Thursday, November 28, 2013


 Hello all,

When I was back home in the U.S. preparing to come to Korea, I was told over and over not to go anywhere near the DMZ. I nodded my head in agreement, thinking, “duh of course I won’t go and they wouldn’t let me anyways”, not really having any idea what the DMZ was like.

About a month ago, I visited the DMZ. I have to say, it was nothing at all like what I was expecting. When I pictured it, it had this 1950s war movie feel to it, a sparse, bombed out track of land with barbed wire fences and North Korea right on the other side. Here are some things you might not know. First of all, it’s huge. The DMZ stretches the width of the peninsula and is about 160 miles long. And North Korea isn't as  close as I expected; the DMZ is a little over 2.5 miles wide. Second, about the whole barbed wire thing, yes, there are indeed parts of the Southern Limit Line (where the DMZ starts) that are cut off with chain link fence and barbed wire. But there is also a large portion of the SLL that is made of gullies and hills topped with what looks like black trash bags. Finally, for it being a bombed out waste land, well it turns out that when you have a strip of land 160X2.5 miles that has been left almost completely alone since 1953, you end up with a beautiful, if accidental, nature preserve. Far from being bombed out, it is really a stunning landscape.
The black line on the hill just beyond the telephone poles is where the DMZ starts.

But, I was far more shocked by the way the DMZ felt, the atmosphere of the place and the attitudes of the people visiting. My visit to the DMZ was to work a peace conference of international religious leaders. We arrived at our hotel in Cheorwon, a border city, late at night after a three-hour bus ride from Seoul. Walking into the hotel, I was struck first by the display in the lobby. I was of two fake endangered cranes standing around barbed wire and signs about land mines. In front of the display was a rack of pamphlets about nature preserves, history museums, DMZ day trips, and other destination locations of the border area. “Oh Ok”, I thought, “this is a kind of tourist destination”. Meanwhile I thought of a photo of my best friend and I on vacation at the Rodin museum doing our best “The Thinker” pose and tried to reconcile this with the desolate landscape I imagined of the DMZ. I have to admit I was puzzled. What does the DMZ represent if not pain and suffer, loss and separation? What in the world could make people want to come here for the “family tour” that I saw advertised? Why would people be so drawn to seeing such a terrible place?

This of course led me to a bit of self-reflection. I have to admit, I really wanted to visit the DMZ. I was curious. So, I asked myself, what did I want with visiting this place? For me, I think I just wanted a reality check. I wanted to know that this place was real. Over the last couple of months, North Korea has become more and more real to me, a part of my everyday life. Far from the news stories about the silly-backwards-Communist country I had heard state side. But, even living in Seoul, about 35 miles from the DMZ, it was hard for me to accept that it was a real place. Doing so would mean having to accept the people on the other side were real too. I would have to believe the stories of the people who were on the other side of the line, the people, just 35 miles away, that don’t ride the new metro to work every morning on their Samsung smart phones.

The next afternoon, after spending the morning putting together what felt like a million booklets for the conference, I got on a bus and headed to visit the DMZ observatory. Before we you hit the Southern Limit Line of the DMZ, you have to pass into the Civilian Controlled Zone, an area that is controlled by the South Korean government. They allow only citizens who live in the area and special tour groups to pass through. This means I experienced my first ever, armed military checkpoint. This too was different from my expectation. The checkpoint was a small cinderblock building spray painted to look camouflage. To my surprise, it also sported a smiling cartoon tiger in military fatigues that is the mascot of the army unit assigned to the border. He seemed a touch too cheerful. I was nervous. I felt like I was going to see something sacred and dangerous that I had no right to. A soldier with an automatic rifle boarded our bus. He did a quick headcount and left. Then another soldier came on and counted us. I gave him a kind of shy smile, which he returned. “Good God”, I thought, “He looks so young and a little goofy, and about as nervous as me.” Then the dots connected, I hadn’t met a single man my age since I moved to Korea and Korea has compulsory 2 year military service. This is where all the men my age are. Out in the middle of nowhere away from their families with automatic weapons, training for the day when North Korea decides to try something. I thought of all the sweet, silly boys I had so recently been in college with. I tried to imagine them, every last one of them as soldiers.

