Sunday, January 14, 2007


2100 hours
I am due at Camp Kim by 0700 hours. Decisions await me, like where will I sleep? How will I sleep? Will I sleep? But for now, I can only leer out the dark window watching the lights as they hover by.

Korea has two trains, the fast one and the slow one. The fast one is named KTX. The slow one is named Mugunghwa, after the Korean national flower. I am riding the slow one.

0100 hours
The Mugunghwa groans to a stop. The doors hiss open and I step off the train. I climb the stairs between two escalators. Under the white lights of Seoul Station, I scout out a bench I can drop dead on for a few hours. But the lights are suddenly shut off. Next thing, I’m being hustled out the door with the rest of Seoul’s poor, mad, disfigured, drunk, foreign souls. After the doors are locked shut behind us, we stand together for a few minutes at the top of the stairs, a confused mass of grumbling, flailing human beings. It’s like the aftermath of a shipwreck.

0130 hours
I am standing at the end of a long line of people waiting for cabs. But the cabs ain’t coming. A taxi scalper seduces me into riding with him for ten bucks. I get in the back seat and tell him Camp Kim.

0200 hours
The cab stops on a darkened street. I hand the cabby my last ten bucks and get out. Ahead of me is an open gate flanked by two Korean MPs. I ask them about Camp Kim. The one glances at me briefly then stares straight ahead. The other doesn’t budge at all.

"Hello. Where is Camp Kim?"

The one glances at the other, glances at me again, mumbles "I don’t know," stares straight ahead. I shrug and walk through the gate.

I come to a small brown building and peer into the window. Inside are four Korean soldiers sitting around in their fatigues eating ramen noodles. One of them gets up and comes to the window.

"Is this Camp Kim?"

"No," he says.

He invites me in and draws a map on the back of a napkin.

"Is it near?" I ask him in Korean.

"Yes. Near," he replies in English.

0230 hours
It is a nasty kind of cold. I walk down the ice-scabbed sidewalk. It’s been half an hour and I haven’t seen anything but barbed wire and the occasional Korean MP. Perhaps the Koreans meant "near" in some relativistic Seoulian sense. I decide to hail a cab, but I’m wondering just how many cabs come down this way.

0300 hours
A cab stops. I get in back.

"Camp Kim," I say.

"Camp Kim?" I ask.

No answer. The cabby watches me in the rear view mirror.

The passenger’s side door opens and a pudgy crew cut drops in shotgun.

"What time is it?" he asks.

The cab driver puts his index finger on the clock radio.

"Fuck all. Late for curfew."

I ask the guy where he’s going, but he mumbles and sinks into his chair, falls asleep with his eyes open. He is stoned. I tell the cab driver that we’re both going to Camp Kim. The cab driver calls an English interpreter, but the interpreter’s English is no better than the cab driver’s.

After a few minutes sitting in the dark, the cab driver has an epiphany and starts driving. The stoned soldier wakes up, gives me an uncomfortable frontseat/backseat embrace, and says thank you like he’s about to cry.

0330 hours
Arrival at the Hotel Gaya. I rifle through my wallet for the fare, but find nothing but receipts. My pockets yield no change. The stoned soldier produces a crumpled 1,000 won note and holds his palm out to the cab driver. It is assumed that through some unspoken bond forged during our travels that the driver will not expect us to pay. This is not the case.

I suggest to the cabby that we hit up a cash machine, but he’s not having it. I search every pocket in my pants, my coat, my body. Nothing. I open up my backpack and unzip an out-of-the-way compartment. On most occasions, this reveals exploded pens and old boarding passes. This time, I find twenty dollars in change that I didn’t know I had. I hand the cabby the fare and a generous tip. When I get out, the stoned soldier hugs me.

My room has two beds and a bottle of aftershave in the bathroom. I catch the last ten minutes of Charlie’s Angels before I sleep.

0700 hours
I report to USO headquarters wearing the bland formal wear specified in the tour information packet. But glancing at the crowd of westerners around me, I see that I am laughably overdressed. I buy a Dr. Pepper from the vending machine and sigh. I have ironed my fancy pants for nothing.

0730 hours
We get on a bus.

0800 hours
We escape Seoul’s gravitational pull. The roadside turns all mawkish and brown, like the floodplains of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The highway traffic thins out until it’s only semi-trucks and square blue vans on the road with us. We stop at a gate. Next to the gate is a billboard with a cartoon depicting a boot stepping on a shiny metal thing. Above the boot is a fireball. Above the fireball is a bright red Korean word. One assumes this word means "land mines" in Korean.

