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It’s only 80 kilometers away. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is as far away as many of your car commutes, and yet in the gaiety of the Olympic Games, you forget that military on both sides of the DMZ are at the ready just in case.

And like the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, there is a social DMZ that separates those in Korea who seek reunification, and those who seek to destroy North Korea. That drama played out on Friday, February 9, 2018, hours before the commencement of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

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From the morning, demonstrators carrying flags of South Korea and the United States played loud music and made strident speeches, denouncing the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and very specifically requesting the United States to give a friend a hand. As the poster says:

“We, the South Koreans urge the United States to conduct an immediate preemptive strike on North Korea!”

These anti-North Korean demonstrators were dressed in heavy down jackets, and the average age was easily over fifty.

Also from the morning, about half a kilometer away, demonstrators sporting the blue-on-white reunification flag of Korea were advocating for unity and peace. These group was decidedly younger, many of them appearing to be in their twenties, most of them synchronized in matching white down coats and blue hats. Their posters were decidedly more conciliatory in tone:

White poster: We support peace (between N and S Korea), and joining under one-Korean flag. Welcome North Korean team! Congratulations on the Joint North-South entrance in opening ceremony! This is the Realization of the Peace Olympics.

Blue poster: We enthusiastically welcome our North Korea family.

Pro United Korea Protest_PyeongChang_posters

And so, a little over three hours before the 8 pm start of the opening ceremonies, the two sides were drawn irresistibly together. As I turned to leave the anti-North Korean protests, which featured impassioned ripping apart of images of Kim Jong-un, I noticed up the path I was walking the blue hats of the pro-unification supporters. I did a 180, wondering what would happen….the scene from West Side Story as the Jets and the Sharks approach each other for their rumble, coming to mind.

When the blue hats reached the rotary, the younger members in their white coats gathered in the middle rotary….and did what they do best. Sing and dance. The rumble was on.

Thankfully, this was a peaceful rumble. People on both sides stayed on their own side. The Opening Ceremony started on time without controversy, and athletes from both South and North Korea entered into a raucous stadium together, waving the blue-on-white.

On the whole, surveys indicate that slightly more South Koreans are against the unified team, than for it. The emotions run deep.

But for one night, there was unity.

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Imnam Dam and Peace Dam
Google Maps view of the DMZ

It was 1986. Preparations were under way for South Korea’s coming-out party – The 1988 Seoul Olympics. And on the other side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), North Korean began preparations of their own, breaking ground for a dam to be built on the Bukhan River, a short 19 kilometers from the border. Completed in 2003, it is called the Imnam Dam.

Perhaps fears of North Korean terrorism during the South Korean Olympics were top of mind for South Koreans, so they began to imagine the worst. As the New York Times explained in an article in 2007, then President Chun Do-hwan did imagine a scary scenario – the new dam in the North producing a monstrous flood, pounding waters headed straight for the South.

In response to the so-called water-bomb scare, South Korean television networks broadcast artists’ conceptions of monstrous walls of water unleashed from the North Korean dam, wiping out most of Seoul, 120 miles downstream, with the impact of a nuclear explosion during the Olympics.

A year later, in 1987, the fears were too hard to resist, and the South Korean government gave the green light to their own dam project, today called the Peace Dam. Located about 16 kilometers from the border to the north, the Peace Dam took a while to build, and in fact was finally completed in 2005, seven years after the Seoul Olympics. But it stands today, 125 meters high and 600 meters wide. There is actually no reservoir at the Peace Dam. Its sole purpose is to be peace of mind – a wall just in case the feared flood from the North ever comes racing down the Bukhan River – peace of mind in this case that cost USD429 million.

Peace Dam
Peace Dam in South Korea

It actually seems like a bit of expensive folly, and to be fair, the South Korean government suspended construction work on the dam after a few years. But when satellite photos apparently showed signs of cracks in the Imnam Dam in the North, fears of the deluge arose anew in the imaginations of the leaders. Work resumed, and the Peace Dam was finished.

Actually, it is another dam in North Korea that is causing grief – The Hwanggang Dam on the Imjin River, which is 42 kilometers from the DMZ. Over the past several years, there have been 8 cases where North Korean officials released massive amounts of water, causing significant flooding in South Korea. It’s not the “nuclear explosion” impact that was feared in the 1980s, and yet 6 South Koreans were killed when water was released from the Hwanggang Dam in September 2009.

The South and the North have an agreement that the North would provide notice to the South when they intend to release dam waters, commonly after significant rainfall, but in practice, the North Koreans rarely do.

In the end, should they have bothered building the Peace Dam? I guess one could say that they were dam-ed if they did, and dam-end if they didn’t.

