A couple of weeks ago I spent the afternoon visiting the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. Wow, what a strange experience!
The Korean peninsula is fascinating because it clearly shows how government decisions impact economic growth. The North picked communism in the early 1950s, while the South picked capitalism. Both started off in the 1950s as very poor countries with roughly similar GDP per person. Today the difference is stark. The South is rich, powerful and crowded, while the North is poor and relatively empty. The CIA ranks South Korea as the 42nd richest country in the world, with a yearly GDP per capita of $33,200, while the North languishes at 198th, with just $1,800 per capita.
In early May the South Korean government restarted a special train to visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. The train ride was a surreal experience. Before I got on the train a team of women wearing military style uniforms checked to make sure I had my passport, a return ticket and understood the rules of visiting the DMZ. When the train left Seoul, it became a party bus. One of the women was a disc jockey who took requests and got people to dance in the aisles (bring earplugs if you aren’t used to the volume of dance clubs and rock concerts). Another took pictures of the passengers and had the train’s passengers vote on who would get prizes for the best picture. A third sold beer and snacks for the journey. I was very confused on whether I was going to one of the world’s geographic flash points or a wild party.
Part way down the line the train stopped and everyone got off the train for a document check by stern faced members of the South Korean military. Then it was back on the party train for a short ride to Dorasan train station. Dorasan is a huge, modern, international train station, just before the 38th parallel. It is set up to handle massive amounts of traffic anticipated after the reunification of the two Koreas. It is a strange place because there are only a few people in a train station designed to handle many thousands. The idea proudly proclaimed on a huge sign (see below) is that Dorasan Station will be the end of the trans-Siberian railroad. In the future, passengers could take a train from the Atlantic Ocean on the very western edge of Europe, ride through Russia and Korea and end up at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Not only is the size and emptiness of Dorasan Station strange, but it is also strange because it has a large DMZ gift shop selling items like t-shirts and baseball caps. Having a place to buy tacky DMZ souvenirs cheapened the monuments to soldiers that died in the Korean War, which our train had passed only minutes earlier.
We were then loaded onto buses which brought us to an observation post where we could see the North Korean city of Kaesong, which is built right next to the border. With a GDP per capita of $1,800, I was expecting to see a poor town. Instead, our view showed a clean, modern city that looked similar to cities in the South except for two differences. First, the North Korean city had just one tall building, while every South Korean city we saw had many. Second, there was no traffic in Kaesong. There were almost no buses, cars or trucks that I could make out moving on its gleaming roads. The lack of traffic and the shiny newness of Kaesong had me wondering if I was looking at a Potemkin Village. Potemkin Villages are like movie sets. These places have a modern façade that hides a town’s true squalor.
We took a few pictures of Kaesong, but the South Korean soldiers demanded that we erase them for security reasons. Why did they demand that the pictures be erased? Sitting at home Google Earth provides far more detailed pictures than anything we took. Using Google’s mapping software (type in the phrase “Dorasan Station South Korea or Kaesong North Korea”) and zooming in shows that Kaesong’s modern side faces South Korea but the side away from South Korea is a decrepit looking area with dirt roads, suggesting Kaesong might be a large Potemkin Village.
I am still not sure what to take away from the visit. Part of South Korea either does not appear to take the DMZ seriously or is putting up a façade to make the DMZ seem less threatening. North Korea does not appear as destitute as reports have made it out, but this too looks like a facade. By the end of the day I felt that both sides were posturing and using propaganda to put an unreal spin on the DMZ. The visit left me wondering what the real situation was on both sides of the 38th parallel.