27 April 2004

A Cold Day for a Cold War: Part I – Getting There

Today it was up bright and early (well, maybe not “bright,” but definitely early) and off to the USO via subway, which is quite empty at that hour. As I may have mentioned previously (my short-term memory has been lost since I largely gave up coffee, they say coffee helps short-term memory but may damage long-term memory… go figure) Korea is called the “Land of the Morning Calm,” probably because no one can get up in the morning after being out so late at night. But now I am really digressing…

Anyway, my first journal entry for today was headed 040427:0550 On the Subway. So we are establishing that, at least for my stay in Korea, it was early. Oh, and did I mention the rain? It rained yesterday. It rained last night. It was raining this morning. And it was cold, in the 40s, and we are not talking centigrade. So it was a cold, gray, drizzly morning, perfect for a visit to the last bastion of the Cold War, a hostile relic clinging to relevance through the sheer tenacity and, some may say stubbornness, of the Korean people and a few American Cold-Warriors.

Really since the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the acceleration of China’s economic opening and reform, the strategic importance of the Korean peninsula, at least to the United States, has faded significantly. While there is a long-term consideration of the need to counter China, in general basin 37,000 troops in Korea – troops that cannot be deployed elsewhere – has been a misappropriation of U.S. defense strength – something seen now as Washington tries to find enough troops to rotate through Iraq and Afghanistan. If it weren’t for North Korea’s nuclear weapons (or possible weapons or threats of weapons or…), North Korea would rate about as high as Haiti on the U.S. radar screen these days.

But again I digress, at least from telling the tale of my trip to North Korea (well, I did get to step into North Korean territory for like five minutes). Anyway, so my motto of better early than on-time was certainly in affect today, so I passed the USO and got me a hot can of coffee (this is why I said “largely” gave up coffee, I have taken it up again on a small scale over here) and a “Special Selection Bonito Bread” with chocolate cream. “Bonito is a fresh, elegant and high dignified bakery goods for the young generation that the meaning of it is ‘pretty,’ ‘cute’ in Spanish. And it gives value above taste to consumers.” Well, it didn’t taste too bad, so I’m not sure the last line really was supposed to mean what it says, but maybe that should be McDonald’s motto – “We give value above taste.”

It was a cold, drizzly bus ride up the Riverside Expressway to Camp Bonifas. After several pieces of Korean trivia from our tour guide, we began to see signs we were nearing the DMZ – like barbed wire and military outposts all along the bank of the river and a large North Korea propaganda village (GiJongDong) across the river. It is called a propaganda village because, while the buildings are kept neat and trim and the grounds manicured, no one actually lives there. The just come to raise and lower the 30-meter long flag and mow the grass.

From my journal – “040427:0822 - Except for the occasional military check post, it is hard to believe that [looking out on] the right side of the highway they even consider the fact they are near the DMZ. There are apartment high-rises, restaurants, farms; life as usual. I’m not sure what I expected, but not this.” This was written less than 12km from Panmunjom.

After passing through a security checkpoint at the Tongil Bridge (Unification Bridge, over the Imjin River) and weaving through an obstacle course of barriers on the bridge, we passed through one of the three main border defenses, a tank barrier. Basically it was a large concrete overpass wired with explosives to leave a huge chunk of concrete in the road should North Korean forces decide to move south. (The other two main defenses are the minefields and the barbed wire fences.)

At Camp Liberty Bell we passed through another check point, this on manned by U.S. soldiers (the one at the Tongil bridge was manned by ROK soldiers). We stopped at a photo shop/souvenir shop and transferred to the United Nations buses, which would take us into the Joint Security Area. Then it was off to Balinger Hall at Camp Bonifas for our briefing and to get out UN visitor badges. DMZ trivia from the briefing – DMZ is 241km long, has 1292 yellow markers posted along its length, on one side in Hangul and English, on the other in Hangul and Chinese. The fences and such are on the outer limits of the DMZ, about 2-2.4 km from the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), which is the center of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).

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