“Like the two Koreas, the two dams are twin brothers, born at the same time, facing each other across DMZ,” said Lee Tae-ik, an official at Korea Water Resources Corporation, which maintains the South Korean dam. “The Peace Dam is an inevitable child of a divided nation.”

Defector shot crossing DMZ
Video footage of Defector Shot While Crossing border

Only months before the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, two North Korean soldiers crossed the highly secure demilitarized zone (DMZ) that maintains the nervous peace between South and North. That makes for a total of 4 soldier defections in 2017, compared with two over the previous four years.

On December 21, 2017 a North Korean soldier took advantage of a very thick fog to walk across the border.

More dramatically, on November 13, 2017, a soldier raced to the border in a jeep. Just prior to the border, the defector’s jeep got stuck in a grassy area, forcing the soldier to get out and run, just as North Korean soldiers with rifles appear on foot, firing at the 19-year old defector, and into South Korea. Shot four times but falling in South Korea territory, the defector was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers.

 

Clearly, it is very hard to cross the DMZ from North into South. More importantly, only soldiers have access to the North-South border areas, so the general population has very little chance to cross there.

The majority of defectors from North Korea go north to China or Russia. Since 1953 and the end of the Korean War, it is estimated that anywhere from 100- to 300,000 North Koreans have defected overall. Russia has about 10,000, many who have escaped the logging camps in North Korea. China may have as many as 30- to 50,000 North Koreans blending into Chinese society. The majority of those defectors are women, who marry Chinese men, settling into a quiet life in order to avoid being arrested by authorities and deported back to likely punishment in North Korea.

Thousands of others have made the journey down to the southern part of China where they make their way Laos and Thailand, or through Mongolia, assuming that they can avoid the clutches of Chinese authorities ready to send them back.

North Korean boat washes up in Akita
Eight bodies found as second suspected North Korean boat washes up in Akita Prefecture

Japan has also been a destination since the late 1980s. North Koreans make their journey over 400 miles across the Sea of Japan to Aomori, Fukui or the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa. On November 27, 2017, a wooden boat in poor condition washed up on the shore of Akita, in the northern part of Japan. Eight bodies, thought to be North Korean defectors, were found inside the boat. Only the week before, eight men from North Korea arrived on Japanese soil by boat, alive. In fact, in 2017, 44 boats from North Korea have made it to Japan this year.

South Korea Koreas Tension

Tensions between North Korea and South Korea are high. With multiple missile tests in 2017, North Korea is believed to have the capability to drop nuclear bombs on South Korea and Japan today.

The symbolic and real divide between North and South is the demilitarized zone, aka the DMZ – a 4-km wide no-man’s land that serves as a buffer between highly armed military forces on both sides. Families have been reunited through this land route from North to South. But in the times when athletes travel to events where both North and South Koreans compete, they have done so by sea or by air. Most recently, a South Korean women’s soccer team went to North Korea, and a North Korean women’s hockey team went to South Korea for respective tournaments.

When the PyeongChang Winter Games commence in February, 2018, North Korean athletes will walk through the DMZ for the first time, according to Lee Hee-beom, head of The PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG).

South Korea will welcome North Korea and when they decide to come, the South Korean government will allow them to come by road. And when they have supporting teams, the (South) Korean government will allow them to come by ship. All nations are very welcome, including North Korea and Russia. We want it to be the peace games.

No North Koreans have yet qualified for the PyeongChang Games, so it likely would not be a parade of athletes marching through the DMZ. But as Lee has said, the optics are the key. “Symbolically, to maintain peace in the Korean peninsula, their participation is very important, and for the success of the Olympic Games.”

I don’t know what it is like at the DMZ. But in June, 1985, I walked through a highly secured border checkpoint separating East and West Berlin, a place known then as Checkpoint Charley on the West Berlin side. I remember white walls and towers, military men with machine guns, and deathly silence. As a typical 22-year-old wise-cracking New Yorker, who liked to joke about everything, I found myself in a state of intense suppression, as I see in my diary of that time.

Checkpoint Charley on the eastern side is hardly intimidating in appearance, but you feel the intensity of the situation. You can’t take pictures, and for me the hardest part, you keep your snide remarks to yourself. There is dead silence as you walk through the cement corridors. A single watchtower glances at the grounds, but the electricity of the moment prevented me from snapping a noisy picture. The guard inside the customs office joked with Fenz, and that helped ease the tension, but the sensation of freedom was never so exhilarating when you realized that you were through. Violently spattered with graffiti, the wall (on the West Berlin side) remains a moving testament to the shackled human soul.

The Wall 3
Roy after walking through Checkpoint Charley to West Berlin and freedom