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Chaos Manor Special Reports

South Korea as Seen from One Foot Inside North Korea

Monday, January 01, 2007

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South Korea as seen from 1 ft inside North Korea 

Dr. Pournelle,

I don't know if you've had the opportunity to visit Korea, so here's a little trip report you might enjoy. 


My wife and I went on the Korean DMZ tour right after Christmas and I thought you might find these pictures interesting. The first is what South Korea looks like from about 1 ft inside North Korea, inside the main negotiation room at Panmunjeom straddling the line between North and South. The second is a shot of the Joint Security Area looking North. Next to the soldier standing in the distance is an open window though which the North Koreans carefully documented our visit. The third is a shot that shows a little better how we were being watched. The lighting made it tough to get one photograph with consistent exposure, but in the close-up shot you should be able to zoom in and see a guy in the window with a camera taking notes, next to the outside guard with the binoculars. 

The South Korean guards are carefully chosen for their imposing presence, and they are all taller than their North Korean counterparts because any sign of weakness or apparent vulnerability here will get exploited. Only a decade or two ago, there were violent skirmishes along these footpaths, and the hostility in this area can be felt even during a short tour. Everyone in the tour group was photographed from the North with an impressive looking camera that appeared to be capable of counting the pores on my face, and the tour was delayed by a couple of hours due to the deportation of 2 unfortunate North Koreans who strayed a bit too far down the coast in a small boat and had to be returned back to the North.

An interesting bit of trivia - a short while ago 2 North Koreans entered the negotiation room (building T 2) and pulled down the miniature flags of S. Korea and the US from the UN flag display in the room. One flag was then used to wipe down one N. Korean's shoes, and the other was used as a kleenex. To prevent a reoccurence, the small flags were removed and replaced with a painted plexiglass display bolted quite securely to the wall. That sort of provocative incident makes no apparent sense but it's been like that here for decades. It's like two kids yelling "stop touching me!" in the back of the family car, except that they both have guns and one is pointing hundreds of artillery pieces at Seoul just in case they ever come up with an excuse to pull the trigger.

It's quite clear that the war is still on here, and this is no cold war. Although procedures have been put in place to make large scale armed conflict unlikely, only careful tactical procedures developed over the years are preventing routine skirmishes between patrols even now. Almost every time the North Koreans find a vulnerability, they have tried to exploit it even when that means open combat. If they think they can wipe out a patrol without significant cost, they have tended to take the opportunity. We try very hard to not give them the opportunity, but they keep trying to provoke border incidents. Even in the tour groups, we're told to not say anything, point, or make any kind of gesture towards the North Korean guards because that may be used to create an incident or propaganda event.

The tunnel tour again brought home how this is not simply a war of the past. The most recent of four massive tunnels running under the border from North to South was discovered in early 1990. These tunnels are large and finished well enough for fully equipped troops to run through for the entire length, and the ends were discovered well inside South Korea at fairly strategic locations. We are fools if we think they are not still digging other tunnels. We only discovered these because of defectors and because they triggered blast detectors. Different tunneling methods, deeper tunnels, or tunnels dug in less populated areas may still go undetected.

Propaganda village is also quite impressive. Imagine a movie set a couple of square miles in size, complete with bit part actors doing their best to make the city look like someone lives in it. Flying over this pretend village is what is probably the worlds largest flag (300 lbs) on a 160 meter tall tower. 

Another thing I found interesting and somewhat sad are two facilities on the South side of the border that are in place, waiting for the reunification. First, there is a very large and well constructed building on the South side of the Joint Security Area built specifically for re-uniting families separated by the war. There are waiting areas, private rooms for families to meet, etc. It remains unused. Second, there is a large and modern train station just South of the border. Although construction on roads, parking lots, and other support facilities are still in progress, it is otherwise a fully functioning and modern transportation hub. Except for occasional tour groups and a few guards, it is empty.

One last thing... The politics behind the show's storyline aside, the depictions of the weather from the TV show MASH are entirely correct. It was bitterly cold during our visit, with a mere 5 knots of wind causing a wind chill of -5F. One of my cameras ceased functioning due to the cold after just 5 minutes outside of my pocket. This is a beautiful country, and it looks a lot like Southern California, also like the TV show. The hardships we endure and the resources we expend to protect it are, in my opinion, worthwhile.