[ KOREAN ]
Issue 242 [11.23]
Issue 241 [07.11]
Issue 240 [06.01]
Issue 239 [03.21]
Issue 238 [01.26]
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes
Six Pary Talks
Asian Peace Philosophy
☞ Issue 31
The geography of the Korean psyche
SEOUL - The road that leads to the Dragon Moors, an alpine wetland, is a rutted two-track lane that goes past a rainbow-trout farm fed by a rushing cold-water creek. The dirt road winds its way up the forested valley and, judging from a tour map provided by Inje county and a store-bought driving atlas, it is accessible to the general public.
The road gets narrower and is lined with brush. A rock bashes the undercarriage of the car and the driver curses viciously in both English and Korean, and then a weathered sign appears. "No entrance," it reads, and states that if one wants to visit the area, one must receive official permission.
Entering without permission could lead to a 200,000 won (US$212) fine. You wouldn't know it from the maps, but the Dragon Moor is within the Mintongseon, or the Civilian Control Zone of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
The DMZ is the world's most heavily fortified border, with 1.2 million land mines on the South Korean side and thousands of soldiers facing each other across mountain valleys. The DMZ is composed of multiple parallel lines; some are invisible, and others are chain-link fences crowned with concertina wire. The boundaries are real, but they are left unmarked on maps produced in South Korea.
On a roadmap produced by the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, it appears that one could hop in a car and cruise up Highway 1 to Gaeseong in North Korea and visit the joint North-South factory complex. Try it and the soldiers at the army checkpoint before the Imjin River would laugh as they turned you back south. Similar maps were distributed by the Korea National Tourism Organization during the World Cup. On these maps, the DMZ doesn't exist, and Korea is not a divided country.
A semi-honest map is produced by the Yanggu county government. The DMZ is marked in bold red letters on a perforated line. There is a parallel shaded area to represent some kind of restricted space. Dutayeon, a scenic waterfall within the Civilian Control Zone, appears to be just another tourist site. It is open to travelers, but one must be accompanied by an official tour guide after signing documents and producing identification.
The road to the waterfall is strewn with barbed wire, tagged with triangular land-mine signs. At the entrance checkpoint, all cameras must be surrendered to the soldiers for security and safekeeping; however, this tends not to stop crafty South Korean tourists with digital-camera cellular phones.
The maps of two counties that abut the DMZ, Hwacheon and Cheorwon, are especially deceitful in their misrepresentation of the DMZ boundary lines. The DMZ don't exist on these Beetle Maps, and it all looks like open country. The maps tend to flaunt their proximity to historical sites within the DMZ, yet those same sites are as inaccessible to the average visitor as the mountain villas of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. If one had the notion to cruise up to the Sanmyeong Reservoir and watch the migrations of white-naped cranes, one would hit a dead end at a military barricade.
The purposeful obfuscation isn't limited to the DMZ region. Ask any expatriates living in South Korea what they would do if a second Korean War broke out, and most answer that they would rush to the nearest US military base - if they could find one. US military bases don't exist on the vast majority of Korean maps, yet they occupy extremely significant portions of major cities.
The highest-profile base is the Yongsan Garrison, a walled compound ringed with barbed wire and rimmed with riot police. Home to about 7,000 American soldiers, the base sits on 265 hectares in the middle of Seoul. It is a patch of land redolent of foreign military domination starting with Chinese forces of the Qing Dynasty, then Japanese colonial soldiers, and the US troops since the end of the Korean War.
The nearby neighborhood of Itaewon is well populated with US military personnel and associated civilians, and at a tourist kiosk near the fire station, one can pick up a free map of the Yongsan area. It is extremely detailed and useful, but the location of the US military bases is left as a bizarre empty space with no remarks. Likewise, other maps, such as Escort Seoul and official government maps, show Yongsan as dead space. It might be a shameful insult to Koreans to have thousands of foreign troops stationed in the capital, but it is an equal insult to the intelligence of thousands of visitors who stare at blank spots on maps and wonder where they are.
