The Cold Zone
Eve Marie Dobbins
It was a hot day in Seoul and I needed any excuse to leave the city, so I had signed up for a trip offered by the USO to the DMZ line. The DMZ line is the military division between North and South Korea. I thought it would be very interesting. During the course of my year in Korea, a couple of spies from North Korea had been captured in the area I lived in. The Korean War, back in that time zone from 1994-97, didn’t seem that far from the present. There were still natives about who remembered the Korean War. Some of the younger University students had some very interesting views about the war and Americans.
I remember at the time there were those who were very pro-Western and this was epitomized by some advertisements hanging over the city of Seoul. There was one which fascinated me endlessly. Every time I went by, I would just stare at the picture of three slender Korean boys with their backs to the camera and their head hung low, pants slouched like in a gangsta’ style talking to one another. I guess the ad was for the jeans and how cool they were and it was intended to appeal to the twenty-something generation. I took a picture for posterity!
And then there was the generation of University students who hated the imperialism and commercialism of the West and blamed us for the division between the Koreas. While I was there, a riot ensued with demonstrators and as I watched the police bearing down with tear gas, watching the “tsk tsking” of the bus driver, glad that I was not part of the demonstrations. Two sides and we were cautioned to accept neither and to keep plugging along as teachers.
So, a good day. I went along curious as to what I might see and who I might meet on the trip. I took the subway from my apartment and trudged up the steps to the USO. There was the bus in front and an interesting very small group. Some were definitely military families who were stationed in Korea, some were teachers, and some were Koreans. I grabbed a cup of coffee from the USO and got on the bus. As the bus left the city and the area became more agrarian, I was reminded of some of my trips by bus and by train to the countryside. For a short time, I had dated a military man and visited him at his posting in South Korea. The train I took to visit him was ancient. I rode it alone returning from my visit with him after a hamburger meal with fries in the canteen. It seemed like another country the further North we drove. When I rode with him going to the desolate post, I remember the respect and courtesy of the older Koreans aboard the train chugging slowly along.
There was a murmur of conversation aboard the train in the background of my mind as I watched the countryside fly by. The Korean driver drove with the usual haste and urgency that I found inhabited most of the cab drivers in the city. While working at a hagwon
(for-profit school), I was often sent in a taxi to various places of business including hospitals to teach English to the doctors and the medical staff. I was given a text book, and an address. The rest was up to me which left me fairly creative with my lessons. I found most of the adult students endearing in spite of their heavy smoking in their ambitious attempts to speak English. Everyone wanted to speak English.
One day on the subway, I was so tired of people approaching me and wanting to practice English that I pretended to be of Russian descent which turned out to let some of the Koreans express other assumptions about my stay in Korea. I think some winked at me. And some simply believed that with my blonde hair and blue eyes that I didn’t speak any English but instead French, maybe Russian, and moved on.
Finally the bus stopped. We had approached a wall and above that wall was a wire fence that reminded me of the farm in the Catskills where I grew up. Our fourteen acres were surrounded by barb wire to keep the cows, horses, and an erratic bull in. I can still remember when my father put in an electric fence and with my friends, I played a game. We would tease the bull and then as he charged, we would duck under the electric fence. Crazy, we were, but it seemed safer than the sneaking of cigarettes in the back of the barn which my brothers were doing or the stealing of road signs by their friends to be placed on our front yard. Crazy and bored we were!
There were policemen riding alongside the wall with helmets. The driver yelled at us, “No pictures, yet. We must be careful.” So, I took a picture when he wasn’t looking. I was in the back of the bus and photographed the wall capturing the coldness of the area. One of the older gentlemen smiled at me and nodded as if in approval. I didn’t expect that I would pass this way often so I had every intention of making the most of it.
As we solemnly descended from the bus, there was little conversation and we watched the soldiers from North Korea and the American soldier’s steps from one another watching and measuring each other carefully. Neither spoke to one another as we stood watching, I became aware of an electrifying coldness which ran through my veins like ice water. I felt very psychologically drained and I glanced around at the other visitors wondering if they felt the same.
One of the men muttered, “Man, I could use a drink.”
I was not a heavy drinker other than a glass of wine but suddenly at the age of thirty-two, I understood what a “good stiff drink” meant at that moment. It was exactly what I wanted.
As we filed back onto the bus, we went to some kind of a lodge nearby and I ordered whisky. As the other gentleman watched, I threw the shot back and said, “Wow. That was interesting.” He laughed.
As we returned to our point of embarkment, we all agreed that it was the coldest place we had even visited. Some of the service members were swapping stories about relatives, parents, friends who had been in the Korean War and others were remembering cold places they had been stationed in including Alaska. I was sitting by myself listening as we all became closer because of the trip to the DMZ, the demilitarized zone.
The bus driver didn’t say one word. I think he was just thinking that Americans just don’t understand that they can’t take pictures and they must be careful as he had watched as some of us furtively snapped pictures. Who knew the stories he kept and would never tell with his limited English?
That was the day the DMZ became a place I visited. I don’t understand why I felt the coldness but I do understand that something in my body reacted quite strongly to what it saw, what it felt, and what it perceived. I was glad to get back on that bus again and head to Seoul!
Over the years, I have followed the stories of North Korea’s new ruler, Kim Jong-Un who inherited the post from the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. The story of Dennis Rodman visiting him to sing him Happy Birthday fascinated me along with the secret photos of water slides and roller coasters in North Korea.
I was really curious as to what that bus driver from years ago thinks about the youngest son of Kim Jong-Il (educated in Switzerland) who took over in 2011 when his father passed away.
I wonder many things.
Then I remember the pictures of the boys with the pants hanging down and suddenly wonder - what is reality?