Communist side of DMZ appears surprisingly calm

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PANMUNJOM, Korean Demilitarized Zone — After passing under concrete emplacements designed to be blown up at an instant’s notice to block the road, foreign journalists visiting the North Korean side of the world’s tensest border last week were pleasantly surprised by the demeanor of their host.

A far cry from the grim fanatics some think fill the ranks of North Korea’s million-strong army, Lt. Col. Kim Kwang-il was relaxed and humorous in briefings. Spotting a journalist who had visited previously, he called her forward for a photo, joking that he hoped she had not reported anything negative and asked about reunification moves in the South.

Indeed, the whole atmosphere in the North Korean zone of this truce village is laid-back, compared to the South Korean portion. In the North, after driving through sleepy farming areas, and passing two skimpy military checkpoints, one is suddenly in the 2-mile-wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea.

On the southern side of the line, the DMZ resembles a war-movie set. Nobody can fail to notice bases, bunkers, artillery emplacements and tank traps. Visitors to the area, dubbed “Warrior Country” by South Korea-based U.S. troops, are shepherded from place to place in strict military fashion.

Although Col. Kim said the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the border this year and the annual “Ulchi Focus” exercises had raised tensions, when queried about recent “provocations,” he conceded that they amounted to little more than South Korean guards opening hut doors on the Northern side for a peek.

Questions about the apparently peaceful situation on the North Korean side of the border — suggesting underdeployment of troops, no fear of invasion or simply a masterly command of camouflage and underground emplacement — were brushed off.

Back in North Korea’s showpiece capital, foreign diplomatic and business sources are unanimous that Pyongyang wants improved ties with Washington so it can focus on economic growth.

Outside the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, where exhibits claim biological warfare and an illustration purportedly depicts an American missionary torturing a little boy with acid, there is little sign of the communist regime’s notorious anti-Americanism.

In downtown Pyongyang, only one anti-American poster, depicting a giant fist crushing a G.I., was visible. In the Arirang Mass Games, a theatrical extravaganza earlier this month, a sequence featuring agents defeating foreign intruders was reportedly deleted on the orders of leader Kim Jong-il.

Even so, in a nation comprehensively devastated by U.S. bombs during the 1950-53 Korean War, anti-American paranoia simmers.

Mr. Kim’s “military first” policy implies insecurity in the face of American hostility. A foreign resident said that although economic activity and foreign trade have increased in recent years, there has been no apparent investment in infrastructure. Richard Ragan, head of the U.N. World Food Program in North Korea, estimated that 13 percent of its discretionary spending goes to the military.

The journalists’ minder, Choe Jong-hun, conceded that there were “some” good Americans, such as Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone with the Wind”; former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright; and Roger Clinton, half-brother of the former president. The latter two had both visited Pyongyang.

But spouting North Korean invective, he referred to Americans as “evil Americans.” All problems, such as the famines of the mid-1990s (“evil Americans’ blockade”) and the slow process of North-South engagement (“evil Americans’ interference”) were laid at Washington’s door.

After explaining that he had lost seven family members during the Korean War, Mr. Choe, 50, described how his mother’s 3-year-old sister was hurled into a burning ruin by U.S. troops.

“Who could do that?” he asked rhetorically.

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