Unveiling the soul of Seoul - during a PM
It's home to
major conglomerates like Hyundai, Samsung and LG and boasts of the
world's fastest broadband network. It hosted the 1986 Asian Ganes,
the 1998 Olympics, the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the 2010 G-20 summit
and now, the March 26-27 Nuclear Security Summit. But there's more
to Seoul than mere statistics. »
(South Korea): Remember the Freedom Bridge in the James
Bond flick "Die Another Day"? That's where, in the Demilitarised
Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea, on a misty day, with
menacing looking soldiers at each end, 007 was exchanged for the
terrorist Zao. Well, the original is nothing like the film made it
out to be!
In reality, it's a rather plain-looking wooden structure that can
accommodate no more than four people abreast.
So, what's the big deal? For one, very, very few people get to
visit the DMZ, let alone view the Freedom Bridge, a point drilled
home by Private (First Class) Andrew Wilson of the US Army that is
part of the UN detachment at Camp Barfis, an hour's drive from
South Korean capital Seoul.
Among the lucky ones was this IANS correspondent, part of the
media delegation accompanying Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
to Seoul on an official visit to South Korea and then for the
March 26-27 Nuclear Security Summit, and for which special
arrangements were made to visit the DMZ.
The tension in the area is palpable, even though there has been no
incident in the DMZ since Oct 29, 2010 when two shots were fired
from North Korea towards a South Korean post near Hwacheon and
South Korean troops fired three shots in return.
Even so, Andrew's instructions to the media team were precise:
"Don't point at the North Koreans, don't wave at them and don't
get separated for any reason."
The DMZ is a two km stretch on the southern and northern sides
from the 38th Parallel, the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) agreed
on July 27, 1953 to end the Korean War. There are several
buildings on both side of the MDL, and five conference rooms -
three of the south and two of the north - are built right on the
MDL at Panmonjom. This Joint Security Area is where all
negotiations since 1953 have been held, including statements made
of Korean solidarity, which have generally amounted to little
except a slight decline of tensions. The MDL, in fact, goes
through the conference rooms and down the middle of the conference
tables where the North Koreans and the United Nations Command
(primarily South Koreans and Americans) meet face-to-face.
"Well ladies and gentlemen, if you walk out of that door, you are
in North Korea and we can do nothing to save you. As long as you
come out of this door you are fully under our protection," Andrews
Just how palpable the tension is can be gauged from the fact that
the South Korean soldiers positioned like statues on their side of
the MDL are in a "semi-taekwondo position" which means "they can
quicker reach their (holstered) pistols if they have to go into
action", as Andrews put it.
With tension comes one-upmanship, which can be gauged by the
flagpoles in two villages on either side of the MDL at Panmonjom.
The height of the flagpole on the southern side was raised to 100
metres, prompting the north to raise its mast to 160 metres.
"There's a flipside," Andrews explained. "You need a real stiff
breeze for the North Korean flag to fly to its full potential
because of its huge size."
Then, there's a contradiction.
The village on the southern side is a vibrant community, with its
farmers, who earn between $80,000 and $100,000 a year, against an
average South Korean farmers earnings of $18,000 a year thanks to
the special efforts of the South Korean government to buy their
rice and other produce.
On the other side is a "ghost village" with dummy houses and other
structures that are lit up at night "when there is power", Andrews
And thus does life go on!
Makhijani can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)