Of Barbed Wire and Hope

Only a short distance outside the greater Seoul area, as you head toward the DMZ, barbed wire fences and security watchtowers appear every several hundred meters. As you continue down the highway, eventually you reach a security checkpoint, marking the furthest northern point you can go without clearance. The young looking soldier boards the bus, fully armed, checking the identification of all the passengers.

Within the area near the DMZ are a number of infrastructure projects undertaken over the last several years. A recently completed train station, along the rail line that will soon connect to North Korea (whether anyone will transit along it is another question), stands ready, glistening, with armed guards nearby. A four lane tunnel will allow motorists to drive at least near the border, if not over it. In the meantime, guard checkpoints and heavy objects block or slow down access along these paths.

Nearby lies one of the four tunnels dug by North Korean soldiers, in an attempt to infiltrate the South. Discovered in 1978, the Third Tunnel, which allows access to within three hundred meters of the North Korean border, runs for nearly 2 kilometers and was intended to extend for an approximately 8 additional kilometers, well beyond the DMZ. Today, after about three hundred meters underground, it lies sealed with several meters of concrete, a large water container, and a floor filled with mines.

A few kilometers from the Third Tunnel, within the Joint Seceurity Area (JSA), is Panmunjom. The JSA, one of the most sensitive areas within the DMZ, allows close contact with the North Korean soldiers. As we stood watching, across the line a North Korean soldier monitored our movements with binoculars as we entered and left the conference room where many discussions take place. Within the center building of Conference Row, too, there is an opportunity to briefly cross over to the North Korean side of the DMZ. Further down from Conference Row are two security checkpoints and the Bridge of No Return, scene of a brutal axe murder incident when the JSA forces attempted to improve viewing of the bridge by trimming a poplar tree. This led to a redesign of the area, including extending the actual DMZ throughout the entire Panmunjom area.

The entire area presents a scene of untenable calm, a sense that the situation as it stands cannot exist indefinitely. However it ends, though, the South Korean people I’ve met, from our tour guide to those on the street remain optimistic and hopeful that the country can be reunited soon. One woman said she hoped maybe within five to ten years it would happen, and while I would be as happy as anyone to see that wish come true, after standing on the edge, I would be very surprised as well.