I sat half asleep in the front passenger seat of a Hyundai SUV only vaguely aware of the countryside through which we were passing. The warmth of the car and the bright sunshine belied a colder and grimmer reality. I was jostled from this gentle slumber as the car braked heavily. Before us stood two soldiers of the South Korean 25th Infantry Division, one hand up ordering us to stop and the other gripping a Daewoo K2 assault rifle. Wearing full combat gear with only their eyes visible behind the black masks they wore to protect them from the bitter wind, one stood behind a maze of concrete and steel barriers while the other approached the Hyundai cautiously. My driver, Don, himself a former member of the Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), cracked the window and presented a special permit granting us access to this remote portion of the DMZ. The soldier disappeared into a guardhouse to make a phone call while his companion kept us under close watch.
“We are to wait here while he checks us out,” Don said. Don is not his real name. Like many Koreans who interact with Westerners regularly, he has adopted a pseudonym that his clients can more easily pronounce than his actual Korean name. The hotel concierge is, say, Jim and the woman at the check-in desk is Angela — but not really.
After a delay of twenty minutes or so, a Jeep arrived, and another soldier hopped out and strode toward us purposefully. Emerging from the guardhouse, Solder no. 1 returned our permit, told us we were cleared to pass, and fitted a flag to the car door and put a placard on our dashboard. He then informed us that this newly arrived soldier would accompany us to make sure we didn’t get lost or hurt. Landmines are, after all, strewn all over the DMZ, and those occupying the 150 guard posts on the north side of the wire have been known to shoot more than a few people on the southern side. Indeed, since the Korean War ended in July 1953, more than a thousand South Koreans, Americans, and other citizens of countries that comprise the forces of the United Nations have been killed along this dangerous stretch of hotly contested land. But this soldier’s real job was, I suspect, to make sure we didn’t do some damned silly thing to provoke an international incident.
He got into the backseat and directed us through the barrier and up a mountainside. We parked just below a ROKA guard post manned by soldiers carrying the same K2s slung over their backs as they stood behind mounted machine guns whose barrels pointed menacingly northward.
“No photo,” the soldier said as we got out of the car. It seems like an antiquated rule in the age of satellites and drones, but I dutifully obeyed.
The DMZ — Demilitarized Zone — is a 250-kilometer long and 4-kilometer wide border cutting the Korean Peninsula in half. On the southern side, squat trees and bushes populate the gray landscape; on the northern side, there is nothing but grass and dirt as all vegetation has been flattened to provide clear sightlines for North Korean machine gunners. On the southern side, a free society flourishes economically, politically, and culturally; on the northern side lies a human and economic wasteland ruled by a hardline communist regime. This place, running roughly along the infamous 38th parallel, has been one of the most dangerous borders in the world and the spot many feared would be the flashpoint for the next World War.
With the use of a pair of field glasses, I could see the guard posts of the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) across the wide expanse of this No Man’s Land, and if you looked very carefully, you could even make out the dark figures of the sentries themselves. Spanning the western and eastern horizons are the barbed wire and earthen walls rolling over distant hills on the South Korean side of the DMZ, machine gun towers perforating the otherwise unbroken line at regular intervals. But that is not all. Roads, bridges, and any potential path that KPA troops and tanks might follow southward (as they did in June 1950) are mined with explosive charges that will be detonated in the event of war, thus slowing — one hopes — any advance on Seoul.
Adding to the eerie quality is the ominous silence. But there was something else, and it took me a while to identify it. All of this felt like an anachronism, an embarrassing relic of the Cold War that should have fallen in November 1989 along with the Berlin Wall. Didn’t the reunification and freedom fervor that swept Germany three decades ago penetrate these remote regions of Asia? It seems that when Berliners were rocking to the music of the Scorpions, the North Koreans were still goose-stepping to the awkward beat of communist propaganda. Reagan needed to make a visit here, too:
“Mr. Kim Il-Sung, open this gate! Mr. Kim Il-Sung, tear down this wall!”
North Korea’s government and string of wicked, murderous dictators were indeed an anachronism more befitting the time of Lenin or Stalin or Mao than the era of chic celebrity presidents like Macron and Trudeau and Merkel… well, Macron and Trudeau anyway. This is the kind of wall Democrats would have you believe Trump wants to build: a threatening, barbed-wired symbol of tyranny. Nonsense. Unlike Trump’s proposed wall, this one is meant to keep people in rather than keep them out. At least, that is the purpose the North Koreans have in mind. For their own part, the South Koreans man their wall defensively. Just as South Koreans are not fighting to cross the wire in a desperate bid to reach the communist Utopia of North Korea, the United States’ southern frontier problem is not one of Americans crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico so that they might take advantage of that country’s wonderful social welfare benefits and overturn their electoral process through illegal voting. Trump’s wall is defensive in nature and meant to enforce a sensible immigration policy.
Here on the 38th parallel it is done with guns.
And barbed wire.
And a wall.
Larry Alex Taunton is a freelance columnist and author. You can follow him at larryalextaunton.com.