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Monday, December 06, 2004

In the name of freedom

The road leading to the Demilitarized Zone is called Freedom Highway, an oxymoron you realize as your drive toward North Korea. The late afternoon sun glints off the water of the Han-gang and the Imjin-gang rivers as the western banks expand and contract with the landscape. But posted every 500 feet or so are military guard posts — each manned with a South Korean soldier at the ready, rifle in hand. And between the lookouts, rolled barbed wire fencing line the highway and the riverbanks. Hardly a welcoming view.

If ever there was a place where I felt I was in a foreign land, it was in Paju City and the Dora Observation Post at the DMZ. Throughout the week I asked fellow journalists how they would describe what we saw and the word most frequently cited was "bleak." The land is spent, there's nothing for miles except rolled barbed wire, soldiers, jeeps and harvested rice paddies.

We stopped at Imjingak, oddly enough a mini-amusement park, where we had 10 minutes to see the Bridge of Freedom, where POWs marched from the North into the South after the armistice was signed. It doesn't look like freedom. It looks like a steel cage. As I raise my camera with telephoto lens, the guards in the post, lift their rifles in hand and start yelling, "No photo! No photo!" I snapped anyway as did most of our group. The photos are hazy and eerie and, though utterly unintentional on my part, convey the bleakness of the region. In one photo, an empty train is emerging through the bridge, but from where?

I was unable to see the faces of the soldiers while driving up Freedom Highway, but once we got to the main Dora checkpoint, I looked out the bus window and saw the faces of boys. It made me shudder, mostly because I thought of my own boys still young and yet growing toward adulthood ever so quickly.

Once we passed the checkpoint, we were told we were no longer allowed to take photos. My colleague Terry Harper and I snapped photos of the checkpoint from inside our bus and some of them have a Zapruder-like quality to them. A military escort led us across Unification Bridge as our buses wound their way up the mountainside, dodging spiked barricades set up along the way. We passed minefields in which the only safeguard was a low wire fence and signs featuring skull and crossbones.

Once inside the Dora Observatory, we viewed a model of the DMZ and could look out the large windows into North Korea. Last year, the American delegation was singled out from the rest of the forum and taken into North Korea. That proved a source of contention among the other Asian delegates not permitted such access. This year, we remained with our Asian colleagues and viewed North Korea through the high-powered binoculars at the observatory.

Our guide told us that the South had posted billboard of propaganda aimed at North Korea, enticing its citizens to come over to the South, the land of freedom.

There's a haze that hangs in the air all over Korea. And that afternoon it was quite thick, making it difficult to see anything but a small building here, an empty shack there. We strained to see the North Korean flag and many tried to photograph it hanging in the stillness. I looked through my viewfinder and opted against shooting. I chose, instead, to record the starkness of what I saw in my notebook.

From Dora we went to Dorasan train station, a new state-of-the-art train station that President Bush visited not too long ago. I stood in front of the sign that says, "Pyeongyang 205 km" and had my colleagues snap a photo. There was no one at the station and then suddenly, as if on cue, an empty trained pulled up. It's part of the infrastructure the country is building for when reunification takes place — a goal many South Koreans support. But for now it appears ghostlike, with trains that go nowhere.

There's a new industrial complex currently under construction about 18km from the DMZ. It's known as Kaesong City and is a big effort of the South to bring commerce and industry to the North.

We think, here in America, that we understand issues of security. But I don't think our general population has any notion of what it means to have your very security threatened on a regular basis.

Though South Korea felt very safe to me — and at times very western — there is evidence of the fact that this is a nation still technically at war, though the armistice with the North still holds 51 years later. Lining the block on the street outside the U.S. Embassy in Seoul (a very ugly building), are buses of police in full riot gear. Their job — their entire shift each day — is to remain in those buses, in that gear, in the event something happens outside our Embassy.

As we neared the Koreana Hotel after an excursion to the Korean Folk Village, I was shocked to see rows and rows of police in full riot gear at the ready. It was a startling site to my unitiated (or maybe naive) American eyes. There was a civil servant protest taking place and these officers were ready for anything. In the end, it was a peaceful protest, but it was a reminder of how a situation and indeed our very security can change in an instant.

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