunch of friends in common, but we only finally met in person last night, and tonight I was helping her to clarify her thoughts on the work she wants to do — reassuring her that she doesn’t have to do everything herself, suggesting that she focus intently on one or two things she wants to achieve while leaving some of the other tasks to others, and also reminding her that the point of freedom, for her and for all of us, is that it gives us the opportunity to pursue happiness. North Korean defectors often feel a heavy burden of obligation to do something for their compatriots, and they are certainly not raised in a culture that prioritizes personal fulfilment or happiness. I’ve wondered what contribution I might make to North Koreans now that I’m in Seoul, and maybe one thing I can do is just give people permission to feel joy and comfort and peace.

After we got off the phone, I took a bath and read the New Yorker for a bit, and then I studied some Korean.

I’m tired. It was a long day, and I suppose a good one. This is my life now. In a lot of ways it’s not all that different from my life in New York, where I might well have met with a North Korean defector or stopped off at my Korean cleaners on the way home before studying some Korean language and listening to some jazz. For all the ups and downs and waves of culture shock, sometimes what’s most startling is how normal all of this feels: going to work at a tech office, coming home to my apartment, sitting on the sofa and blogging.

And then other things are strange and different. My friendships here are new, and many of them, I know, will be fleeting, especially with my fellow foreigners, who come and go. I’m still just 85 days in, and there’s much to get used to, connections to make, roots to put down. But I’m here. Ella is singing to Joe Pass as the rain pelts the penthouse windows on a cool night in Seocho-gu.