The Steel Door

We walk to the end of the rough stone passageway, stepping over the vents and careful not to slip on the wet floor. At the end of the passageway is a steel door, a meter square, elevated from the floor. The welding marks give a hint that the metal is heavy, thick. Nearby a video camera on a pole watches the door, 24 hours a day, well-lit, and the monitor at the other end of the video cable is monitored by a live person continuously. Through a crack near the floor we can see that the other side of the wall is also lit — I'm assured that behind the steel door are complex explosive traps, and more unblinkingly diligent video cameras. Two coils of barbed wire prevent me from walking the last six or seven steps to touch the door. We're about 73 meters under the ground, and 100 meters from North Korea.

The passageway was made by the DPRK's army, shoveling and blasting for years, inch by inch, then kilometer by kilometer, round the clock working their way steadily through the DMZ and toward South Korea, in hopes of providing themselves a surprise entry into the country — that is until a South Korean team bored a tiny hole into the passageway from above, then a larger tunnel to intercept. The North Koreans fled after a short battle, and today we have the door.

Six hours later I'm here at Lotte World in Seoul, relaxing in my room and starting to type up this entry. It's hard to reconcile the differences — the rabid paranoia that drives the North Koreans to dig deep secret invasion tunnels, applying not only brute force but considerable cleverness and brainpower (such as blasting TNT boreholes simultaneously in multiple locations in North Korea, to prevent sonosensors from pinpointing the tunnel), or to bomb airliners or ram minisubs into shipping lanes; in comparison with the dense riotous consumer indulgence of the South, which is only too apparent in the packed and busy malls like Lotte World (or in the entertainments like the adjacent Lotte World Adventure theme park).

Hard too to see how it continues even as the South continues to hold onto the belief that this will all pass — the train stations with signs hopefully showing the direction to Pyongyang station, the National Folk Museum filled with recent exhibits that detail Korean history and regional cultural development, both north and south as a single culture, without a whisper of the name Kim Il Sung.

Visiting the burgeoning restaurants on Sincheon "food street," or watching the revellers at nearby nightclubs like "New Hacker Membership Discoteque," where the throngs grinding not only to Eminem & Ludakris but plenty of homebrew hiphop & techno, it's easy to see modernity and growth (yet with traditional conservative Korean style: the girls dance with the gils while the boys dance with the boys, and breaking that contract can start a row). They say that the South's economy is now some 26 times the size of the North's (yet with only a 2-to-1 advantage in population, and less land mass). Looking through binoculars across the border, past the giant border placards, statues, and empty "propaganda village" and up in the hills to the real city of Kaesung, you can see the unpaved roads, the distant walking dots and the lack of motor vehicles.

Sadly photography is forbidden at the Steel Door — though the major-general in the car in front of us, hosting a Vietnamese investor, has no problems toting-along an elisted man to carry an impressive digital SLR. But for we the un-selected, check the camera with the MPs.

Even without that, I shoot ten rolls today. I load the eleventh at just past midnight — make it a quarter past September.

August 31, 2003

 

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