0830 hours
A craggy-faced lieutenant steps on board. The name on his uniform is Polish, encoded in Cs and Zs. Miraculously, he pronounces it "Spinski." He is holding a stainless steel coffee mug the size and shape of a cremation urn.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the DMZ," he says. "Your debriefing is at 0900 hours. Any questions?"

Someone in the front row ogles his mug and asks, "How much coffee do you drink?"

"About three of these cups a day in the winter," he says. "I don’t drink coffee during the summer because it gets hot up here."

0900 hours
We file into the conference room. While we're waiting for our debriefing, we sign waivers. We are on a covert tour group espionage mission. The lights dim.

Spinski takes the stage and gives a Powerpoint presentation. He starts out booming like a drill sergeant, but after a few minutes he is stammering like a buck private. By slide six, he is sputtering out. Things start to unravel. Behind him is a half-red half-blue map of the Korean peninsula ...

Spinski: In nineteen-forty ...
Spinski: In nineteen-forty ...
Spinski: In nineteen-forty ...
Spinski: In nineteen-forty ...

He clicks ahead to the next slide, a grainy black-and-white photo of Kim Il-Sung.

Spinski: ... Communist North Korea was ruled by Kim ...
Spinski: Kim ...
Spinski: Kim ...
Spinski: Kim ...

He leaps off stage and dashes out of the room. Nobody makes a sound. Another officer takes over. The name on his uniform is Dawkins.

Dawkins: Apparently, Lieutenant Spinski woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I’m not sure what just happened. In 1948, Kim Il-Sung took control of Communist North Korea ...

0930 hours
We are back in the bus. Spinski is gone, Dawkins has taken control.

"When we arrive at the Joint Security Area, you will be on your best behavior," Dawkins says.

"You will see North Korean soldiers," Dawkins says.

"Do not flip them the bird. They know what the bird means," Dawkins says.

"Do not shout at them. Do not shout at them in Korean, because I will not understand you," Dawkins says.

"Do not shout at them in English, because I will understand you," Dawkins says.

1000 hours
The bus crests a hill and stops. We get out and stand in two lines. Dawkins leads us up the stairs, through an empty white building of polished granite and glass.

"This 49 million dollar facility was built by the Hyundai Corporation to host North/South family reunions," Dawkins says. "It has never been used."

"On the other side of this facility," Dawkins says, "is North Korea."

We file slowly down the hall. Mr. Kim, our Korean civilian tour guide, drifts towards the back.

"I am something nervous whenever I go," he says. "The North Korea is knowing my face. I am fear, that they shoot me one time."

1030 hours
We step out onto a grey cement platform. Ahead of us are two long, light blue compounds. Behind them stands a drab three-story building, a Maoist pagoda. And twenty feet away are the North Korean soldiers.

There are fifteen of them. They are milling around, mingling, meandering idly along the border, watching us.

Dawkins orders us to stand in a straight line facing the North Koreans. He peers across at his brown-uniformed nemeses.

"There are a lot of them out today," Dawkins says. "I don’t know why."

"Don’t point, don’t shout, don’t taunt them," Dawkins says.

"They may taunt you. They may make throat-slashing gestures. They may flip you the bird. They misbehave. That’s why we call this The Monkey House," Dawkins says.

"Right now, they are taking hundreds of pictures of you. There are cameras watching you from guard posts hidden in the trees," Dawkins says.

"They are taking hundreds of pictures of you and we encourage you to return the favor," Dawkins says.

I snap a few photographs but anxiety keeps me from focusing. These men in the funny hats have guns and they are separated from us by twenty feet and a four-inch high cement beam. And they are staring. Contemptuous stares? Curious stares? I lower my camera and stare back, wondering ...

Three of the soldiers suddenly break from the rest of their comrades and stand in a row facing away from us. A commanding officer drops down on one knee in front of them. Our side is silent as we crane our necks to see what exactly they are doing.

Soft gasps as the officer reaches into his pocket and pulls out ... a camera. The three soldiers glance behind them and reposition themselves accordingly. There is some time before we realize fully what is going on. They are taking pictures with us. Not for strategic reasons, for espionage, to stick to Kim Jong-Il's fridge; but for curiosity, amusement, bragging rights ... They are tourists. Two or three at a time, the North Koreans line up with their heels right up against the wall. The others wait in line. They pose next to each other with our blurry black and white faces watching them in the background. This goes on for ten minutes. I take pictures of them taking pictures of me. You stare into the abyss, the abyss stares into you, that sort of thing.

