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.
“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.
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