Fear and loathing at the Korean military divide.
The most heavily fortified border in the world is a strange kind of divide, because unlike the people on either side of most military separations, Koreans seem to view one another as brothers and sisters. It just so happens that one country is ruled by a tyrannical monster, who has forced his population into poverty, and his nation into the headlines as a rogue terrorist state.
When you come close to the DMZ, you don’t necessarily feel like you’re approaching something so important. Sure, when the train snakes past US military bases – this is a metro line that runs from the DMZ to Seoul Station and down towards Cheonan – you can see tanks, guns and anti-aircraft weaponry, but it’s all just lying around casually, as a part of life. Everything else goes on as normal.
On the train, there are old men and women – no one younger than fifty seems to go that far North – in hiking gear. Apparently the nuclear testing and declarations of war don’t deter the elderly from their weekend jaunts into the mountains.
Out of the window, everything looks much the same. Throughout Korea, streets all look remarkably similar – Family Marts and galbi restaurants and kimbap shops. Nothing different. Here it is similar, but with more greenery. There are mountains in the background, and you know that some of them are in North Korea. The people milling around seem like hobbits in the shadow of Mordor.
There are fewer convenience stores than elsewhere in Korea, too. One must wonder why this is, because there are so many people on the streets. I expected to see empty streets and derelict buildings, but life goes on… Perhaps the lack of convenience stores is meant to hinder an invading army, should it come to that. Without refrigerators crammed full of kimchi and soju, the North Koreans wouldn’t get very far.
The train rolled into Soyongsan station after an alarmingly short period of travelling. This, we knew, was the last stop before the DMZ. The previous night, my accomplice and I had stayed at his apartment in Uijeongbu, North of Seoul. Apparently, the DMZ, that line separating an irrational and nuclear capable Communist state, was only a forty minute train ride away…
We stepped off the train and waited until the locals had pushed and shoved their rude selves out of the station, and proceeded to seek a breakfast that would prepare us for the day. The previous night had been a long one, involving many sordid tales, strong drinks, and hours of speaking recorded on a digital voice recorder. At one point my accomplice and I had to urinate in the middle of a jammed freeway. Later, he had to carry an unconscious, yet vomiting, girl back to her apartment. Some time after that we encountered something that almost brought us to tears – hookers working their beat with children in tow. It was a dark night.
The harsh morning sun and close June morning was difficult to take with a head pounding from rum-withdrawal and a stomach that lamented not vomiting itself clean. I didn’t have any shoes, and I was dressed for a night on the town, not a hike through dangerous backcountry. My bag was full of books and my right hand was occupied with my laptop case. I had a bad feeling about the coming hours.
I must say that it was a shock to find Soyongsan to be a bustling little village. I’d expected something similar to war-torn Bosnia, a deserted ghost town inhabited by hardcore militants. But I guess, if you don’t do your research, you’re always going to be surprised. It wasn’t particularly vibrant or lively, but it was normal by rural standards. Nothing out of the ordinary.
We stopped for lunch at a pizza place, and each had half a pizza, a bottle of Pepsi, and a pint of beer. After that, we bought a giant bottle of Gatorade and embarked upon a mission that was unknown even to us. We’d looked at a lot of maps, but not investigated any real practical aspects. I’ve always been a map person, anyway. It’s simpler.
We determined North and West, and split the difference. Either way was North Korea, and somewhere between was its closest point. There was a barrier of mountains between us and what we’d come to see, or sense, at least. What we wanted was simply to be near the DMZ. We wanted to understand it by seeing it or feeling it, in a way that we figured wasn’t possible through watching CNN or reading the Korean newspapers. I’ve always felt that the facts and figures associated with the DMZ were so incredible, yet so dehumanized. How can someone put into letters and numbers what a warzone is really like?
We set out in a North-West direction, crossing the train line and the river, and quickly left the village and its restaurants and people and metro station. We were in the country, surrounded by small fields, rice paddies, cow pens, dog-meat restaurants, trees, hills and heading along a road that lead somewhere we weren’t sure. What we did know was that it was heading in the right direction.
