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
Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964
Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, East and West Germany competed as one team, under a single flag, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy) their national anthem. But the unity of the “German” team was more of a mirage, as geopolitical realities extended Cold War distance to the athletes.

At the time, the Iron Curtain was a philosophical metaphor for the Cold War, but the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlin was a very real barrier. Only three days before the opening of the 1964 Olympic Games, it was reported that 57 people had successfully escaped from East to West Berlin through a tunnel dug under the wall. As was written in the AP report, “it was believed to be one of the biggest mass escapes since the Red Wall was erected in the summer of 1961.”

During the existence of the Wall, from 1961 to 1989, around 5,000 people escaped in a variety of ways – balloons, tightrope, and tunnels. The 57 who escaped made it through what is now known as “Tunnel 57”.

A civil engineering student in East Berlin named Joachim Neumann was able to sneak past border guards to West Berlin posing as a Swiss student in 1961. And while Neumann continued his studies in West Berlin, he also began to apply his learnings to the building of tunnels under the Wall.

Neumann’s first project was on a team building a tunnel in 1962, resulting in the successful escape of 29 people over two days, September 14 and 15. Neumann had a girlfriend in East Berlin, but was unable to inform her in time of the day of escape. But Tunnel 29, as it is now known, was Neumann’s realization that he would have other opportunities to bring his girlfriend to freedom.

Unfortunately, the next attempt to build a tunnel ended in calamity as the East German secret police uncovered the existence of the tunnel under progress. One of the people arrested was Neumann’s girlfriend, Christina, who was held for 8 months before being sentenced to two years in prison.

Joachim and Christina Neumann
Joachim and Christina Neumann

And Neumann continued to work on tunnel projects from the West Berlin side, including an excavation from April to October in 1964, the very one cited in the AP article above. Here is how the site, Berlin Wall Memorial, tells the rest of the story.

The escape operation was supposed to begin on October 3, 1964. But Joachim Neumann had to take an exam that day. When he returned to his apartment, he found a letter from his girlfriend. She wrote that she had been released early from prison and was back in Berlin. Joachim Neumann had to be at the opening to the tunnel in three hours and wasn’t able to find a courier on such short notice. He asked his friend to help and rushed to Bernauer Strasse. It was his job to greet the people escaping on the East Berlin side. It was quite late when his girlfriend appeared before him. She was one of 57 people who