Perspectives and Impressions: the 38th Parallel, Gang-nam and Hong-dae

It was August 12, 20__ and the foreigner English teachers were out in full force, celebrating payday amongst the hip and young Koreans in Hongdae-dong.  It’s hot and sweaty and the air full of moisture on the streets, clubs—the skin and the sex and the immediacy of pleasure a brief escape of the mid-summer intensives, debt, uncertainties in the North. 


Then, buildings were pierced, neon lights shattered, European and American cars are flipped on their sides against Daewoos and KIAs.  The North has commenced an attack on Seoul.  Why they chose Hongdae as a focal point for a rocket attack is pure speculation.  To show how far into Seoul they could reach with their firepower that they successfully deployed through a new infiltration tunnel?  To quickly kill the young and intelligent and those full of potential for an future uprising against the new Korean Peninsula under communism? 


The sudden death of Kim Jong-il a few months ago, left the country in the hands of weak eldest son Kim Jong-nam, effectively putting a small group of military hardliners in control.  The ramifications spread across Asia.  China supported the military leaders and Russia—under the de facto rule of Putin despite the election of Valentina Matvienko in 2008—wanted to continue the drive toward socialism throughout Asia.  So, North Korea forcefully unified Korea with men and materiel from Russia and China.


The political situations would have to be ideal for the North to start a war on this peninsula.  However, what if those scenarios played themselves out in quick succession?  Certainly, the sudden demise of Kim Jong-il would leave the world on edge, for he has not named his successor.  And, if we believe the western media perspective, the desire of the North to take over control of the peninsula is great since resources are low and people are starving.  Maybe there’s some reason the North is depicted this way; maybe there’s some way it is advantageous to the North to be seen this way.  Whatever the case, I had to see the frontier of the most massive troop build-up in the world, maybe to see a few of the 1.7 million active duty North Korean soldiers.  So I spent last Saturday touring the DMZ.


For months, Paul “Punchy” Dumont and I had been trying to match weekends of availability to do this trip.  He arrived after 11 Friday evening.  Before we knew it, we’d had a few beers and had caught up on the latest and it was 0230.  Stayed at a hotel near the USO, where we arrived at 0700 to catch the bus to the DMZ.  Our tour guide was a nice enough Korean man who seemed to be a broken record or a RainMan of his own brand of propagandized indoctrination (“There are concentration camps, okay, in the North, okay, for anyone who opposes, you know, opposes the Great Leader, okay?  And there are, you know, concentration camps. You know.  Concentration camps.” He also talked about the North’s use of humanitarian aid on the military rather than the people it protects or the concentration camps there are throughout the country.  (There are 103 concentration camps.  Yeah.  103.  Yeah.).  Upon arrival to the DMZ, we had a briefing by a youngish PR sergeant.  We also signed a release form that stated that hostilities could break out at any time and the armed forces deployed there would not be responsible for your death if such an event were to occur. 


After that, we went to the Joint Security Area (JSA) conference room where we were technically in North Korea for about five or ten minutes, the South Korean guards stiff in a tae-kwon-do stance and ready for action at all times; these gentleman were not open for conversation, though I really wanted to know what goes through their minds while standing motionless for hours at a time, always presenting the impression that they could kill you or put you in submission at a moment’s provocation.  There wasn’t as much tension in that room or that area as I had expected as there were no North Korean soldiers directly staring down the South Korean guards.  There was a couple Northies with binoculars in front of the building across the JSA conference area.  And they were mysterious and that’s what made them more imposing.  What image is the North trying to present by a show of only two soldiers at this most publicly visible area in the DMZ?  As I left, I began to realize how important impressions are in this international stare-down.  Cameras and people watch each other on a daily basis, not only here at the JSA, but all along the fenced border between this divided country.


We next found our way to an observation area where we could see Propaganda Village and its 160 meter-tall flagpole (who says size doesn’t matter?) flying a 600 pound North Korean flag.  It was rather impressive in its magnitude, imposing in the moist windy breeze a little over 1 kilometer away.  We later moved to another observation area.  I looked through the binoculars into North Korea and its treeless mountains (contrasting with the foliage-covered Southern mountains) that I am familiar with, and after a while of searching for one living soul, I was unable to see a single person—neither soldier on beyond the barbed wire fences that stretched to the east and west, nor civilian in the village itself.  The Propaganda Village is largely unused.  For what purpose?  The South says because the North is afraid of frequent attempts at defection.  And, what of the lack of sightings of military personnel?  1.7 million hidden that well? 


Though I imagine at least the military presence is stronger at places outside the areas frequented by tourists like me, I still wonder what the advantages are of hiding your population so well.  There is mystery and fear of the unknown.  And we toured one of the infiltration tunnels some 73 meters below the surface of the earth.  The North said, upon its discovery in 1978, the tunnel was the exploratory digging for coal, while the South firmly believes this tunnel, along with three other tunnels, were dug for the purposes of a surprise attack.  It was estimated by our Korean guide that there could be as many as 20 other tunnels under construction beneath various points along the DMZ.  Instilling fear?  What would be the purpose of sharing that information with the general public?  Perspective and impressions, giving the sense of importance to this operation along the 38th Parallel.  No matter the perspective, the idea of political and military tension was becoming more and more apparent.


