Oct 7 2008
Remember when you were a kid and your parent told you to eat your food because there were people starving in (insert your own favorite depressed third world country here)? That is essentially what my post is about. Everyone who lives in a democracy has the responsibility to vote because it is a treasured right that millions around the world do not have. Even worse, these disenfranchised millions are often oppressed, living terrible lives. I just want to share one story of my travels.
In early 2000, Ned and I went to South Korea. During our time there, we visited the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone is a tract of land that is 155 miles long and approximately 2.5 miles wide. In a sad irony, because this space of land has been unoccupied for over fifty years, it has become a haven for rare wildlife.
To get to the DMZ, you must take a special charter bus. You are not allowed on the bus unless you are dressed appropriately. We were also instructed to bring our passports because no Koreans are allowed to the DMZ zone unless they have special dispensation from the government. (Most of my group were American Koreans so this was particularly important for my group). On the way up, we were given further instructions. No gesturing when out in the open. Listen to the guide at all times. The DMZ is the most heavily armed border in the world. Do not, under any circumstances, do anything to cause an incident.
We were carried via this special charter to the UN Command center. There we were briefed on the history of the DMZ. The DMZ is in a constant state of readiness. There are over two million troops between the forces on the North and South Korean sides. It is believed that there could be aggression from North Korea at anytime. According to Wikipedia “Sporadic outbreaks of violence due to North Korean hostilities killed over 500 South Korean soldiers and 50 U.S. soldiers along the DMZ between 1953 and 1999.”
At one point in the tour, we were ushered to Conference Row. Conference Row is a row of buildings set on the border between North and South Korea. The blue buildings are used by the UN Joint Security Council which is mostly manned by US and South Korean Troops. The grey buildings belong to North Korea. The first grey building in the picture is purported to be a rec room for North Korean soldiers but the US troops swear that there are no recreational activities taking place in the conference row buildings. The second blue building hosts the peace conferences. The microphone cord separates the Northern and Southern sides. Inside this building is the only palce where you can stand on North Korean soil without getting shot. A ROC solider stands at attention and is prepared to physically restrain you should you touch him in anyway or attempt to venture through the back door of the building into North Korea. We noticed that when the ROC soldiers walked, they made a kind of swishing noise. We were told that the soldiers have small metal balls sewn into their pants legs so that when they march, it sounds like there are more of them.
During the entire time a tour is here at the UN Command center, North Korea soldiers come outside to patrol. One soldier will stand motionless in front of this building. The North Koreans watch visitors closely and purportedly have enhanced auditory equipment. They are looking or listening for anything that could be deemed as aggressive to excuse further hostilities.
The Korean War ended in 1953 and the border has been closed ever since. There is a famous bridge here called The Bridge of No Return. It’s a beautiful site, but one that has a tragic story. The Bridge of No Return was used for prisoner exchanges. In 1953, prisoners of the Korean War were brought here and given the opportunity to return to the other side, but once they had crossed that bridge, there was no going back. For many Koreans, this was a terrible choice because there are 7.7 million South Koreans with relatives in North Korea. No mail or telephone contact is maintained across the party
North and South Korea had state sponsored reunions beginning in 2000 when a few select families were reunited. I was told that these reunions were televised in South Korea and that there wasn’t a body on the street during these periods of time. If you have visited the population of congested Seoul, you would find that hard to believe. One story that was told was of a family who had been running for the border. The mother had three children and she was carrying one. Her oldest, a boy, tripped and fell. The soldiers were chasing them and he was caught. His mother took the other two and ran for the border with just one shoe of her oldest. At the reunion, she returned with the shoe that she had kept for almost fifty years. I wasn’t able to find an article to confirm this story but I remember it vividly as it was told to me. (South Koreans are not without their propoganda too).
North Koreans live in poverty. The average monthly salary is $45. The country is cut off from the rest of the world. The people’s situation is dire. The economy is one thirthieth the size of South Korea despite North Korea being rich in natural resources. In the dictatorship, the people have no voice in government. Their freedoms are constrained, both physically and ideologically.
The point of my story is not to have you read a date travelogue accompanied by boring vacation photos but to say that the right to have voice in the way in which one is governed is a precious gift. The U.S. election for the 44th President is less than thirty days away. If you don’t vote, you’ve wasted one of the most precious gifts that you have been afforded as a free person. So vote, because people in North Korea cannot.