Cliffhanger in Korea
Columnist Randy David and I could have waved at each other in Korea if our respective visits weren’t nine years apart (Opinion, 08/13/17).
In 1978, my husband and I visited the spot where Korea was divided into two. After landing at Kimpo Airport, we promptly asked about seeing “the 38th Parallel.” We were told that we probably wanted to see the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) in Panmunjom.
Visitors had to be cleared, so we had to surrender our passports. So volatile was the political climate that any tour could be canceled at the last minute. After four weeks in Korea, we finally made it on the very day before flying out. I wrote about it in the Manila Chronicle (9/12/88):
“After several hours of the Korean countryside and coastline and a marker indicating the 38th Parallel, we entered the fringes of DMZ, a no-man’s land where I don’t remember seeing a single soul nor greenery. Our guide said incentives like exemption from taxes and military training were offered anybody to farm these areas but there were few takers. Who would want to farm in the path of artillery fire?
“The stillness was eerie as I heard only the sound of our bus nervously driving through the coughs of busmates and the discomfort of a lady who felt jittery throughout the trip. She dropped out when we stopped at Camp Kitty Hawk. The GIs struck me as unusually, uniformly tall. It came out that all soldiers in this camp had to be six feet or taller, and had to have high IQs. The situation was so tense that any soldier could ask to be relieved at any time.
“Films were shown about what to expect at the border. We were briefed about incidents like lightning attacks into the South Korean side, and a recently discovered underground tunnel that both sides were blaming the other for. We could take photos but absolutely no pointing, lest our finger be mistaken for a gun by the guards on the other side.
“To scare us more, we had to fill out and sign a form saying that if anything happened to us, no one but ourselves were to blame. For a moment, the vision of our children who could get orphaned flashed before me. But only for a moment; I was too excited at the prospect of entering a battle zone. A jeep with GIs so tall they seemed to be all arms and legs escorted us to the border and kept close to us.
“Here was the narrow strip of land called the Corridor, 50 to 100 meters wide—I forget, except that the ‘other’ side was closer than I thought, almost at yelling distance if we dared shout. I consciously kept my hands firmly tucked in my pockets lest I automatically point at sights. I made sure I stood behind a broad-shouldered tourist in case an overreacting guard standing stiffly on the other side took a shot at us.
“Right in the center of the Corridor was a barracks, half of which was sitting on the North Korean side, the other half on the South Korean side. And in the very center of the barracks was a long conference table one half of which belonged to the North and one half to the South.
“And on top of it stood a small North Korean flag on the North Korean side of the table, and less than a foot away was the South Korean flag on you-know-whose side. We were told that on one occasion, one side brought a taller flag; the next day the other side brought a taller one, and so on until both scraped the ceiling—which goes to show how ridiculous people who shape the fate of nations can sometimes be. Both sides finally settled to keep the flags of equal height.
“In this setup the guards of both sides inside that barracks and just outside the window were at spitting distance of each other. There were instances of deliberate provocation between the guards by spitting, which explained why those soldiers at Kitty Hawk had to be as hard as stone. It was like patintero; take one step and you were on the other side. But not even the most adventurous impulse to ‘step into Communist territory’ could make us dare it.
“On the way back, we waved goodbye to our escorts at Kitty Hawk. Out of no-man’s-land, our relief was palpable. We broke into talk and I felt sorry for the lady who missed the experience, and for all the Koreans who were prohibited from entering the DMZ to even glance at their countrymates across the border.”
Forty years later, here we are, still in cliff-hanging suspense.
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Asuncion David Maramba, 85, is a retired professor, book editor and occasional journalist.
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