Restrictions on photography were imposed and lifted throughout the day, but the last stop was the highlight, in my mind.  Dorasan Station is the northernmost train station in the South, only recently modernized (opening in February 2002) and even more recently used for the first time, taking two trains in opposite directions of both North and South Koreans as a test run between the station and a point shortly north of the DMZ (the North apparently has done nothing to restore the tracks on their side).  The station was absent of travelers, but the marquee scrolled messages of departure times to both Seoul and Pyongyang, there were brightly colored murals with somehow dark themes in them: a rusted locomotive with weeds growing through it; silhouetted figures striding toward something with arms out in front of them.  The impression given both here at the station and in a propaganda film shown to us earlier (an unabashedly sentimental and hopeful short film about how the DMZ will one day be the peaceful, natural environment without landmines and barbed wire), is the sense that the South strives for the unification of their country.  If unification does occur, it seems there are potential problems when a middle-class of the South—that has been indoctrinated with this kind of propaganda for generations—emerges as superior-minded and the Northerners are still isolated due to their continued status as poor and un-educated.  The potential for a violent class-struggle after a reunification seems imminent.  The problem with propaganda is that it is as short-sighted as it black and white in the ignorant ideals it instills in the general public.


Throughout the previous night and during the tour, Paul and I caught up on the people in our daily lives, co-workers and friends, we agree, are not one in the same.  I have recently developed a bit of ageism toward the young foreign teachers that I have encountered both at work and when going out on the rare occasion that I do.  I just feel bored, that I have nothing to learn or take from anyone who is younger than I am.  And I admit this is a bad headspace to be in; and there are those who will say that I am just bitter about being old.  On the contrary, 30 is the best year in many years.  What I do often see from younger people is the bouncing around and off of each other in this seemingly unique situation, trying to figure things out, testing the limits of social norms and values and how they hold up against the backdrop of Korean culture; and not to be forgotten, there is a sense of their situation being that of a new brand of freedom (more money than they ever had in a country where most things are fairly cheap by western standards).


This has been my prevailing attitude in the last month or so, getting annoyed by the posturing and superficiality that I often see in younger foreigners.  But, to the credit of the younger, there some bright ones who, despite still figuring things out (as all of us in the world are doing at any age, whether we admit it or not), have enough sense about them and confidence and social intelligence enough to know that acting out in certain ways is unacceptable and makes people uncomfortable. 


This past weekend, Matt, a lanky 25 year old philosopher from Kitchner, ON, decided he would have a last bash a couple weeks before his last class and heading off to other parts of the world and then home.  Matt is an astute observer of people (almost to a fault, because it comes off sounding like he’s talking shit) and is well-spoken about a great many things that really seem to matter: politics and art.  Along with all that, there is no humor that is lost on him.  [It’s unfortunate that he is leaving soon because in a large foreign group at work, there are a lot of social rejects and duds.  It is my hope that with every new month, we can get at least one person who is as interesting and intelligent as Matt.  Besides, who the hell am I going to jokingly say fuck off to on Mondays without it being misconstrued as anything other than hello].  Anyhow, I digress.


Paul and I met up with Matt and 16 of his closest friends at Platinum in Gang-nam dong; this is a microbrewery that has an all you can eat buffet of international cuisine and all you can drink of the brews on tap for three hours on Saturdays (be sure to make reservations well in advance).  This is a place where Sundays go to die, what with all that beer to be had.  I sat with others of the interesting ones at work.  Paul M (who has a heightened interest in photography and has a degree in bullshit—aka English—just like me), Colin and Amanda (the odd couple, he being a contemplative type who shows his personality on rare, but well-timed occasions and she being a bit more outspoken and humorous).  And then there’s Heather B, the alternately bubbly and caustic Bostonian and self-described Blanche Deveraux character of “Golden Girls” fame (though, she’s the extremely young version, maybe to be put in a prequel sitcom, “Green Girls” or “Wet Behind the Ears Girls”)  who’s been hilarious to watch and interact with since her boyfriend went away a couple months ago, by far acts “her age” more than anyone, but something is charming in that unashamedly goofy way in which she carries herself.


A group of about eight or ten of us made our way to Chi-cha, a hookah club in Hong-dae (an area I am only starting to explore and some pictures are displayed of last weekends maiden voyage through this youthful university district) whose atmosphere is simultaneously dark and lively, the center of its front room has a shallow pool of flowers and candles floating in it.  This is surrounded on all sides and spread out from wall to wall with low-set tables, Afghan and Indian rugs and pillows.  There are pillars and areas to seclude yourself in a corner if you so choose, cozying up to a friend and a hookah.  Also, there are bongos to play. 


Somehow possessed, I took a hold of one of those bongos after Paul jammed a bit with a young co-worker of mine who seems to have his head screwed on right and was able to keep a good steady rhythm while Paul riffed off of that.  We began to sing, making up silly lyrics about various friends scattered around the few tables we surrounded.  Eventually, we stopped, hands throbbing from pounding on the drums.  There were those who seemed not to mind the semi-or-lucky bongo playing of a couple slightly drunk 30 year olds, but others didn’t seem suited for this kind of a club where the atmosphere was not conducive to hostilities or the breeding of them.  And yet another cool, young person talked with me for a bit.


A young woman, Krystal, who seemed to be cozying up with Matt, came and talked with me a bit.  She told me of her disgruntled disposition toward the major she had chosen: journalism.  Not wanting to be a slave to the mass media’s rendition of the “facts” in world events (all this starting on her first day of journalism school: 9/11/2001), she seemed to be using her time here in Korea to figure out what to do with an education that she doesn’t see herself using—at least not in any conventional way.


I toe the line between ignorance and bliss.  Whether I wonder about the depictions of North Korea—pondering the significance of a population that is largely visible only through the lenses of western mass media—or about the a person’s public persona as an accurate depiction of their true self—young or old—I prefer the bliss of inquiry.  

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