These three soldiers after giggling and looking at me for a while came up and asked me if I would be in a picture with them. I agreed. They seemed disappointed when two other members of the group rushed over and insisted on being in the picture too. I'm trying hard not to laugh.

We passed through the checkpoint and arrived at the DMZ observatory, a nice new building complete with museum, theatre, lookout, and gift shop. Again, I felt weird about being a war tourist. The people around were giddy with excitement and pulling out their cameras to take photos, it felt like a summer trip to see the statue of liberty minus the foam hats. We were shepherded to the theatre where we were shown a brief propaganda film about the history of the DMZ and a map of the area of North Korea we would be able to see through the telescopes. Then we were taken out to the observation deck where a group of Korean tourists were having a small picnic. Of all the history in the film, one fact in particular stood out to me. Just out of sight behind the mountain, about 6 miles from where I was standing was a city of 200,000 people, about the population of my hometown. 6 miles away, but living a completely different life. I thought about the people of Cheorwon, the town where we were staying. They were originally on the Northern side of the border, but during the Korean War, the border was pushed up just enough for them to be on the Southern side today with their farms and hotels and spas.

International religious leaders in front of the observatory.

Me with North Korea in the background.

South Korean Soldier looking into North Korea.

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.” was all that I could think. Then another thing became real for me. No, no, no, not for the grace of God. The 38th parallel was actually determined as the border between North and South by Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel of the U.S. State Department War Navy Coordinating Committee.  Now, I don’t begin to blame these men, or even the United States for all the continued division and unrest of the Korean Peninsula. There were and are still many complicated international and political forces at work here. The United States, however, is partially responsible in the division of the peninsula and is still incredibly active here in South Korea. I realized that as an American, I do have an immediate connection to this conflict. And it hurt to realize this. I am no longer able to keep the peace and reconciliation projects I’m working on at arms length. I can no longer say this is not my problem and I could no longer pretend that the people in the town, the size of my own, just six miles away, didn’t exist.

And now, I’m not sure how to move forward with this issue. I don’t believe that everyone in the U.S. should get involved. Though if some of this blog comes as a shock to you, I would seriously suggest reopening this chapter of your history book. But I suddenly feel afraid to move. I see now that my actions and my lifestyle have very real global implication, as the Korean situation became real to me, I could not help but extend that realization to the rest of the world as well. It was like 7 billion people all at once emerged from the ground and began going about their daily lives all around me.  I feel guilty, and sad, and I want to do something about it all.

That was what struck me hardest about the DMZ, a feeling of paralysis. I wanted to do something, scream, or cry or feed people, or find a way for peace. But then the whole world, completely interconnected comes flashing before my eyes, like a time-lapse video of a city street. I felt so tiny that I was unable to do anything, even cry. This is the open-ended question that rules my life right now. When I feel like I am just tossed along in this huge movement through history, what can I possibly do to change it? At the bottom of my soul, in my heart, I believe that there is something I can do and I want to live my life doing that. And I work everyday to do so; I just wish I had a better idea of how.  
A soldier watching as local children and their families play at an abandoned train station inside the civilian controlled zone. It was nice to see that life goes one.

Long Conversations about how to build peace networks. Still very confusing to me, but makes me believe that something can be done.

Part of the AMAZING and hardworking Korean team that hosted the conference.

A banner the Japanese representatives were making. We were all invited to add our prayers for peace. I added the following prayer. It's the motto of The Order of the Daughters of the King.

“I am but one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
What I ought to do, by the grace of God I will do.
Lord, what will you have me do?”


  1. Carlin, this post was extremely well-written and very arresting. I was especially struck by the part about your male classmates as soldiers, for obvious reasons. Males our age in Taiwan are also required to serve, although serving in Korea seems like it would be very different.

    Your prayer made me think of your Grandmother's (?) affection for Eliot, and the following lines, which Eliot adapted from Julian of Norwich:

    "And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    By the purification of the motive
    In the ground of our beseeching."

    - The Four Quartets' Little Gidding


  2. Carlin, you are an inspiration. I love having an outlet to stay connected and experience these new adventures with you. Please email me once you get an opportunity ( because I don't log into skype without reason and my facebook is going offline. If you are interested in keeping up with me or Caitlin, we did start a shared blog with Lauren and Douglas ( I love and miss you. Andrea W.