Thursday, July 22, 2010

Seoul-DMZ July 21

We left Kabul in the evening, moving again by Chinook helicopter from the "secure area" near the U.S. Embassy to the main Kabul airport. It was beautiful.

We got the sense they were a little nervous about the departure. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's plane had had to divert the night before because of rocket fire around the airport -- making you think that perhaps it was Taliban practice shots for Clinton.

They shut all the windows and the plane barreled out of there quickly..a fast, steep jump up to get out of range of any missiles. Once we were high enough, you could look down and see Afghanistan in the waning light of day. It looked gorgeous but tough, little towns clustered in greenbelts near rivers, and otherwise just sharp peaks and desert. Must be a hellish place to be a soldier.

We flew to New Delhi and refueled...they let us out on the tarmac so stretch our legs and get a few lungfuls of hot, fume-filled air ... and then on another six hours to Seoul, where we arrived at about 7 a.m.

I had no idea what to expect of Seoul but it looked pretty nice. Lots of cookie-cutter apartment blocks, but also lots of hills and green space. The Han River flows through the middle of it and the hills are also covered with housing, so it had a sort of Mediterranean feel (if that can be imagined in a Korean context, and in a place which has brutal winters).

After a quick shower at the hotel we headed for the DMZ. It's only about 45 minutes north of the city -- you drive along a highway which eventually winds along beside another big river. After a while you are aware of military pillboxes and barbed wire lining the river bank..the other side is now North Korea. Hard to make out much expect there weren't many buildings. But there were gigantic power lines.

The DMZ itself is even weirder. You go through a couple of checkpoints, and then into a sort of wilderness. There is only one South Korean "village" in the zone, and apparently they are pretty lucky -- they don't pay national taxes, don't have to send their sons to mandatory military conscription. And they are some of the richest farmers in South Korea, specializing in "organic" produce with no pesticides (not allowed in the zone).

We drove up to the "Freedom House", which is the big U.N./South Korean centerpiece at Panmunjom. It faces a similar North Korean edifice (no idea what that one is called) and there are a series of small huts in between. The U.S. and South Korean soldiers stand watching across the line, while North Korean soldiers stand with binoculars looking back. We went into one of the huts, which is the room where the two sides hold discussions. You can actually go and "stand" in North Korea by walking across the room. When the South Koreans are in there, they lock the door leading to the North.

The picture shows a guard standing in front of the door. The whole throwback feel of the place is summed up in this guy, with the retro shades (so they don't show "emotion" to the North Koreans, we were told) and the clenched-fist pose, which we were told was called the "ROK-ready stance" (ROK being Republic of Korea).

When Clinton and Gates showed up they were given a quick tour and then went into the same hut. As they went in, a small detachment of North Korean soldiers came jogging out and took up position outside the building, looking into the windows....a great shot for photographers.

We went back to Seoul and later they had a joint press conference where they announced new sanctions against the North, trying to cut off the flow of both dollars and "luxury goods" to the leadership.

Had dinner with a friend and then slept hard.