1045 hours
A daydream plays itself out in my mind. Keith Petit – a lowly space dilettante from Bellevue, Nebraska – sprints headlong into a wall of North Korean soldiers. Naturally, the North Korean soldiers respond by blasting him with machine gun bullets until it is objectively clear that he is dead. The South Koreans respond accordingly by firing on the North Korean soldiers. As there is only a four-inch high cement barrier separating the two of them, soldiers from both sides cross this barrier freely in the ensuing gunfight. With relations between the two Koreas strained as it is, the North views Petit’s bellowing, bow-legged infiltration as a declaration of war. After examining Petit’s dossier, America views it as an act of unexplained idiocy, but seizes the opportunity to nuclearly annihilate North Korea. Radioactive dust meanders into China. China – already tempted to stick up for their North Korean chums, furthermore slobbering over the recently vacated Korean peninsula – jumps in on the side of what remains of the North Korean army. China nukes Seoul, Busan, Daegu – note that if Petit hadn’t been killed in the gunfight he started, he would have almost certainly met his demise at this point – Japan nukes China, Pakistan nukes India, France nukes Iceland for some reason ... a nuclear orgy ensues and the whole world wants in. When the smoke clears, intelligent life on earth has been extinguished. The three-toed sloth survives but does not evolve quickly enough to spread its three-toed wisdom to the stars before the rapidly expanding universe disperses to the point that matter can no longer form. Nothingness comes into existence, somethingness ceases to be. I blink and slide my finger up my crotch to make sure my fly isn’t down. We are all very powerful, depending on what time it is.

The North Koreans arrange themselves single file and march dodderingly away, a sluggish mopey march, not the frightening clockwork we see on the news. Dawkins leads us down the stairs and into the light blue compound on the left.

Inside the compound are two dark wooden tables, a display case full of plastic flags, and in the corner by the door, a mauve Samsung heater. In front of the back door stands a Korean soldier. This is the door to North Korea.

"This is a Republic of Korea special forces officer," Dawkins says.

"He is trained in the martial art of taekwondo. Do not get too close to him. Do not try to touch him. He will ... stop you," Dawkins says.

"On one occasion, the North Koreans opened the door behind him, seized him by the coat, and attempted to drag him across to their side of the border," Dawkins says.

"He beat them both up pretty bad," Dawkins says.

"See that display case with the plastic flags?" Dawkins asks.

We stare.

"Those plastic flags used to be silk flags, but a little while ago, when President Bush came to town, two North Korean soldiers broke into the display case," Dawkins says. "One used the American flag to shine his shoes. The other used the South Korean flag to blow his nose."

"We have replaced the silk flags with plastic flags to deter the North Koreans from repeating this performance," Dawkins says.

You can’t really blow your nose with a plastic flag.

We take pictures standing next to the gatekeeper. Most people flip the peace sign.

1100 hours
The bus takes us to a South Korean village nestled inside the DMZ. The South Koreans call the village Daeseong-dong. The Americans call the village Freedom Village. I’m not sure what the North Koreans call it.

We stop at a restaurant. I eat bulgogi with two scarf-wearing Irishmen and a Swede who is the brother of a mediocre Korean League soccer player. Someone asks where I’m from and their faces blanch when I say Nebraska. USA. I am ignored. After ten minutes, I’ve quipped my way back into the conversation, but by then the topic has shifted to America’s airport security policies. They are staring at me expectantly.

"I just live there. I didn’t invent the place," I shrug. For that, you have George Washington Carver to thank. He also invented the peanut.

1200 hours
Our bus passes through the thick of the DMZ. Though billed as an environmentalist’s wet dream, in winter it is above all a bleak place. The grass is brown, the trees are gnarled, the terrain has the look of tussled hair. Dawkins tells us that a photography ban is in effect and that our cameras will be confiscated if we try to take any pictures. But nothing out here looks especially picturesque.

1230 hours
The bus huffs and puffs up the side of a mountain. When it reaches the top, we get out and pay 50 cents to stare through binoculars at the southernmost swatch of North Korea. We see brownish farmland nestled in between green-grey mountains. Square concrete slabs. And a flagpole.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is what the North Koreans call Peace Village," Dawkins says.

"But we call it Propaganda Village," Dawkins says.

"We call it Propaganda Village because nobody actually lives there," Dawkins says.

"Propaganda Village is maintained by a few North Korean servicemen who clean and turn the lights on and off every so often to make the buildings look inhabited," Dawkins says.

"The flagpole you see is the tallest flagpole in the world. In the 1980s, the South Koreans built a 328-foot flagpole on their side of the Demilitarized Zone. The North Koreans responded by building a taller one," Dawkins says.

"The flagpole you see stands at 525 feet tall. The flag you see weighs 600 pounds. On a wet day, it cannot fly," Dawkins says.

"The US Army is offering a one million dollar reward to anyone who can cut a one meter square off of that flag and return it to camp. One day, I hope to claim that reward," Dawkins says.

