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Thursday, October 4, 2012

The North

Many people know about the famous border area of Panmunjom where the armistice agreement was signed in 1953 and where North and South Korean soldiers to this day stare each other down only meters apart, but most people don't realize that the entire North-South border is not quite like this. In the western most area of South Korea is a large island called Ganghwa which directly shares a border with The North. Here, the border isn't a 2 km strip of heavily minded no man's land. Instead it is a surprisingly narrow and unassuming stretch of the Han river. Deborah and I ventured out here to get away from the city for a few days because we heard it is surprisingly unmodernized and relaxed. As usual, we didn't really know what to expect when we got to this rural island, but we were soon surprised by all the things that can be done here. One of the easiest and strangest things to do is to in the area is to walk along the border and check out the Ganghwa Peace Observation Deck. While we were here we witnessed one of the most touching human moments I have ever seen...

Peering into North Korea

North Korea is not hard to miss when you are on the island. Deborah and I were riding on a local bus heading toward the Observatory and suddenly these brown, barren mountains came into view from around a river bend. After a few seconds of processing I realized that North Korea was a lot closer then I thought it was. As quickly as they appeared, these odd, treeless mountains disappeared as our bus continued to climb the mountain roads. It was a very odd feeling when I first snuck a glance of North Korea. All the mountains in South Korea are heavily forested, so the barren mountains of The North instantly stuck out. Why are the mountains barren? Supposedly, when the 90's famine struck things got so bad that the people either ate all the tree bark and the trees died or they had to cut down all the forests to use as fire wood. Other than glimpsing what looks like a barren waste land in the far off distance, there is not much else to indicate that North Korea is only a few kilometers away.

The last road before North Korea
The only thing that gives it away on the South Korean side is a large but abandoned looking wire fence that runs along the river. This is amazingly different than the border at Panmunjom. Right near the river there are slightly more military things going on, but that's not unusual in Korea. Everyone acts normal, the towns look the same, and fields stretch up nearly to the rivers edge.
The South on the right, The North on the left...

Ganghwa Peace Observation Deck

Located on a hill at the narrowest point in the river is the Peace Observatory. It's a small but modern looking building that has a gift shop where you can buy North Korea liquor (I have some "finely aged" acorn liquor to share when I get home), a little resturaunt, and a few decks with binoculars and Korean propaganda movies and the like. For many the binoculars are the real draw to this place. By using these binoculars I had a personal glimps into North Korea and somewhat amazingly it was rather unamazing! I saw people riding bikes, kids playing volleyball in a school yard, farmers farming, and people passing in the streets. If North Korean's look over at us in South Korea from their binoculars they would see almost exactly the same thing, except there are a lot more cars in South Korea. Other than that I noticed all the buildings where the same color and of traditional Korean style. The only genuninely interesting or unusual thing I saw was a large propaganda painting showing obnoxiously happy farmers harvesting rice.
Deborah peering at her less fortunate Northern neighbors

When Things Got Real

We were solemn but having a fun and interesting time. As we were getting ready to leave we ventured down to a side memorial where some loud opera style music was playing. Having my ear turned in for interesting propaganda I figured this music was a good lead. We got down there and looked at a strangely and obviously distorted map that showed North Korean mountains pointier and redder then they really was a map that was representing your view from from where you were standing, so it was strange that it wasn't the view you were actually seeing...

Right after that is when we saw something that really made this whole experience real to me. At a shrine we saw a family, led by a man in his 90's, holding a Confucian ceremony. The old man was also there with a few other old men. He could barely walk but he got down on his knees and bowed three times while facing North Korea. They offered food and drink, lit incense, and then burned a piece of paper with people's names on it. I can only imagine what a divided Korea has cost this man...

People in America fear and dislike North Korea, but here in South Korea people regard The North with sympathy. South Korean's generally feel bad for their distant family members who were tricked or forced into believing in three generations of megalomaniacs who have led them into a life where, for many, a good day is a day when you eat. This old man and millions of others have had to live with the fadding memories of their suffering family members. Luckily, these are feelings few people will ever know, but unfortunately they are feelings that many Korean's are forgetting. Right after seeing this old man sob and bend to his knees for a lifetime of loss, I heard a Korean woman say "there's nothing to see here..." as she stuffed her fat face with over priced gift shop ice cream. Sadly, that feeling of apathy is a feeling many younger Koreans have toward The North, "there's nothing to see here..."

Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

  1. Thanks, that definitely gives you something to think about. Love ya