Wednesday, May 16, 2007

a Trip to the Unification observatory and Trains across the DMZ


I haven't posted in a while; I've been busy preparing a speech for Gangneung National University's Peace and Reunification Meeting. A few things have happened in the past month that uncannily link with this theme.

I was first asked to prepare a speech on foreigner's views and impressions of Korea. I was ready with good stuff (medical assistance was a big one of the list - I love the lack of waiting time at Korean clinics and the inexpensive medicine here) and bad stuff (traffic figured greatly here) when I received an email saying the topic had changed to reunification, the Korean War, the DMZ and related areas.

I received the message just after making a weekend ride to the Unification Observatory, at the DMZ in coastal Gangwondo.

I gave my speech on Monday to about 60 students. Today, Wednesday, I read about trains being prepared to cross the border on the East and West coasts.

On my bike trip, I rode mostly on highway 7, leaving it to enter the little fishing villages along the way but also following the old Japanese-made railway the whole way. I even took a dirt path through an old rail tunnel.

Kangneung is the modern rail head. You can see traces of the old railway as you go north from Kangneung but these are being erased all the time.

Past the observatory, the railway looks complete and ready for use.

As a travel note, you cannot ride a bicycle all the way to the observatory. At a check-in point about ten kilometres from the observatory, there was an information boothand the staff helped find a family to drive me in their car through the restricted area in 2005. Now, the booth is closed, although I luckily found another ride on my own.

Oh, about my speech: I gave it in English and a coworker translated it for me sentence by sentence. That's an interesting way to lecture. Some students laughed when I made a humourous remark and others laughed when the translator spoke (others were sleeping and I made sure to point them out while speaking about soldiers sleeping during the Naksan fire Oh, the soldiers were sleeping because they were told to stand down - they weren't obviously being lazy.)

My main point was that foreigners probably see things here more objectively and more strongly.
We are more objective because of our distance. We see the giving of aid to North Korea, particularly without requiring inspectors see where the aid goes as a mistake. The UN refused to do this but Koreans see even a poor chance to help their 'brothers' is better than no chance.

Koreans grew up with the armistice in place, and conscription is an annoying but familiar part of life here. These things are fresh and new to foreigners.

After my speech, a panel of a few North Koreans (defectors?) and a few Chinese students were scheduled to speak. I had to leave but I wondered what they would say. I quoted the Marmot discussing China's ambitions and spoke critically of North Korea. I hope I can learn what they discussed.

Finally, about the trains:
The two Koreas are now planning a test run on May 17. One train carrying about 100 people would make the crossing from the North on the east coast and a similar one would cross from the South along the west coast, South Korean officials said.

I wonder if Yahoo means the Cheolwon station rather than the one on the East Coast. There may be a station right at the DMZ, but it goes no further south. The article ends with:
The current plan calls for two passenger trains to travel about 25 km (16 miles) and finish their run at stations a few km on the other side of the border.

Seoul has been pressing to make the crossings more than a one-off event. It eventually wants to be able to send trains carrying cargo and passengers to China, Russia and other parts of Europe.

1 comment:

Jon Allen said...

The Korean's attitude to North Korea is fascinating. You could write a whole book about it.

Especially the "National Security Law" I cannot figure out how they
rationalise that law with all the aid and investment they give to NK.

The one off test trains did go ahead as planned as I'm sure you heard, but sadly there is no prospect at the moment of regular train service.