This national psychology of ignoring uncomfortable landmarks in South Korea finds a perfect echo in the unfinished and vacant Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, a 105-floor monolithic tower that is visible for all tourists to see. It is a failed enterprise, and North Korean tour guides deny its existence. Naturally, it is omitted from the city maps.
An enormous number of maps were produced for the 2005 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Busan, many of them of good quality, even listing obscure tourist sites and back-alley markets. Camp Hialeah, in the middle of Busan and home to 2,500 US service members, wasn't denoted. It was just another blank spot. Likewise for Daegu, the fourth-largest city and the home of Camps Walker, George and Henry that sit on more than 80 hectares in the metro limits. If you are driving on some of the Daegu highways, a handful of road signs point the way to Camp Walker. The extremely detailed map provided free from Daegu Metro doesn't list these locations.
To be fair, South Korean military bases are not listed on maps either. Along the Seohwa River that flows out of the DMZ, unmarked army camps nearly outnumber farms. Even notable institutions such as the South Korean Naval Academy, a scenic campus in Jinhae that opens once a year to the public during the local cherry-blossom festival, is not listed in most atlases. A map produced by the Jinhae government marks it on a peninsula that appears free and accessible, looking like a nice place to have a seaside picnic. However, the peninsula is a walled military compound that is also neighbor to a small US naval base. Its location is hardly a military secret. A North Korean spy could simply visit the academy's website and get a good idea of its location and facilities.
The 'national security' mantra
Ask anyone why these facilities go unlisted and you get the same answer - "national security". So the release of Google Earth, free satellite imaging software, caused some consternation for South Korean government officials. It was deemed a threat to national security, since it could display military facilities of the South Koreans, Americans, and the North Koreans, too. South Korean officials contacted US authorities to grouse about the situation, but nothing came of it, since Google is a private entity. It was more of a matter of insecurity, for it was the first time South Korean officials could not control the true representation of the Korean landscape to the public.
The national-security mantra became a moot point long before the advent of Google Earth. Pyongyang has had the last 50 years to pinpoint every strategic locale in South Korea. With basic technology, numerous infiltrations, both known and unknown, along with North Korea's fifth columns, they know the landmarks they need to know, and they won't be resorting to tourist maps or travel atlases or freeware in the event of a preemptive strike.
Maps and the realities and non-realities they reflect are regularly used to further the official South Korean agenda. In the dispute over the naming of the body of water between Japan and Korea as either the Sea of Japan or the East Sea, numerous maps have been trotted out to support various claims. Last year, an 18th-century English map that purported to replicate Marco Polo's ambiguous travels marked the disputed sea as the "Eastern Sea", and thus "proved" Korean claims.
In the similar dispute of the Liancourt Rocks (Tokdo of Korea or Takeshima Island of Japan), a 19th-century French map labeling Tokdo as Korean territory was used as tangible evidence to defy Japanese claims. The map sold for $9,460 at a Seoul auction. Two other Japanese-drawn maps were produced, one from 1785 that labeled the rocky isles as Korean territory and bore the Chinese ideogram for "east" in naming the contested sea. The other 16th-century Japanese military map marked the isles as Korean turf.
In 2004, ancient maps were dusted off when China set its eyes on the Manchurian borderlands of Jiandao to list the capital cities of the ancient Goguryeo Kingdom as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site. Korean scholars produced European maps of the Gando region from the late 1700s marking it as Korean territory, along with a couple of 19th-century maps of German and Russian origin.
South Korea still doesn't have a national atlas, although one is supposedly going to be published late next year. It is promised to include a huge amount of geographical information. One would hope that it will include the DMZ, one of the most significant land boundaries in the world.
By redrawing maps, the history of a nation is altered. Omitting uncomfortable landmarks is like excising an embarrassing passage of a history textbook. The maps produced in South Korea are partially helpful for understanding the lay of the land, but are much better used to understand the geography of the Korean psyche.
James Card is a freelance writer in South Korea. He can be contacted at www.jamescard.net.
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