High up as we are, the two Korean flags are twiggy models, you could crush them between your fingers. And they're only a couple inches apart from each other. The buildings of Propaganda Village and Freedom Village lay strewn in the grass, little bits of paper. On the north horizon is the city of Kaesong. A few flecks of silver glisten in the sun. These are North Korean cars.

(This picture was taken from ground level. If you squint, you can see Kim Jong-Il's face chiseled into the side of the mountain. Kidding.)

1400 hours
We watch a video.
Introduction: a small Korean girl walking through a field, weeping into a handkerchief. Suddenly, an explosion. The girl gasps and turns around. Building guitar feedback and a fuzz bass riff. Drums. Black-and-white footage of tanks thundering through the brush, soldiers crawling forward on their elbows, shells ejaculating, explosions, explosions, explosions. A History Channel voiceover.

In June of 1950 ...
The 38th parallel ...
Communist forces ...
4 million casualties ...

A guitar solo.

Suddenly, everything is Technicolor. The camera pans over an animated landscape of luscious green tropical vegetation. Deer dashing between the trees. Toucan Sams pirouetting through the air. Kim Jong-Il is vigorously shaking hands with a South Korean president. Uniformed Asian men are sitting around a dark brown table. Families are strolling hand-in-hand along a barbed wire fence.

The Demilitarized Zone is ...
... an environmental treasure trove ...
... 1,000 square kilometers of hope ...
... a seed of peace planted in the hearts and minds of all Koreans, North and South alike ...

A harp flourish. The screen goes black. The projection screens roll back up and the lights come on. Blink.

1430 hours
We stop at the gift shop. Against my better judgment, I buy a DMZ t-shirt because the smiling anime soldiers on the front are too ridiculous to pass up. I avoid the North Korean hard liquor cabinet. A concerned shopper - a chubby bearded guy in a black t-shirt - asks Dawkins whether any of the gift shop's proceeds go directly to North Korea.

"No," Dawkins says. "All of the North Korean products for sale here are purchased by a South Korean agency that does business directly with the North Koreans."

"So," says the bearded guy, "the money I'm paying goes to the South Korean agency. But the South Korean agency's money goes to the North Koreans, doesn't it?"

"Yes," says Dawkins. "But none of the money you see here today is going to end up in the hands of Kim Jong-Il."

The chubby guy looks a little bewildered, then turns around to go see about the Pyeongyang brandy.

1500 hours
Since the de facto end of the Korean War, the North Koreans have dug at least four tunnels winding from the North/South border all the way to Seoul, some 3.5 kilometers away. The tunnels - if they weren't stuffed with tourists - could pump 30,000 North Korean troops into downtown Seoul within a couple of hours. Ostensibly, these tunnels were dug for the purpose of invading South Korea, but the Capra in me imagines that the North Koreans were just lonely, that every now and again when Kim Jong-Il was feeling drunk or horny or magnanimous, they received his supreme permission to take a weekend in Seoul, to drop in and surprise old friends and relatives, maybe hit up a karaoke room or a massage parlor or something ...

We don yellow hardhats and trudge down a sharply descending two-mile long shaft until we reach the bottom. Stretching towards the north like a clogged artery is a narrow, jagged yellow-lit tunnel. Inside, water drizzles down from the ceiling and pools up on the ground. I notice the rocks are the same rocks they use to build most of the office stairwells in Korea. Granite?

We follow the tunnel to the end. At the end of the tunnel is a patch of barbed wire in front of a metal door. Watching the metal door is a CCTV camera. Who is watching the camera?

By the time the South Koreans found this tunnel, the North Koreans had abandoned it and painted the walls black. "Just coal mining," they said ...

1630 hours
We have parted ways with forty bucks and thus, our mission is complete. We’re in the bus, riding back to Seoul. I haven’t seen the city in the daytime yet. It looks like any other Korean city, but bigger. Apartments, smokestacks, cars. It’s as bleak as I expected. But as we cross the Han River, the setting sun sits at just the right angle to glance off the water and obscure the nastiness as it rushes at the speed of light to meet me. There’s a wreath of brightness surrounding all those grey rectangles. It’s almost relaxing. The British teenager in the seat behind me is bitching, asking her dad when we’re gonna get back to Seoul.

"This is Seoul, cupcake," her dad says, "I think."

"I can’t wait to get back to the room," the girl says. "I’m bored."

I squint out the window and think, it’s been a real long time since I’ve been bored.


Justin said...

Keith, you're like a modern day Mark Twain

Mitra said...

I just wanted to say how much I appreciate your documentation of such a journey! Well done!