In Korea, Rituals of Absurdity

Step out of the bus, walk across the courtyard, stop in front of the low-built, blue buildings: Here, in the Joint Security Area — a neutral space between North and South Korea, under U.N. jurisdiction since the 1953 armistice — is one of the world’s weirdest scenes. About a hundred yards ahead, North Korean soldiers are watching from a balcony, expressionless: Walk toward them and you’ve defected. Directly behind, equally expressionless South Korean soldiers in sunglasses stand with their arms at their sides, fists curled: If someone walks toward us, they may shoot.

No less odd a scene plays out inside the blue buildings, where a negotiating table has stood for 50 years, precisely along the line that marks the border. On one side of the table, you are in the South; on the other side, you are in the North. Most people step over the line for a minute, just to see what it feels like “over there.” Then, spooked by the invisible border, they cross back to the other side a bit too quickly. After this little ritual, the American officer conducting the tour leads a longer excursion into the demilitarized zone. He points out “Freedom Village,” the super-profitable model village on the southern side (the villagers make a killing selling ginseng and don’t pay taxes) and “Propaganda Village” in the North (most of its shiny new buildings are empty).

The officer also points out the spot where, in 1976, North Korean soldiers attacked American soldiers who had gone into the northern reaches of the demilitarized zone to trim a tree, and murdered two U.S. soldiers with axes. Three days later, a U.S. infantry unit — supported by 20 utility helicopters, seven Cobra attack helicopters and high-flying B-52 bombers, and with an aircraft carrier standing offshore — swept in and cut down the tree. Very quickly, it becomes clear that Panmunjom, with its odd rituals and strange traditions, is not just a cliché but a piece of 1950s Cold War kitsch, a weird time warp as surreal as North Korea itself.

This isn’t a revelation; Panmunjom has been a monument to the creepiness of North Korea for more than five decades. But in the week in which the Bush administration announced its decision to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, it’s worth focusing again on the strange, ritualistic nature of the relationship between North Korea and the outside world: In its way, after all, that announcement was strange and ritualistic, too.

For the record, North Korea has sold missile technology to Syria and Libya, has assassinated diplomats, and has kidnapped Japanese and South Korean citizens and refuses to give a full accounting of their fate. North Korea keeps untold numbers of its own citizens in concentration camps that are direct copies of those built by Stalin, and its leaders knowingly starve many citizens to death as well. By any normal definition, North Korea is still a “terrorist state,” and everyone knows it. The administration’s decision was not a recognition of any change in North Korean behavior. It was, rather, a negotiated exchange of one set of words for another: We withdraw “terrorist” — and in exchange they offer a “promise,” once again, to dismantle their nuclear facilities. Ritual favors were bestowed as well: Presumably as a sign of the respect in which they hold him, the U.S. official negotiating these terms, Christopher Hill, was, on his last visit to the North, ceremonially allowed to travel by car via Panmunjom instead of being forced to fly in from Beijing.

There may, of course, eventually be more “real” elements to the deal. There is probably more aid money in the offing, though no one really believes it will go to those who are once again starving. There is talk of more advanced verification systems as well, though it’s widely assumed that the North Koreans will again try to cheat. Still, how this White House, which for so long opposed any negotiations with North Korea, rationalizes these talks to itself is anyone’s guess. Perhaps this is some kind of holding pattern. Maybe they think the almost invisible dictator, Kim Jong Il, is really dead. Or maybe they fear that otherwise Pyongyang will explode another surprise nuclear device on — say, the day of the U.S. elections.

What this cannot possibly be is a genuine negotiation, by which I mean one whose ultimate outcome will be the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program or the warming of relations between North and South. Such a negotiation, based on genuine trust, real verification procedures and cooperation is possible only with a regime that understands the concept of trust, procedures and cooperation — a regime, in other words, very different from the one currently in power in North Korea, in whatever terms it is officially defined.

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