In the summer after my junior year of high school, I was lucky enough to visit France with my French class. We spent an afternoon in Normandy, the location the Allied troops stormed on D-Day during World War II. I was astounded by how beautiful it was there - stark cliffs, crashing waves, greenery and foliage. Despite its violent history, or perhaps because of it, Normandy had become a peaceful, picturesque place.
I did not expect the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone, the 4-km area separating North and South Korea) to be the same. I had heard the DMZ was very pretty, since hardly anybody enters that area anymore. However, when Bill Clinton visited the DMZ in 1993 he called it "the scariest place on earth." I suppose I imagined it to be more of the latter, and I had a chance to put my perceptions to the test today when we visited the DMZ. As it turns out, I think that it is both one of the more beautiful places I've seen and also one of the most chilling.
We didn't go to Panmunjom, which is just north of Seoul with large military bases on both sides of the dividing line, and as Panmunjom is where most people go when they visit the DMZ. But because of the six-party talks currently taking place, we weren't able to go there, and instead visited a base not too far north of Chuncheon, in Hacheon. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take pictures there, so I'll try to describe it. Imagine tall, ridged, green mountains stretching as far as the eye can see to the North. You can see small red fences that look like footpaths running from east to west, from horizon to horizon. Several small farms dot the landscape in front of you.
That's North Korea.
Like Normandy, it was naturally beautiful, well-preserved, and disarmingly peaceful. I say "disarmingly" because, unlike Normandy, the DMZ is still the front of a war that, despite a ceasefire, never officially ended. The soldiers who gave us a tour of their outpost showed us photos they had taken the North Korean soldiers on the other side - photos of North Koreans hunting, playing basketball, and smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile, the South Korean soldiers assured us, their Northern counterparts did the same. They were probably watching us Americans stand around, right at the border, gazing back at them. Our soldier tour guide ended by telling us that they were ready at all times to defend the country when North Korea attacks.
I don't think another outbreak of the Korean War is at all likely. Relations between the two Koreas are actually rather friendly right now, with South Korea sending regular shipments of food and supplies to help out the impoverished people of North Korea. But that tension, the fact that both sides were constantly watching and are ready to attack the others at any time, is, I think, what makes the DMZ so scary at the same time that it's almost breathtakingly gorgeous.