Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Glimpse inside North Korea

Our convoy continued northward through dry, rugged terrain that evokes the landscape seen in old cowboy films. But Hollywood Westerns don't have armed North Korean soldiers standing at attention every 100 yards, mile after mile, every one holding a red flag. Should anyone decide to sneak his camera up to the bus window, a flag would be raised, and presumably the bus would be halted.

Imagine that. A string of soldiers, stationed a hundred yards apart, that extends for miles along a planned route to be used by visitors. Apparently this has been going on for some time, according to this CS Monitor article.

In the past six years, 760,000 tourists, 99 percent of them South Korean, have quietly traveled through the heavily mined DMZ into North Korea, bringing welcome cash with them.

They can spend several days trekking in the rugged mountains, soaking in hot springs at a spa, and generally pinching themselves that they're actually inside one of the members of the "axis of Evil."

My interest in North Korea derives from the year and a half that I spent in South Korea as an Army X-Ray Technician. It provided an in-depth look inside another culture, guided by hospitable and informative Korean hosts who became close personal friends. I lost touch as the years passed, but I have never lost my sense of curiosity and connection with the country and the people I came to know.

About ten years after I left Korea, just before meeting my future wife, I met a group of Korean men lured to Atlanta by what turned out to have been a hoax. I never understood all of what hapened, but I spent several days helping them find apartment accommodations that would be more economical than the place where they were staying, a kind of commercial dorm/boarding house with bunks, no kitchen, and group bathroom accommodations. When all but one were situated, I shared my own apartment with him for the rest of the lease year which cut down on my own expenses.

We were remarkably compatible, having about the same level of tolerance for clutter and able to enjoy the same foods. Fortunately he had financial backing from his family, and before a year had passed he was accepted to the Graduate School at Georgia Tech (electronics engineer), secured credit, bought a car, and got a job repairing calculators. In the following years I watched him go to Korea and come back with a beautiful new bride (arranged by his family), start a retail business, move to suburbia and have kids, and blossom into another American success story.

Back to the article...

While in the country, I desperately tried to talk to some actual North Koreans. But all outsiders travel in a virtual bubble, as a way to just about eliminate contact between North Koreans and outsiders. Except for the hotel's doormen, all the staff we encountered were recruited from ethnic Korean communities in China - and they are rotated back to China every three months.

This is mystifying to me. How can there be such tight control that ethnic Korean communities in China are able to furnish hotel staff for North Korean hotels, and rotate home quarterly? The bonds between China and North Korea must be very strong.

I saw first hand that in the minds of Koreans the separation of their homeland was not understood to be a permanent arrangement. At the time I was there the US had fifty thousand troops assigned to South Korea, about the same number that Korea had sent to Viet Nam in support of the US war effort there. (There were so many Koreans in Viet Nam that Korean civilians were going to Vietnamese cities to serve as translators, taking advantage of good paying jobs to send money home to their families.) Talking with Koreans, I got the clear impression that were it not for the presence of US forces, the South might invade the North for the purpose of unification, so strong was the desire. Koreans seemed to regard the US presence there as necessary but disagreeable.

There are lessons to be learned here applicable to our presence in Iraq.

Hat tip again to Pejman for noticing this story. His remarks are also interesting.

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