The Demilitarized Zone or DMZ as it is known, is an 155 mile [250 km] expanse of land that hugs the border, or Military Demarcation Line between North and South Korea, as agreed to at the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean conflict. It is loosely based on the 38th parallel.
During my visit to the DMZ, I was accompanied by a South Korean guide who began her tour speech by asking if there were any Japanese among the small group of travelers on my bus. When we responded “no” she quipped “great – then I can be honest about our history.” What she was eluding to was the historical reality of successive Japanese invasions and occupations of the Korean peninsula, and how the most recent [World War II] ultimately led to a divided Korea.
To underscore the differences between the north and south, for part of the journey we were also joined by a North Korean defector. We were strictly instructed not to post any images of this woman or her name online, as North Korean authorities still did not know where she was or that she had made it to the south. To them she was just another in a long list of missing people.
The woman’s story, lets call her Judy, was one of a multi-month struggle to make it out of the north and enter the south. Judy was lucky, as it apparently takes most defectors up to ten years to arrive safely in the south. Her route was via North Korea’s northern border with China and involved entering China through the use of paid smugglers, making her way to Southeast Asia, and then to South Korea. She could not tell anyone that she was going to flee, even her closest relatives. Doing so not only would have risked her life but it would have risked the lives of her relatives who would no doubt have been forced into labor camps for years or until death.
According to Judy the reality of life in North Korea was quite harsh. Electricity was available but only for an hour or two a day, and no one ever knew which hours that would be. When the power came on, the voltage was so low that it was often only possible to power the simplest light bulb. Television was a luxury and there were only two government run television stations broadcasting propaganda anyway.
The failures of the North Korean farming policies have resulted in mass starvation at times, and a general scarcity of food in other times. Women have absolutely no rights whatsoever. Meanwhile, the rulers of the country live an opulent lifestyle [it is rumored that the former ruler owned up to five hundred foreign cars]. Militarization has further drained the North Korean government’s treasury, and it has apparently resorted to the illegal drug trade to supplement its income.
According to Judy, at an early age children are indoctrinated and “brainwashed” into loyalty to the North Korean rulers. She recounted stories of friends and neighbors being harassed, tortured or sent to labor camps for “crimes” as small as not properly displaying the photos of North korean rulers in their houses. When asked why she wanted to leave, she commented that she had absolutely no freedoms in the north and would rather starve with freedoms than be rich without them.
This scenario sounds strangely like many others, including that of the Soviet Union, which ultimately collapsed from within, in large part due to an economic collapse as a result of huge military expenditures. For Judy the history didn’t matter. All she cared about was getting a little taste of basic freedoms. The South Korean government has created acclimation programs to assist North Koreans in their new life in the south. Judy didn’t even know how to use an ATM. Now Judy works with local tour companies telling her story. And an important one it is.
Within the DMZ there is a bridge called the “Bridge of No Return” that was used for prisoner exchanges at the end of the Korean War. Prisoners were brought to the bridge and given the choice to remain in the country of their captivity or cross back over to the other country. If they chose to cross the bridge, they would never be allowed to return, hence the name. Judy will never return to the north, nor will she ever want to. But again she is one of the few lucky ones.