War Angst and Karaoke: Daily Life as Bizarre As it Gets in South Korea


Two worlds meet in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, where there is a row of barracks, painted UN blue, built straddling the 38th parallel, half in the south and half in the north. The visitors are permitted to go inside and walk across the border without leaving the building. They make a lot of noise as they take pictures of themselves in front of the back door, which leads to North Korea -- in theory, at least. Practically speaking, the door is locked, and two South Korean soldiers are stationed on the southern side, standing at attention with clenched fists, observing the enemy with a faux-serious expression on their faces. A solitary North Korean guard stands on the steps of the border station on the opposite side, occasionally raising a pair of binoculars to his face. "Enjoy it!" Sally says. "You can take pictures here. But don't wave or point at the other side."

It's one of the mysteries of life in Korea that the people of the south, who are supposedly free, are barred by their own government from traveling to the north. They are also not permitted to enter the DMZ or visit the 38th parallel, as if there were something to hide there. And aside from government censors, no one in South Korea is familiar with the shrill propaganda videos the north produces. Those who attempt to access these videos online in Seoul receive a message on their screens, warning them that viewing the videos is a criminal offense, and are instructed to contact the nearest police station.

A Difficult Freedom

Jang Jin Sung is one of the few Koreans to have lived in both countries. He is standing in the lobby of the aging Koreana Hotel, looking like a spy, in his sunglasses and black coat. In fact, he is a writer who once served as national poet at the court of Kim Jong Il, where he wrote epic poems paying homage to the Dear Leader, before he had to leave the country at a moment's notice and escape on foot across the Chinese border.

Jang was permitted to meet the Dear Leader in person twice. He will never forget the first encounter, in May 1999. He was 28 at the time and had graduated with distinction from Kim Il Sung University. "I was young," he says, "and I thought I would be meeting a god."

The god turned out to be a very short man who wore shoes with such high heels that he had to remove them to sit down, which he did on the day Jang met the North Korean leader. There were seven people in the room, and Kim, in his socks, said a lot of nonsensical things in ordinary, bad Korean. When a Russian folk song was played, Kim began to weep, and the entire entourage wept along with him.

Nevertheless, poet Jang wrote eulogies to Kim, and he was rewarded for his work with regular food rations and, at the second encounter, a Rolex watch. He embarked on a career as a sort of poetry-writing agent, assigned to the country's office of psychological warfare. His role was that of a South Korean poet who wrote hymns dedicated to the North Korean dictator, leading the kind of schizophrenic life that can only exist in divided countries.

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