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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Border Pong: A Trip to the DMZ

"In Front of Them All"  -- guards at the DMZ
There's something ridiculous about ping-pong, even when it’s played by Olympic athletes; all that skill and training employed in paddling a weightless, worthless plastic ball across a toy tennis court.  At this year’s Gwangju Biennale, visitors were invited to play ping-pong on stainless steel tables in the courtyard, with double dividers for nets, installed by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.   The table tops were polished to a mirror-like sheen, so that players could see themselves and their surroundings as they jumped around, whacking the ball at friends, relatives or strangers across the divide.    

It felt ridiculous, in a fun way.  But it was also a symbol of Korea today – where armies face off across a barrier that divides a homogeneous nation into two hostile camps, trading shots and threats in a game that has no meaning or raison d’etre outside of politics.   Inspired by the exhibit, a few days later we took a bus from Seoul 50 miles to the border, for a guided tour of the DMZ.  
It’s a popular excursion for tourists, though I wouldn’t call it fun, unless you like military regimentation and constant warnings.  I thought of the ping-pong tables when we passed through the double chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, that runs the entire breadth of the country.  And I thought of the games people play when we saw the flags flying from the propaganda villages on each side of the border;  South Korea’s flagpole is ridiculously high, its flag ridiculously large;  North Korea tops it with a flagpole that towers even higher, flying a banner that weighs 600 pounds dry. 

When we got off the bus at the border, we were told to walk in two straight lines AND DO NOT STOP FOR ANY REASON.   Do not make any gesture of any kind at the North Korean soldiers across the border, do not smile or wave.  You have two minutes to take pictures.   

Two groups of sight-seers lined up on our side; our motley collection of western tourists, and a busload of Japanese school girls.  Across the way a North Korean guard trained his binoculars on us.   On our side, two South Korean guards stood ten feet from the slab that marks the border, frozen in a Taekwondo stance.  How do they stand that way all day? someone asked the guide.  Oh, they don't, came the answer.  As soon as the tour buses leave they go inside and relax.    

It’s funny, but it’s not, when you think about the enormous amount of blood spilled and treasure wasted on the Cold War project of separating Korea into two armed camps, one for the Soviet bloc and one for the “free world,” two categories that no longer exist except in the military mind.  The blood has slowed to an occasional trickle, but the treasure is still being poured in on both sides.  South Korea and the U.S. can absorb the cost (China will always lend us more, right?) but in North Korea, people go hungry while the military pursues its crazy goal of blackmailing the world with nuclear weapons.
"Bridge of No Return" prisoner exchange point 
Meanwhile, all around the DMZ, the conflict makes people's lives absurd.  Here are thousands of young Koreans serving their mandatory terms in the armed services, bored American soldiers inspecting tourists’ passports, U-N observers observing nothing, farmers being paid to farm in the propaganda village, North Korean guards staring at Japanese schoolgirls.  Even sadder is the thought of  divided families in this traditional Confucian society, separated for life from their parents, children, and ancestors on the other side.  This isn't life, it's a charade in a war that's supposed to be over.

What's the chances for a little ping-pong diplomacy, to break up the game and let these people go home?  As long as military leaders enjoy their privilege and power in both Koreas, and the U.S. and the rest of the world are preoccupied with other conflicts, slim to none. 

The only real hope for dismantling the DMZ lies with the Korean people, especially those in the north.  Little is known beyond the horror stories of what goes on there -- starvation, forced labor, a bizarre dynasty of rulers presumed to be puppets of the military, a single radio station that blares propaganda all day.  One could easily get the notion that this is a hopeless totalitarian hell.  But don't forget that eastern Europe was the same kind of hell in the 1980s, and the people rose up to overthrow their Soviet puppet rulers.  President Ronald Reagan got the ball rolling in 1987, when he stood at the Berlin Wall and and called on his Kremlin counterpart, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  Gorbachev's weakness and the collapse of Soviet communism helped, too.  But in the end it was the people who turned on their oppressors and tore down the walls.   

One key factor in eastern Europe was the unwillingness of soldiers to fire on their own people.  That wasn't the case in South Korea in 1980, or China in 1989, when troops massacred civilians in Gwangju and in Tiananmen Square.  What would happen in a confrontation between protesters and soldiers in North Korea is not for a foreigner to predict.   But it's something Koreans might think about.                          

-- Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips
Photos by Debra Given