Travel – A Surreal Dose of Realism in the Korean DMZ

The Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea is probably one of the most peculiar places I have ever visited, and left me with impressions and emotions unlike any other. It felt like a surreal dose of cold reality, chilling me to the bones. I had learnt the history of Korea and how it was divided after World War II, but actually going there and seeing it with my own eyes was something else. The narrow, insect-like tunnels of aggression dug by North Korea stressed just how current the situation still is.

There was a sign which gave a beautiful metaphor to describe the whole situation – it said something about Korea being a piano with chords and strings of barbed wire. The chords symbolised the division, tension and confrontation between the two countries, which really should be one, combined in the otherwise harmonious piano. Pianos can create beautiful sounds and unite people from music, but this one is different. When this piano is played, the melody the barbed wire strings create is rough and discorded, depicting the two uncoordinated Koreas.

Never have I felt such a bone-chilling,  silent anger. I felt like these borders were evilly unjust, artificial barriers created by those in power inhibiting the free movement of ordinary people. So many Korean families had been separated because of global geopolitical power plays. Yet at the same time I felt helpless, almost trapped in the existing political status quo, for what can we do about this now?

All the tourists gazed across the desolate landscape, at the fake ‘propaganda village’ North Korea had fabricated to show it was doing well technologically. We could not ignore the barren mountains whose trees had been cut down for firewood. Everyone was stunned, conversing quietly, as though the air was made of fragile glass which would shatter at the slightest loud sound. If you listened carefully, you could just about make out the barely audible warbles of propaganda music playing from loudspeakers in the village.

Yet perhaps what most saddened me most is how hopeful South Korea seemed about potential reunification. There was a Freedom bridge, and a railway station which could connect Pyeongyang to Seoul and the rest of the world. There was even an eerie abandoned children’s amusement park, the rides and carousels rusting but still longing to be used in unification celebrations. It could bring so much joy, but the air was stale, frozen in time.

And the most beautiful part of an otherwise forlorn landscape? It was the birds. They flew in flocks across the border, not caring for silly human contraptions. They were truly free, and I was happy for them.



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