We were face to face with the North Korean military machine today…and he picked up his binoculars and stared at us.
In the wake of the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and the ensuing power shift to his son and heir apparent Kim Jung Un, we were escorted by the U.S. military and South Korean government to check out the fortified demilitarized zone, or DMZ, separating North and South Korea that has seen so many incidents over the years.
The focus of that is the so-called Joint Security Area where North and South Korean soldiers face each other within about a hundred yards with a border running through it.
I guess the point of the trip was to demonstrate that despite the huge personality shift up north, with its huge potential for upheaval, things were status quo on the border. And, in fact, it seemed that way.
I’d been there five years earlier, and everything looked the same. Curious North Korean soldiers. Stone-hard and rigid South Korean troops. And all sorts of infrastructure and guidelines from decades’ of strife.
My cameraman, John Templeton, had never been, and he found the whole thing odd. To be able to step over a line in a drafty wooden building and to technically move from 21st century South Korea to the barely 20th century North. To peer out from an observation post in South Korea to charade-like towns on the north side of the no-man’s land. To experience what the Cold War is like ... years after we thought it was over.
And so the visit proved a purpose. It underlined what an unfortunate situation the people of both North and South Korea have found themselves in. And how the change at the top in Pyongyang should offer (as one person told me on the street in Seoul) both an opportunity as well as a danger.
Unfortunately, for the folks on the troubled peninsula, it could just as easily mean more of the same.
Which means once that North Korean soldier checking me out has finished his tour of duty….there will be another to take his place. With little end in sight.