Two Savages in Southeast Asia

Zen and the Art of North Korea

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Deep in the mountains
A window into the mind
Observe, and let go

Bleary-eyed at 6:45, we stuffed Solhee’s pre-bought rice burgers (it’s like two patties made out of rice with a bit of meat in the middle) into our mouths and shuffled over to the USO. With 5 Americans, we piled into a bus and made the ride to the DMZ area.

The DMZ (De Militarized Zone) is a 4km strip, 2km on each side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), between North and South Korea. The two countries are still technically at war, as no armistice was signed following the Korean War in the 1950s. Because the borders were shifting constantly during the war, and families weren’t able to evacuate in all cases, this means that many families were split by the division of Korea, and thus that lots of people are crying for reunification. There are some diplomatic relations (although apparently they were better under the last South Korean president than the current one) between the two countries, and in fact there is an industrial complex in North Korea, just a bit over the border, which employs a few hundred South Koreans and a few thousand North Koreans. This is supposed to help with the push to reunification, playing off the strengths of both Koreas. The north is now largely agricultural and manufacturing-focused, while the south is, of course, high tech. The North hasn’t totally bowed to the regulations put in place by the UN, however: there is evidence of tunnels they built under the DMZ that were pointed in the direction of Seoul. They, of course, deny that they built them, and they smeared coal on the walls to make them appear to be an abandoned coal mine (impossible for the local geology). Anyway, things are certainly interesting.

To make a long story short, the DMZ isn’t open to visitors except with very special tour groups and passport control. The tour that we took didn’t actually go into the DMZ, just around it. We made a stop at a railway station that was used, until a couple years ago, by employees of the above-mentioned industrial complex to commute to North Korea. We also visited one of the tunnels discovered by the South Koreans, and a peace park built at the edge of the DMZ. From an observatory stop, on top of a mountain, we could see into North Korea… in the DMZ there are exactly two villages, one on the South side and one on the North side. They are engaged in a pissing match: each wants its flag tower to be taller. North Korea is currently winning. Also, no one lives in the North Korean village… presumably because it would be pretty easy for them to defect from there.

After a fascinating day in the DMZ area with Solhee, we bid her a fond farewell and went in the direction of our temple stay. The temple, Geunsumsa, is nestled in the mountains north of Seoul, but it still has a view of N Seoul Tower and a fair piece of city. There are just a handful of monks living there, but they seemed excited to have a crowd of learners. We spent time touring the complex, then doing evening chants, ringing the bell (33 times at night, to open the 28 levels of heaven and the 5 non-heaven realms of beings), and eating dinner. To close off the night we did 108 prostrations (bows of a special kind) and some meditation. Staring up at the moon, exhausted and sore from 108 bows, and meditating was an amazing exercise. After that, we are to keep silence until morning… but maybe a blogpost doesn’t count. :)