Rogue | April 2015
The Twilight Zone
by Manuel L. Quezon III
As a journalist who’s taken a Pentagon-sponsored tour of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone can tell you, not all government junkets need to be solemn and serious.
The best vacation is one paid for by someone else. People in academe, business, and government have raised work-related travel to a fine art: known as the conference, the convention, and the junket, respectively.
About two decades ago I went on one of those splendid American government junkets that give writers a lifetime’s worth of curious stories with which to regale their readers. The trip was jointly sponsored by the Pentagon and the State Department, whose representatives spent the trip bickering with each other as they jointly fended off the questions of our demanding press contingent.
Asian and regional journalists all of us, we included a Hong Kong journalist who admitted to us he was a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army (this was prior to the Hong Kong handover), a gloomy Russian nuclear expert who only brightened when somehow, roses came up in conversation (he collected stamps that featured roses on them), a cryptic Malaysian, an argumentative Sri Lankan, a demanding Bangladeshi, an apologetic Japanese (“So sorry for war!” he told the Southeast Asian contingent at each stop, but with particular regret when we were in Pearl Harbor, which made everyone very fond of him), a bulky, rebellious Australian, a refined New Zealander, and an irreverent Indonesian.
There was an elegant, attractive Indian editor whose feminine charms guaranteed that her Pakistani counterpart, a courtly, retired colonel set aside nationalism in favor of an old-fashioned gallantry.
There was also a Thai avidly flattered by our American minders (apparently American priorities at the time included basing war materiel in his country) and a South Korean editor who imparted fatherly advice (“Never trust the Americans,” he told me). And myself, on average two decades younger than all my companions. The Pentagon person took it upon himself to express his particular disappointment with Filipinos for kicking out the US bases.
Our grand tour began in South Korea and proceeded to Washington, D.C. before concluding in Honolulu, Hawaii. In South Korea we were taken around Seoul and paraded from one formal audience with local officials to another, including one particularly elaborate meeting with a think tank devoted to North-South reunification issues. It was a classic exercise in how to use up time saying nothing precise, using as many key words as possible. In the subway, I discovered grandmothers who spoke with their elbows –sharply—to get ahead of foreign slowpokes like me.
The most remarkable part was a day trip to the demilitarized zone — the DMZ — complete with the obligatory large, tourist bus, and chatty minders who made a grand production of the escalating security measures required as we approached the dreaded zone.
The Cold War had recently come to an end, and so there was a kind of other-worldly feeling to the whole thing as we hummed along on the bus, with the minders reminding us that “within 15 minutes” of the commencement of hostilities, jets could be screaming over Seoul and the capital imperiled by rocketry and artillery barrages. It seemed so thrillingly sinister, and yet, so improbable.
But as the bus droned on, the countryside gave way to reminders that South Korea was a country that had to constantly live under the specter of conflict.
There was Deaseong Dong (“Peace Village”), a tightly-regulated village with its 98.4 meter South Korean flagpole and Gijeong Dong, which our minders told us was a ghost town with its competing — and record-breaking — North Korean 98.4 meters flagpole and loudspeakers perpetually belting out eerie propaganda music. At night, our minders said, lights would be switched on to simulate human habitation of the “Propaganda Village.”
Once at Panmunjeon, with its Joint Security Area, we were brought to oohs and ahs at gigantic invasion tunnels constructed by the North Koreans: the menace of fanatical, Communist hordes made tangible; and then to gawk at the North Korean soldiers in their World War II Soviet-style uniforms, and the South Koreans in American-style MP uniforms glaring at each other while conducting a kind of martial choreography as they paced and peered and did the changing of the guard in their respective outposts. The South Koreans were better equipped: they had Ray-ban sunglasses to make them look more resolved.
If I recall correctly we then toured part of the heavily-mined, electrified frontier fence patrolled by South Korean troops. An orgy of grim statistics, of course: millions of mines, hundreds of watts of power, periodic attempts at infiltration and other kinds of border incursions, all the while punctuated by American heavy metal music blasting from South Korean outposts.
The end of the tour, of course, was the unintended punch line. After a few hours of being in the front lines of the impending Korean apocalypse, we were shepherded to a kind of glorified shack in which we were encouraged to buy “I was at the DMZ” keychains, T-shirts, jackets and baseball caps.
The Australian was particularly amused: “It all ends in Disneyland, eh?” From grim thoughts of the life-and-death struggle between the Free World and North Korea, matters quickly degenerated into complaints over the reduced rates of American per diems to we, the delegates (they were, apparently, more generous just a few years earlier).
In a moment of frankness (to which all Americans are so charmingly susceptible, sooner or later) one of our American minders later said that in his opinion, the old American alliance with South Korea was coming to an end; that it would only be a matter of time before they would be asked to leave South Korea. The youth, he said, were on the whole anti-American and once the ruling generation passed it would be, as they say, an entirely different ballgame.
As with all junkets, the after-hours entertainment was particularly conducive to international brotherhood. We were taken by a South Korean US Embassy minder to the sort of place where ladies do interesting things with raw eggs as a kind of cultural entertainment. Not really my kind of thing, but better than one of my more recent experiences a few years ago, in Berlin.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” our German minder told us at one point during the day’s proceedings, “we now have 15 minutes for rest and relaxation!” He looked at us, looked at his watch, and continued, “you will now commence relaxation!” And he exercised the strictest supervision until he could point to his watch and bark, “relaxation must now cease!” And we rushed off to our next appointment.