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Perspectives

November 3, 2009
Straddling the two Koreas: DMZ diplomacy with Major Im

North Korean Major Im Dong-chul. Photos: Ben Piven

Part 3 of 6 in our Inside the Hermit Kingdom series on the people and culture of North Korea. Worldfocus multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about his encounter with Major Im Dong-chul while on the north side of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.

Since 1953, it has been the world’s most militarized border. Bill Clinton has called it the scariest place on earth. Undoubtedly, my most compelling moment in North Korea was at the DMZ — Demilitarized Zone.

Many Americans visit the south side of the 2.5-mile wide buffer zone that runs across the 38th parallel, dividing the Communist north from the democratic south. But our group was given a rare glimpse of the north side, where more than one million soldiers lie in waiting.

Our tour guide, Im Dong-chul, was a 21-year veteran of the Korean People’s Army with a sharp jaw and oval eyes. He offered us our only opportunity to engage in real political conversation with a North Korean soldier. Although the dialogue began with tremendous tension, we moved toward a cordial rapport during our 90 minutes together.

Speaking in Korean, Major Im fielded questions about war and peace. The major and I squared off, with two dozen others crowded around, and I seized the challenge of bilateral hardball. I was simultaneously engaged as a journalist and a diplomat. And since Americans of neither profession are common in North Korea, the task at hand was immense.

Promoting the elusive two-party talks sought by North Korea, I asked what message I should relay to President Obama.

Major Im, with the line of control and U.S.-administered building on the South Korean side in the far background.

“The U.S. should end its hostile attitude towards the DPRK by withdrawing its forces from the Korean peninsula. This is the biggest issue blocking reunification,” he said.

“As a representative of the American people, I know that we voted for a new president because we wanted big changes in foreign policy,” I responded. “President Obama is sincere, but he’s busy with a dozen other problems.”

“If every American were like you, there would be peace,” he concluded. “And I hope Obama’s policy shift happens soon.”

I apologized for American bombers leveling Pyongyang during the Korean War, and the major responded to my empathy. I then reiterated the bottom line of denuclearization: the north needs to implement security guarantees for the south.

It was shocking that Major Im even tolerated our input. Apparently, American tourists had never engaged him before. We too felt the pressure, especially in the DMZ meeting room straddling the Korean border.

I wondered about the significance of the exchange. I had come to terms with our contribution to the tourist economy but hoped that we were not becoming apologists for the state’s Juche ideology.

Back at the hotel that night, we noticed signs of diplomatic progress on BBC World News. But the process is cyclical: the North relaxes its stance, opens to talks, and then postures militarily after making impossible demands. The leadership clams up, afraid to risk humiliation at the bargaining table.

Later in the trip, we heard endless misinformation at the Korean War museum and during our tour of the captured U.S.S. Pueblo spy ship.

In the conference room that straddles the line of control between the two Koreas.

We were told repeatedly that the Korean War was used to lift the Americans out of the depression and that the U.S. had initiated the war.

Yet, we heard not a peep about the American role in liberating Korea from Japan in World War Two, though we often heard more animosity toward the Japanese than toward the sworn American enemy.

During five days in the DPRK, North Korean people never reacted contemptuously to our group as Americans. While anti-American dogma figures into museums and monuments, strangers were deferential and usually avoided us. Tourism workers were often excessively nice, especially if we addressed them in Korean or Mandarin.

My conversation with Major Im was a small but promising victory for the prospects of diplomacy aimed at bringing the world’s most isolated, nuclear-armed regime in from the cold.

– Ben Piven

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Comments

10 comments

#10

I visited one of these blue ‘conference rooms’ from the southern side, accompanied by US and ROK soldiers. How do they avoid tourists and escort from opposite sides meeting in middle? Is there an ‘understanding’ that the southerners use one room and the northerners the other?

#9

I have a, somewhat, different take on what is being written here…since I was (many years ago), for 2 long years, one of the soldiers stationed a mere 2 miles south of the DMZ.

I will ask:
What has, really, changed North Korean minds about the outside world?
I think their minds have not changed and that what is said…for political purposes…may not be what is, really, meant in the more hidden corridors where backroom discussions are ever taking place.

I think I can say that I know how Koreans think. Even if they appear to change, they often do not…or, at least, not in the way you might wish.

