Children storm the DMZ

[This story was written originally in March 2013 reporting from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)  for The Korea Herald and later re-published by The Nation in Thailand.]

Children in DMZ
I took this photo at the amusement park near Paju when the kids were gathering up for the buses to take them back to Seoul after a day-long outing inside the heavily militarized Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea in March 2013.

A handful of tour buses carrying foreign diplomats, Korean reporters and children slowly lumbered across Unification Bridge into the demilitarised zone, carefully negotiating barricades assembled halfway along the bridge’s length.

The schoolchildren were fidgety and chattering excitedly, jumping out of their seats to peer out of the bus windows at sights they scarcely could have seen before – armoured vehicles, heavily armed checkpoints and nests of razor-wire, the legacy of a three-year civil war and 60 years of national division.

The schoolchildren, a dozen foreign envoys, and their entourage were part of March 21’s “International Children’s Peace Day”, a day-long tour of various tourist sites in and around Paju, a sleepy rural town north of Seoul. It was organised by International Cooperation of Environmental Youth, a US-based group led by organiser Lee Kyoung-tae and wife Melissa Lee.

The couple has made headlines over the years on peace and environmental issues, including a movement to build what the couple described as a “children’s peace forest” inside the DMZ.

“It is a great idea because peace is one of the most expensive ideas there is, and children can market the idea better than anyone else,” said Charitha Yattogoda, a diplomat from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Seoul.

“We also know how expensive peace can be in Sri Lanka. We had a civil conflict for 30 years and only recently achieved peace,” he said during the day-long event.

“We know how important it is, and we at the embassy immediately thought of joining this event to lend our support as best as we can.”

The DMZ can be a culture shock for any visitor. Barbed wire fences and security checkpoints abound, guarded by soldiers lugging machine guns.

The soldiers are not lonely, however, as busloads of tourists show up daily to gawk at the world’s most heavily fortified border, even as North Korea threatens to drown Seoul in a “sea of fire”.

“It’s a good experience for the children. This is not an easy place to organize a visit, so we appreciate the effort the organisers made for the children. Normally kids under 12 years of age are not allowed inside the DMZ,” said Wang Kai, wife of Austrian Ambassador Josef Muellner. Wang delivered welcome remarks at Imjinggak Pavilion at the start of the tour.

Imjinggak Pavilion was built “to remind Koreans of their painful past and their commitment to unification”, says the Gyeonggi provincial government.

The pavilion’s amusement park, fast-food joints and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ever-present Cold War tension that is higher now than it has been in years, following North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint US-South Korean military drills that have included Cold War-style B-52 flyovers.

Sensing potential controversy, some foreign diplomats shied away from lending any insights about the divided Korea, the demilitarised zone or the North.

Most of them, however, realized the crucial role that today’s children must eventually take if peace and unification is to return to their country.

“War and peace is a game for politicians to play, but I think these young people will grow up to change the way the game is played,” said Sameer Alwahedy, an attache at the Jordanian Embassy in Seoul. “In Jordan, we believe in peace, everyone in the world has the right to live in peace. A children’s event like this could be a great help in the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well.”

It is easy to cynically dismiss the conflict-zone tourist industry that has slowly grown in the area, including the Dora Observatory, where one wave to soldiers and look at North Korea through binoculars for 500 won (Bt13), and the amusement park at the Imjinggak Pavilion, the start and end point for the day-long tour.

But the mix of tourist kitsch Cold War humor shows Paju’s residents are making the best of a bad situation, and it could offer hope.

“This event symbolizes to me the promotion of peace because, obviously, youth are the future. We have to make a commitment to conflict resolution and this is a conscious effort to promote peace,” said SU Ahmed, deputy head of mission at the Nigerian Embassy.

“Children are the ones who suffer the most in a conflict situation. That is why it is important to let them participate in being part of the solution in events like this one,” said Adamu A Musa, minister at the Nigerian Embassy in Seoul.

In addition to the amusement park, which is complete with rides and carnival booths, there are a number of other touristy things to do and see: take the bicycle tour; bang the Bell of Peace for 10,000 won; stroll on the Bridge of Freedom, which comes to an abrupt and symbolic dead end; and peer at the rusting steam engine stuck in situ since the end of the Korean War, riddled with bullet holes.

Musa, Ahmed and their wives returned to Seoul with souvenir DMZ baseball caps.

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