The most disturbing thing suddenly wasn’t the looming border with its landmines and guns and the threat of nuclear war… All around was the howling of dogs. They weren’t the yelps of dogs talking to one another, they were screams of pain. Families were sitting on decks eating lunch, and all around them was the slaughter…. Cries of dogs being hanged; the final, reserved whines. The meat is evidently better when packed with the adrenaline of a long and agonizing death.
We kept going and soon we weren’t even on a road. We had arrived at a temple and realized we could go no further on a gravel surface. We had to take to the forest to proceed towards our goal. But the sweat had soaked through our clothes long before, and our legs were weary from the mostly uphill journey.
As we pushed through the forest, the bugs became an issue. Flies grew thick around our heads and spiders were crawling on my feet. Paul mentioned something about landmines, but before we gave that too much thought, we were startled by a chilling sound.
Someone was following us. We weren’t meant to be here, and not long before, two American journalists had been taken hostage on the other border, and would mostly be sent to the gulags. (Ed. Note. The journalists, you will most likely know, were indeed sent to the gulags, and were freed only by the intervention of Mr. Bill Clinton.)
We could distinctly hear the sound of someone, or something, moving the forest around us. It was too dense to see anything, but something was definitely there.
“Is it a deer?” Paul asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It sounds big enough, but would a deer be so noisy?”
“Maybe it doesn’t know we’re here…”
“Maybe it’s a person. Someone is following us… They don’t want us to reach the border.”
“But would they be so careless? It’s pretty loud.”
The noise followed us, but more or less stopped when we did. Whatever was there obviously knew we were here now, but it wasn’t doing a good job of hiding. The breaking branches and rustling leaves were audible in the gaps between our own steps.
“It’s a North Korean tiger,” I said. “They’re very rare, but I’m sure if there was one left, it’d be here.”
The source of the commotion was close, now. It was no longer behind us, but beginning to circle in front, and when we rounded the next blindspot, the route just looked rougher. The gradient picked up and the forest became darker, and overgrown.
“I should have brought my mace,” Paul mourned.
“I should have brought shoes,” I replied.
We looked at each other and silently agreed upon the unthinkable – Having come so far, we had to turn back. It was obvious that to get to North Korea, we’d have to climb the crest of the mountain and cross over, and that was a long way. We had the rest of the day, but it was getting heavier, and I’m not just talking about the weather.
The noises from the bushes seemed to stop as our shoulders dropped in defeat and we turned our backs and headed back towards South Korea. We hadn’t seen the DMZ, and we weren’t sure how close we’d come, but nonetheless we’d felt it. We’d felt the air grow tight and wet around us in the hills; we’d felt the pressure grow thick and the light disappear; and it had felt at times like we were approaching the edge.
The edge of what? The edge of reason, surely. We’d gone as far, or perhaps a little farther than any reasonable person would have gone, but for an unreasonable dream: to touch a part of the world that has been utterly wrought by war and devoid of humanity. We’d come to the edge of the world we’d known, and touched one we hadn’t. In the hills that line that terrible monument to evil, we felt the looming wall of hate in every breath. The air reeked of it. It buzzed around our heads and watched us from the trees.
When emerged from the darkness and hurried past the chaos of dogmeat restaurants, we got into town and found a more detailed map than we’d previously seen. It would have been useful information, had we seen it earlier. But what we saw was shocking. Whereas we’d assumed the distance we’d covered had been miniscule, according to the map we’d actually made closer to North Korea than we’d thought. We had turned back less than a quarter mile from the DMZ.
It wasn’t the end of the world, though, and barring the end of the world we agreed to return with suitable hiking attire, at a cooler time of day, and with some water. It had, after all, been an enjoyable day. We’d both achieved something by coming so close, and we’d both shaken our hangovers. Next time we’d reach the border.
“Have you accepted the Lord, Jesus Christ?” a voice asked from behind us.
We spun around to see two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing with some kind of magazine extended towards us. The two little Korean women stared at us expectantly. “WE LOVE JESUS!” they cried.
“Holy fuck!” I cried.
“We shouldn’t have turned back,” Paul said, and we turned and ran towards the border, defection papers readied in our hands and North Korean flags flapping in the breeze.