I may have been only a common soldier…but I was ordered to live where most wish not to go…except for a quick sightseeing tour.

#8

I have a, somewhat, different take on what is being written here…since I was (many years ago), for 2 long years, one of the soldiers stationed a mere 2 miles south of the DMZ.

After hearing North Korean loudspeakers booming their propaganda at all times of the day and night…

I will ask:
What has, really, changed North Korean minds about the outside world?
I think their minds have not changed and that what is said…for political purposes…is not what is, really, meant in the more hidden corridors where backroom discussions are ever taking place.

If 2 years’ of living in such a place does not qualify me to say what I have said…
then, I will add that I had, also, married a South Korean native while stationed in Korea…
whom I, many years later (18 years to be exact), divorced.
I think I can say that I know how South Koreans think. Even if they appear to change, they do not…or, at least, not in the way you might wish.

I may have been only a common soldier…but I was ordered to live where most wish not to go…except for a quick sightseeing tour.

#7

Nice rosy picture…complete with roses.
Unfortunately, these roses still maintain
their thorns.

I have a, somewhat, different take on what is being written here…since I was (many years ago), for 2 long years, one of the soldiers stationed a mere 2 miles south of the DMZ.

After hearing North Korean loudspeakers booming their propaganda at all times of the day and night…

I will ask:
What has, really, changed North Korean minds about the outside world?
I think their minds have not changed and that what is said…for political purposes…is not what is, really, meant in the more hidden corridors where backroom discussions are ever taking place.

If 2 years’ of living in such a place does not qualify me to say what I have said…
then, I will add that I had, also, married a South Korean native while stationed in Korea…
whom I, many years later (18 years to be exact), divorced.
I think I can say that I know how South Koreans think. Even if they appear to change, they do not…or, at least, not in the way you might wish.

I may have been only a common soldier…but I was ordered to live where most wish not to go…except for a quick sightseeing tour.

#6

Nice rosy picture…complete with roses.
Unfortunately, these roses still maintain
their thorns.

I have a, somewhat, different take on what is being written here…since I was (many years ago), for 2 long years, one of the soldiers stationed a mere 2 miles south of the DMZ.

After hearing North Korean loudspeakers booming their incessant babbling of propaganda at all times of the day and night…

I will ask:
What has, really, changed North Korean minds about the outside world?
I think their minds have not changed and that what is said…for political purposes…is not what is, really, meant in the more hidden corridors where backroom discussions are ever taking place.

If 2 years’ of living in such a place does not qualify me to say what I have said…
then, I will add that I had, also, married a South Korean native while stationed in Korea…
whom I, many years later (18 years to be exact), divorced.
I think I can say that I know how South Koreans think. Even if they appear to change, they do not…or, at least, not in the way you might wish.

I may have been only a common soldier…but I was ordered to live where most wish not to go…except for a quick sightseeing tour.

#5

Hi Sidi Siddha, the extent of our conversation about denuclearization was realization of our respective bottom lines. Their bottom line was removal of American troops from the Korean peninsula. Our bottom line was security guarantees for South Korea and Japan.

The question is, will the U.S. be willing to concede some level of nuclearization by the north, as long as international inspectors are allowed to visit the facilities?

The DPRK is interested in receiving a very large compensation package as an incentive for scaling back its nuke program and for consenting to the presence of 28,000 American troops close to its southern border.

#4

cool article Ben!
wish you could have pushed the issue of denuclearization more (probably not possible?).. it would be interesting to here more of his thoughts on that, and the reasoning behind it.

#3

Engaging in a dialogue in a situation like this where one has to uphold and stand by all that one believes in while trying to reason out with the other side can be an extremely daunting task. Given the nature of state of affairs in North Korea this informal exchange has tremendous symbolic significance. Your report reflects the earnestness of your work and brings to the reader a glimpse of current day North Korea and its people. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

#2

Thanks, Isaac. It’ll be interesting to see what becomes of the newest diplomatic efforts between the U.S. and the D.P.R.K.

Looking ahead, it would be great to meet up with Major Im at the intra-Korean border crossing once rosier relations are the norm — several years down the road.

#1

Kudos Mr Piven- this is what constructive engagement is all about- you clearly left your mark on Major Im and have encouraged his open-mindedness.

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