Our tour guide to the Demilitarized Zone told us a very interesting story of the contest between South and North Korea on who would have the bigger flagpole. Apparently in response to the 50m high flagpole setup by South Korea on its border, North Korea responded by setting up a 80m tall flagpole. South Korea then decided that this would not do and increased the height of its flagpole to 100m. North Korea had the last laugh though by setting up (possibly) the largest flagpole in the world at 160m. At this point, the guide said, S Korea decided it would not continue with this contest. I found this story highly amusing especially the spin that the guide put in the end on the S Korea decision, by claiming that it was a magnanimous and broad minded gesture on their part. It did serve as a memorable example of the sometimes ridiculous nature of competitive national rivalries and reminded me of similar sentiments expressed by my friend who had visited the Wagah border.Going to the DMZ dramatically brought home the point of the extremely short distance between Seoul and the border with North Korea. The guide casually mentioned that in case of a missile launch, the South Koreans would have only about 8 seconds of reaction time!
The Korean War formed the backdrop to any conversation that we had in the trip about Korea and its history. More than anything else, it has shaped and modulated opinion and policy making long after the end of hostilities. Almost all the speakers who spoke to us repeatedly emphasized the almost total devastation that Korea in general and Seoul in specific faced at the end of the Korean War. The widely pervasive negative perception that Korea have of Japan sometimes creates distortions in their historical narrative. Almost all speakers claimed that Japan at the end of the Second World War had far lesser devastation compared with Korea. As a person interested in history, I knew that this statement was simply not true. Having recently read “American Prometheus” the biography of Robert Oppenheimer (and also from other readings), I was aware of the terrible devastation brought about by the firebombing of the various Japanese cities. The almost universal ignorance of these facts by more than one presenter was for me a pointer of how the national narratives can sometimes distort the actual reality.
The 4 Km DMZ had a couple of farms within it and was said to have some extremely rare species of flora and fauna (I did see a few birds but unfortunately was not able to appreciate this aspect of the DMZ with my limited knowledge). I found it ironical that a zone dividing two nations can engender such a beautiful habitat. North Koreans had built a number of tunnels under the DMZ to use in case of a military invasion. Four such tunnels have been found and the South Koreans had created the infrastructure to enable visitors to see these tunnels. I went down tunnel number 3 and after a long time when I thought I had reached the tunnel, I was told that this was only the end of the access tunnel and that the actual tunnel starts from that point. There was a mineral water fountain at that point, and drinking and fortifying myself, I went on to explore the actual tunnel.
The tunnel was not very tall even taking into account the shorter height of the Korean people. It was even more difficult for me to traverse the tunnel stooping down. It was only the hard hat helmets, mandated to be worn by anyone entering the tunnel, which saved my head from cracking under the low roofed tunnel. The height and my lack of fitness combined to make it a very arduous trip to the end of the tunnel. There was no proverbial light at the end of the tunnel but rather a locked door! The trip back up the tunnel was extremely tough but I was glad that I had seen this rather exotic place that is in many ways a constant reminder of the dangerous neighbourhood.