Balance. That’s the word that sprang to mind while crossing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the heavily fortified buffer either side of the infamous 38th parallel, the pivotal line between war and peace shared by North and South Korea for more than 50 years. With balance comes harmony, yin and yang, a concept which has preoccupied the people of the Korean Peninsula for thousands of years.
On the face of it, it seemed a ludicrous thought.
Being amongst a group of Western tourists some years ago, making one of the first road crossings of the DMZ since the end of the Korean War in 1953, it occurred to me that the barbed-wire-topped fences, tank traps, armed soldiers and heavily fortified landscape made the Zone one of the most unbalanced places on earth.
And let’s not forget the 10 million landmines.
On the face of it, it’s the kind of place only an unbalanced person would want to travel through in a bus. If this was the yin, then the yang must be pretty good, right?
Yin and yang is an essential element of South Korea’s religious blend of mainly Buddhism, Confucianism and ancient Shamanism. What frustrates the ultimate balance is human nature.
And there are infinite subtleties that can affect the balance, depending on how one holds the prism of life (or politics) up to the light.
Supported by huge injections of post-war funding from the United States, South Korea is the epitome of the Asian capitalist success story, the fertile ground for the growth of giant business empires like the Hyundai Asan Corporation.
South Koreans have immense pride in their history and the culture of their ancestors and their national treasures – temples, ancient villages and tombs dot the countryside. The landscape of plains of rice paddies sweeping up to craggy mountains carpeted in forests of red pine is achingly beautiful. The trees’ twisted, angular branches blend with rocky outcrops to form a giant oriental garden worthy of Buddha.
The alter-ego of South Korea’s thriving capitalism lies across the 38th parallel in one of the last rigidly socialist countries left on earth. We Westerners were issued with numbered visas for a three-day visit to the Mt. Kumgang (Diamond Mountain) tourist enclave. It was established in 1998 by South Korea’s giant Hyundai Asan Corporation on the east coast of the Korean peninsula, about 30 km north of the South Korean gate into the DMZ in Kosung.
The visa and our passport had to be displayed in a clear plastic pouch hung around our necks at all times. It was my first experience of regimented socialism. I was number 12. No mobile phones were allowed, camera zoom lenses over 160 mm were banned and no photos could be taken from the bus.The group was part of a 17-bus convoy which crossed the DMZ through the Kumgang Gate on National Road 7.
Travelling with a military escort front and rear, the convoy took nearly four hours to cross the 4-km-wide DMZ and another 26 km of winding road to the Customs and Immigration Centre adjacent to the Haegumgang floating hotel on Jang Jeon Harbour. The buses crawled past sand-bagged observation posts and battle-ready South Korean soldiers, armed with automatic rifles.
At the infamous 38th parallel demarcation line, po-faced North Korean guards watched silently as the buses passed. Every 800m or so, and at side-road intersections, a teenage soldier stood sentry guard, ramrod straight, tightly clutching a red signal flag. Military service from the age of 16 is compulsory in the north and many stay in the service longer simply to help feed their families. With over-sized peaked caps, the boy soldiers looked like toy soldiers. They didn’t look like slavering orc warriors, guarding the gates of the Dark Lord in a country described by George W. Bush as part of the “axis of evil.”
On the other side of the DMZ, 2 km beyond the demarcation, armed North Korean soldiers wearing leather holsters and webbing, dressed in drab, olive dress uniform, boarded the buses to make a security check.
Heading north, beyond the DMZ, we saw parked in cuttings on distant hillsides, Russian-made BM-21 multiple rocket launchers mounted on trucks overlooking the valley.
Mt Kumgang and the Geumgangsan Diamond Mountains are a spectacular range of 12,000 volcanic pinnacles which are held in religious awe by many Koreans. Poets, painters and artists have immortalized the Diamond Mountains for thousands of years and on the hard, 1.6-km climb to the summit of Mt Kumgang, it’s easy to see why. Overcast skies and drizzle did not dampen the dramatic impact of endless, saw-toothed ridges and volcanic pinnacles, the ghostly peaks appearing and disappearing in whirling eddies of mist. In winter they are a fantasy land of snow-covered needle peaks and in autumn, forested valleys and steep mountainsides are a blaze of red, yellow and orange leaves.
The next day, the convoy headed for the serene beauty of nearby Samilpo Lake and the walkway that winds along its edge to rocky vantage points overlooked by temple-shaped pavilions and views of rugged mountains reflected in glassy waters. On the way, the line of buses passed North Korean soldiers constructing 3-m-high fences on either side of the access road, their peaked caps lined up in regimented order on a nearby bridge railing. In the distance, a soldier leading an ox and cart skirted a pine forest on a dirt road.
The convoy passed villages nestled in garden patches, cornfields and rice paddies, part of a humble but tidy government housing program. At a thatched-roofed barracks surrounding a packed-dirt parade ground, bare-chested soldiers competed in a running race while another group in parade dress stood at attention, listening to their commanding officer.
Despite its reputation, the DMZ is far from a wasteland. The convoy passed egrets quietly wading in swampland surrounding a still lake, overlooked by craggy ridges scarred by military intrusion. Amidst the sterile, politically cauterised landscape, nature holds the high ground. Come unification, and it is an elusive concept close to the heart of many a Korean, environmentalists will stake their claim.
A five-year study by the Korea Forest Research Institute indicates the 248-km-long, 4-km-wide DMZ (covering 90,800 ha of land) that separates the two Koreas is a habitat for about 2,200 animal species, including eagles, antelope, cranes, frogs and roe deer. Some conservationists believe the DMZ may also be home to the Amur Leopard and the Korean tiger, previously thought to be extinct.
The building of the DMZ following the armistice which ended the Korean War in 1953 split the peninsula. It also split the families of 11 million Koreans.
What separates people has unified nature. Yin and yang.
On Korea’s east coast, the North Korean boy behind the uniform standing at the front line for his country has been taught from a toddler to believe that he is on the side of right. Judgement isn’t a word that readily springs to mind when you are in the middle of no-man’s-land, looking into the face of the grimly determined young man who stands guard over his country in honest faith, unaware of the world of politics unfolding around him.
With understanding comes balance. With balance, harmony.
Yin and yang.
Pyohunsa Temple – Mount Kumgang – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Amur Leopard – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Donghaebukbu DMZ fence line – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Panmunjeom Gate on the DMZ – – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Lake Samilpo – Wikimedia Public Domain
Sentry box on the DMZ – Wikimedia Creative Commons