04. March 2005 · Comments Off on The Country-Sized Concentration Camp · Categories: General, Media Matters Not

Two things distinguished my year-long tour in the ROK, at AFKN HQ, Yongsan Garrison, one completely trivial, materialistic and superficial… and the other something that— every five months or so, scared the absolute piss out of everyone who hadn’t been there for a couple of years.
“You’ll get into that combat shopping mode,” One of the other Air Force women promised me about the first thing, over my first weekend on station, “And you’ll leave here with a whole new wardrobe, made to order.”

And she was right— the shopping was splendid, the prices low and the quality of the goods extremely good; practically anything one’s materialist, acquisitive heart desired was there by the bale in Itaewan, or Electronics Row, or in the markets around Tongdemun gate. The chance to revel in unrestrained retail therapy was seen as one of fortune’s paybacks for having to spend a year separated from the family, and living in comprehensively dumpy barracks buildings, and I indulged, although on a much more discriminating basis than some of my peers. (A drawer-full of silk scarves, two bespoke gabardine suits, some amethyst and garnet jewelry, a couple of pieces of celadon pottery, half a dozen knock-off Coach handbags, and a bale of assorted lengths of fine fabric from the big market near Tongdemun Stadium.) Never mind why guys liked a tour in the ROK; servicewomen, without fail, adored the many opportunities and venues for intensive, prolonged hard-core shopping.

However… and that is the one big big-as-an-elephant-in-the-living-room “however”… The second thing. It never escaped anyone’s notice for long that… umm, there was this little matter of the DMZ… and as long as the Star Channel cable ran M*A*S*H reruns every weeknight at 8PM, we were reminded that yes, there had been a pretty brutal, vicious war. A war which was not actually over, only in remission…. And the North Koreans still hunkered down behind their side of the 39th parallel, emerging at regular intervals to make warlike threats and noises, which since Seoul was in artillery range forced everyone to at least take stock of their contingency plans and their pucker factor. The South Koreans and the old hands got pretty blasé about it all, after the first couple of times. Theoretically at least, the commies still could come blasting over the border again and chase us all down to Pusan, but it had been nearly fifty years since the last time they had any luck with that plan. It had the potential to be pretty ugly, when and if it would ever happen. Sensible (or fatalistic) people like me stoutly refused to panic until such time as when Peter Arnett in a flack jacket was spotted bunkered down on the Namsan Hill.

In the meantime, we could be pretty sure that it was a very, very strange place, north of the DMZ, especially when Kim Il Sung up and died, and the newscast from KBS that night was the same fifteen minutes of stock video of North Korea… some footage of the city, crowds of people, marching Nork troops, the Great Leader… and then the city footage… patched together to make half an hour of newscast. The most unsettling video segments were of North Korean citizens, and soldiers loudly and ostentatiously wailing in grief. I was watching the newscast from the booth where the English language translators were doing the simulcast, and it seemed to me that the translator and the KBS techs working that newscast were horrified and embarrassed by having to watch their distant kin put on such an over-the-top display. I had generally found the Koreans I worked with to be on the jolly and open-hearted side of the emotional display spectrum, rather than the stoic and undemonstrative side, but this… this was worse than horrible.

At the time there were only a faction of the whispers and suppositions about conditions in the North that there are now out in public… but afterwards the other translators and I agreed that things must be pretty awful, to make people carry on in that unseemly manner. Everything I have read since then only strengthens my conviction that then North Korea finally implodes— when the barriers are down, and the gates open, and the outside world finally looks in, and recoils in horror— we will see things of such brutal depravity as will make Auschwitz-Birkenau look like child’s play. The world— especially the parts of it which enabled North Korea to continue in this fashion for 50 years— will be properly shamed and abashed that we did not act sooner… but Barbara Demick and the Los Angles Times (which used to be a reputable paper, back in the day) will have to content themselves with our contempt for having done such sterling service (and I mean that word in the nasty and vulgar sense) for a murderous dictatorship.

Jason at Iraq Now has quite a bit more to say, but be forewarned, this is a NC-17 sort of rant!

Other musings on Korea, here and here, from my archive.

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