Friday, March 16, 2018

Smiling at the Border

“It feels weird to smile here,” said the pretty blonde woman, with hair cropped close around her face and bright blue eyes.  I nodded and said I knew what she meant. 

We had just agreed to a picture swap — I’d take pictures for her, and then she’d snap some for me.  She and her companions were in front of me and about thirty yards behind them was a concrete slab on the ground that signified the border between North and South Korea. As I counted, “One... two... three...” everyone in the four-person group smiled, just as I did with my daughters a minute later. I found myself wondering why.  Was it reflex — that’s what you do in pictures?  Was it just because we were on the free side, with plenty of food in our bellies and the promise of more in just a few hours?

Our day had started early.  As our tour guide outlined the agenda for the day and gave a short history lesson, our bus cruised out of Seoul into a chilly morning where the golden sun was just starting to penetrate the fog.  We approached the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), and I was struck again by the beauty of this country we have lived in for the past nineteen months, even in the barrenness of winter.  Gray and white cranes lifted gracefully out of empty rice paddies, and brightly-crested pheasants pecked the ground.  

After a couple of security checkpoints, we were allowed off the bus in Camp Bonifas where we were taken into a meeting room.  The US soldiers handed out forms to sign, stating that we understood we were about to enter “a hostile area, and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”  I’ve signed many permission slips for my kids over the years, but none quite like this.  We were then given a brief presentation on the history and geography of the DMZ and JSA and instructed to use the bathroom if we had any inclination, however faint, as there would be no opportunities till we returned.  Then we were loaded onto another bus and driven to the Joint Security Area (JSA).

At this point, an American soldier took over as guide, answering questions and giving us more information.  When we got to the JSA, we went into a large gray cement building, where our guide told us to form two single file lines.  He then told us that under no circumstances were we to stop until he said so. “Eyes forward at all times.  Do not make any gestures toward the North, nor any sudden movements.  Do not bend over.  If your shoes come untied, figure out how not to trip on the laces.  If you drop something, it’s just gone.”  

This was a little stressful since I frequently drop things, but I felt grateful for my boots because if I did have lace-up shoes on, I’m sure that I would have become a cautionary tale.  My daughters, who I had positioned in front of me so I could see them the whole time, glanced back at me nervously.  I raised my eyebrows and shrugged.  No turning back now.  We walked across through the doors and down the steps toward the low blue buildings I’d seen in so many pictures.  Right in front of us was North Korea.  

Soon we were in the famous room where meetings between the two countries have taken place.  Once again we were given a speech about what was permitted and what wasn’t — for instance, taking a picture with the ROK (Republic of Korea) soldier standing on the North Korea side of the room was allowed, as long as we didn’t touch him and maintained at least six inches distance from him.

We took our pictures and were outside again within minutes where we were given about the same amount of time to take more pictures.  This is when the blonde woman made the comment about smiling.

We never saw a KPA soldier or anyone from the North Korean side, though as we looked at the building, we saw one of the doors move slightly.  It was strange to think about the people working there, so close to freedom, yet finding it so intangible.

Then, we reformed our single-file lines and hurried back to the bus for the drive back to Camp Bonifas.  Someone asked a question about how often our soldier guide had seen KPA soldiers, and he said he’d only seen about twenty, ever.  “What you don’t realize, though, is that they’re there and they are watching you with machine guns trained on you.  Just now, while you were standing outside, you probably had at least a dozen machine guns pointed right at you.”

Words like those stay with you a while. 

We returned to Camp Bonifas and visited the museum 

as well a small temple. 

From there, we went to Tunnel 3 (pictures prohibited), one of four discovered tunnels built with the purpose of being able to invade South Korea. More are rumored to exist, but their location is unknown.  The lower we went, the lower the ceiling was, so that at one point, I was bent over to keep from bumping my head.  Every dozen or so feet, there was a box filled with gas masks.  At the top, there was a shop full of snacks and souvenirs.  

Next, we visited Dora Observatory, 

where we could see across the border again, as propaganda messages from both sides and music blared on loudspeakers.  In the distance was Peace Village on the North Korean side which is believed to be empty buildings, with its enormous (525 ft) flagpole and flag (dry weight almost 600 lbs!). 


That was the word that kept repeating in my mind as I took in the sights.  We boarded the bus again to go to Imjingak, site of the Bridge of Freedom where 13,000 POWs returned to their countries as well as the Peace Bell, which we were told we could ring seven times for about $10.  (Our tour guide informed us she found this price a little steep.) There was also an old locomotive completely riddled with bullet holes, and into the chain link fence topped with concertina wire, there were tied ribbons with wishes and prayers of reunification.

 Here we would have lunch before returning to Seoul. 

As we approached Imjingak, I noticed kites flying high, dancing on the wind. The bus rounded a curve, I realized there was not just a park here, but an amusement park. 

The tour guide told us this was called Peace Land.  Of course, I found myself thinking.  Of course.  

On the way back into Seoul, I scrolled through the pictures I’d taken and came across the ones from the JSA, remembering the words “It feels weird to smile here.” On the one hand, yes it did.  There are times when I have to just stop reading a news article or story about North Korea, because I feel sick to my stomach. And I was there at the border to that country; I had stepped into it.  

But it would seem weirder, I think, if I hadn’t been living here for the past year-and-a-half.  Because I’ve come to realize this is what South Koreans do every day.  

Every so often, I’ll wake up to messages from friends and family stateside asking, “How are you?”  First I think how sweet that they’d ask.  I start composing replies — well, the kids are fighting colds right now, and I have a bunch of meetings plus that craft day for an upcoming fundraiser — then think, Hm, maybe I’ll check the news.  And according to the reports I read, we are on the brink of catastrophe.  I ask my husband something along the lines of, “Um, should I be packing?”

Then I see my Korean friends and neighbors, living their lives just as they did the day before.  In spite of families being torn apart for decades now, in spite of the threat of a war that could kill millions, they’re still smiling.   They’re creating, celebrating, living, loving.

Back in the summer of 1986, when I was just shy of eight, my family went to Berlin and we visited the Berlin Wall.  I will never forget the sight of it, how tall and imposing it seemed with the guards carrying machine guns posted along it.  Then, three years later, I couldn’t believe when the newspapers and tv showed pictures of the wall coming down, hands reaching to each other from both sides, people embracing as they wept happy tears.  I hope that someday soon this happens here, too.

And so I smile.


  1. I think this is what they call resiliency... or what the British would call a stiff upper lip. You have to smile in the face of that danger. Peoples all over this world do it because I think at our base this is the human instinct - to survive and thrive and find the good in the piece of our world that we have control over. I worry over North Korea and hope for a peaceful conclusion. Until then, I think all most of us can do is smile and find the good, and I’m so happy that the South Koreans are doing just that!

    1. Very true, though I think another very strong instinct is the “fight or flight”. To push through that to surviving and thriving is truly remarkable!

  2. I think I'm gonna smile more and make my world a happier place.Thanks!!!��


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