I went to a different kind of holy site today. Having done four churches in one day, I thought I’d take a bit of a break, but it wasn’t a break from prayer or the purpose of this pilgrimage. I visited the DMZ, the Demarcation Zone, the 38th parallel. A line, drawn by human beings, to separate North and South Korea. A planned environment of land mines and strategic outposts which highlights humanity’s attempt at peace, and failure at trust.
For those who don’t know, Korea was once occupied as a colony of Japan’s empire in the first part of the twentieth century. After World War II, Korea was liberated, but two government’s formed. The North, a communist state, supported by Russia and China, and the South, supported by the United States. During the 50’s, the United States was engaged in active military support of defending South Korea from an invading force from the North. In the treaty that ended the war, the DMZ was created, a scar across the land, dividing North from South, but also ceasing the war.
I just don’t know how to tell you all of this. I am completely flabbergasted by the experience. I mean, I got on a bus like I was touring ancient castles in France. Lunch is planned for us, and they try to make us comfortable as possible. Later we get onto a military bus and the nice United States Army Sergeant gives a briefing about the territory we are about to enter. No pointing, no communicating with the enemy, etc.
We heard a bunch of stories, which are real, about the nasty things that the North Koreans have done. They shot innocent civilians trying to escape North Korea; axed a U.S. Army Captain to death; dug tunnels trying to invade South Korea. All of this, and here we are on a bus as if this was a tour to Disneyland.
Everyone gets out and is lined up at the border looking across at the lone North Korean solider facing back at us 250 meters away. Several South Korean guards, in very intimidating uniforms, helmets, and glasses, hold strategic placement while standing in postures from their native martial arts, Tae Kwan Do. They have pistols on their belts. Then we are allowed to take pictures. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictures of the DMZ by clicking here.
We got lined up again and took a walk into the building where the treaty the North and South was signed and where the majority of communication between the North and South has occurred over the last 55 years. I even get the opportunity to walk across the border into North Korea.
As I’m standing there across the border, looking at the other side, I realize something. I’m with a bunch of lunatics. Here we are. We paid $50 to get on a bus to take us 10 feet into North Korea. We’re snapping pictures like we’re at some kind of tourist trap and acting goofy around soldiers who are prepared to shoot down anything that looks like it might be a North Korean stepping 2 feet beyond a made-up line
For God’s sake! I’m standing in North Korea! I’m in a country with Nuclear weapons! Then I remember, “I should be use to this, I’m from the U.S.” Then I think, “Yeah, but they’ve got a madman who has his finger on the button.” Then I remember, “I should be use to this, I’m from the U.S.”
After we’ve been paraded around like little ponies by an American GI who jokes around about how insane the other side is, we go to see the 3rd tunnel. The South Korean government found a total of four tunnels that were being dug by North Korea under the DMZ. These tunnels could be used to invade South Korea with thousands of troops on short notice. It is quite a site to behold; unfortunately they don’t let you take your camera down there.
What amazed me though was the propaganda. We’ve just seen an hour of intimidation on the border, and then we come to the tunnel where they show us a video about the glorious triumph of reunification that awaits North and South Korea. How the two countries are getting along better and better, give or take a few million land minds. What! Is this for real? I just stood in a country we’re virtually at war with. I’ve come to a clear defined border that separates people who hate each other, and all of this has turned into a “tourist” attraction for people to bring their kids and spend their leisure income while a few kilometers north, people are living in forced poverty. What is wrong with this!
I begin to wonder, “What is the other side is told?” I’m sure they find our dog and pony show as offensive as we find theirs. They are taught that we are the enemy; that there is no freedom in country in which the workers are slaves to the capitalists. They are taught to distrust the criminals on the other side of the border. After all, we’re just a bunch of liars with a history of deceit.
I’m on a mission to promote solidarity, peace, and here I am taking a tour wondering how did we turn something so serious into a fun-house novelty? Is this really the way to reconciliation and peace?
The devious side knows there are many ways to make a point. So while I stood a whole ten feet into North Korea, I began to wonder, if I really wanted to make a statement, draw some attention to the idiocy of distrust and conflict, I could make a scene. Bust through a window. Knock down a guard. Make a break to the other side. “Tempting” I thought. It’d probably make the news. I’d be interviewed a lot, but probably shot and beaten first. However, I don’t speak Korean, and I don’t think that a labor camp, in which no one speaks English, is a good way to spread a message of peace.
Pope Paul VI said, “Peace is not the absence of war, the new word for peace is development.” So what does it take to develop? There are so many lines in our life that divide us. Conflicts between countries, religions, individuals. These problems aren’t unique. If they were, there wouldn’t be divorce, religious intolerance, or war. To develop, eventually you have to get over the divisions. You have to accept that there are, in fact, differences, but refuse to let those differences stifle the creativity.
So the tour is a novel approach. We’ll admit that there are differences, but instead of coming to the border with bullets, we’ll come with cameras and a bit of psychosis. We’ll write home to our friends and laugh about the fact that we stepped across the border. It will be come a game, and eventually so silly, that distrust falls away into laughter at a system that would actually contemplate building a 248 kilometer by 2 kilometer field of land mines in order to divide people, who both love their children, and just have different ways of doing the same things. Treat our differences like they amuse us? Maybe?
There is a Russian girl in Chicago in the parish where I work. She comes to my office all the time. We talk, and often we joke about the differences between Russia and the United States. She’s actually more of a capitalist than I am. We laugh about growing up in a world where Russian and the United States were sworn enemies, and here we are! I thought of those many conversations in my office as I watched little Korean children play over a sculpture near the third tunnel. It is a world divided, and on both sides people pushing the globe back together. The picture is in the earlier Google Earth pictorial, but you can see these pictures directly by clicking here. The divisions have become the playground of children. Hopeful.
In the United States, we’ve even made the battle fields of the Civil War monuments complete with visitor centers. Studying the differences of our past becomes a form of entertainment and though it makes me uneasy, I’m not sure that there is anything wrong with it. As Woody Allen puts it “Comedy is really tragedy separated by time.”
Laugh about the divisions of the past. It is a novel approach, and I don’t know if there is much too it, but it certainly is an interesting concept to peace-building. Let’s exaggerate our differences by letting them amuse us. I hadn’t been planning on it, but now I think I need to head to Germany and go to the Berlin Wall, a similar kind of moment in human history.
I’d love to hear your ideas on the subject, and while we are still working to set up the interactive portion of the website, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you email me at email@example.com I’ll keep your comments and use them in further reflections.And so everyone knows, I’m glad I didn’t do anything stupid in North Korea. I’m sure I can do more to build peace by being on this side of the fence and not in prison.