If, say, your next-door neighbor took it upon themselves to prune a tree that sat between your two houses and, furthermore, you kind of liked the tree the way it was and rather it not lose any of its branches, what would you do?
Well, if you were the nation of North Korea, you would kill your neighbor. Because, you know, that's how rational people resolve their horticultural disputes.
This is not some sort of weird, obscure political analogy: this really did happen, in the DMZ separating North and South Korea. In 1976, a small troupe of UN/South Korean soldiers were dispatched to trim the branches off of a poplar tree that was blocking their view of the North Korean side of the border. For whatever reason, North Korea decided that the reasonable response to this act of aggression was to dispatch a cadre of soldiers to convince them to stop -- in this case, "convince" meant "murder two of the UN soldiers with their own axes.
I knew North Korea was crazy. I knew that the government practices a policy of political brinkmanship designed to keep the rest of the world off balance. But murdering hedge trimmers? That's just batty!
Of course, there was only one logical response: escalation. Shortly thereafter, the UN launched Operation Paul Bunyan, in which a troupe of engineers armed with chainsaws, backed up by South-Korean taekwondo experts armed with axe handles and soldiers with claymores strapped to their chests, drove up in a convoy of armored personal carriers and proceeded to chop down the tree (leaving the stump, though, as a reminder). According to our tourbook, an entire aircraft carrier was diverted to the region as support.
And this is about where it all happened:
SonicLlama and I, being the nerds that we are, could not fathom the idea of going to the DMZ. And when we realized that you could actually go inside the DMZ and walk on the North Korean side of the conference room!, we were willing to move heaven and earth to make sure we got on one of those tours. Or, at least, give ourselves some very incovenient train trips.
On the course of the tour, our guide made sure to tell us the store of the axe murder incident several times. At the time, I thought they didn't have all that many annecdotes to tell us, but then I realized: this is a cautionary tale. It's not just that we're in one of the most tense, militarized areas on the world, but the people on the other side are completely insane!
So when they told us that there was a dress code to go on the DMZ tour, and that anyone with holes in their jeans or wearing excessively baggy clothing couldn't get through the checkpoints, we believed them. Because, sure, we now completely believed that the North Korean government would be taking pictures of us, and baggy clothing would be used as evidence that South Korea was so destitute its citizens couldn't afford well-fitting clothing. It made sense, right?
Duly warned, we hopped off the tour bus and into the DMZ (I keep wanting to write Neutral Zone: I believe that Star Trek has somewhat ineffably sullied me). Of course, most of the DMZ is military emplacements, so most of the interesting sites we ended up seeing (or, at least, being allowed to take pictures of) were explicitly designed for propaganda purposes. Like this statue memorializing the Phillipine soldiers that you also did not know served in the Korean War:
The ne plus ultra, of course, were the villages. North and South Korea each have villages that they keep in the neutral zone (with elementary schools among the minefields and everything). Our guides kept on laughing about the North Korean village: "They give it all the modern appliances, and it looks nice and all the buildings are big, but nobody lives there! All the lights in the village go on and off at the exact same time! We call it 'Propaganda Village,' because that's obviously the only reason it's there." "What do you call the South Korean village?" we asked. "Ah," they smiled, "we call it Freedom Village."
Apparently the two villages are the site of yet another silly patriotic spitting match. The South Koreans, eager to stick a nationalistic fist in the air, built a 100-meter-tall flag pole in their village. Because, after all, what convinces your enemy of the rightness of your cause but an enormous piece of cloth, right? North Korea, of course, would not be outdone and proceeded to build a 160-meter-tall flagpole in their own village. The South Koreans, apparently cowed, have not yet one-upped them.
Of course, we couldn't actually get anywhere near the villages, so you'll have to make do with this picture. The North Korean flagpole is visible slightly an inch or so right of my left ear. Maybe if you squint.
Not all of the sites were quite so garish or over-the-top, of course. For example, we came across this rather pleasing installment of pinwheels, which I can only assume must serve as some form of anti-war memorial. Or something.
But, of course, we weren't here for the memorials. Oh, no. We were here for buildings. Specifically, the main conference building where all the North/South Korean talks occur. The one where you can walk on the North Korean side of the room!
So, of course, there were talks going on. And the conference room was occupied. And we couldn't actually go inside. On the plus side, I was near something that was in the news briefly. You know when North Korea announced it was going to resume developing nukes a couple weeks ago? Yeah, I was there. In a tour bus. In the parking lot. Hooboy.
Here's the building. This was the best I got.
And then, of course, we checked out the gift shop, where I was able to find apparently the only available postcards in South Korea. Also some North Korean wine, and a bottle of hard alcohol that I've been too scared to try.
Back in our hostel room, we had a brief conversation with an Italian transhumanist--who gave us bad books about philosophy and Japanese grammar--and plotted our trip down to Gyeonju.