Me seeing him, seeing me, seeing him

I'm standing on a hill in South Korea called the Dora Observatory, looking through powerful binoculars across a valley 3 kilometers wide, to an observation post on a hill in North Korea. I can clearly see a North Korean soldier looking back at me, so close it seems that I am tempted to wave at him.

If you're wondering why there is no photo of this event at the bottom left of this page, it's because in this strange, almost surreal place called the DMZ, you are not allowed to take photos. I can step back behind a yellow line and shoot photos to my heart's content, but I can't see the North Korean soldier from that angle, thus the substitute photo.

Click here to enlarge image

I'm enjoying a day off from a busy week visiting South Korean laser system manufacturers and presenting a seminar on the Global Marketplace at Seoul's impressive COEX center.

My companions on the DMZ trip— another American, an Irishman, an Austrian, and a Japanese—are a sociable group, united in our disbelief that an authoritarian regime can isolate itself, for 50 years, from the modern world, suppressing a good life for its people. In this era of modern communications we find it ludicrous that the North Koreans still raise electronic billboards taunting the U.S./South Korean security forces manning the DMZ.

I speak to a young noncommissioned U.S. officer, just completing his tour on the DMZ. Surely, I ask him, it's silly that I can't photograph North Korea when we have spy satellites in the sky, ground sensors, and other exotic eavesdropping devices. He just smiles, not in a condescending way, but as one soldier to an old veteran, and swiftly changes the subject, as if to say, "It's not us, it's them."

I ask him if he sees an end to this nonsense. His face brightens as he says, "Yes sir, the industrial complex being built up against the demarcation line." He's referring to a nascent industrial park that is planned as an inducement for North Koreans to work for a living wage, eventually, we assume, developing a middle class that will revolt against the brutal dictatorship now in place. Sort of a repeat of the Berlin Wall.

Later my companions and I agree that commerce, in the form of industrial manufacturing, can and likely will be the wedge to crack the North Korean isolationist mentality.

South Korean manufacturers are major users of industrial lasers for sheet metal cutting, welding, microelectronic, and semiconductor manufacturing. About 10 domestic suppliers fill annual needs of about 900 units with another 600 or so exported, mainly to other Asian nations. The government thinks that photonics is a desirable industry, so they are building a Photonics Center in Gwangju, about 400 kilometers southeast of here, and laser technology will be a part of this. I'd like to think that a laser activity will end up in the DMZ industrial park, contributing to the breakdown of the North Korean regime, eventually reuniting long-separated families.

My companions and I wonder if the North Koreans have a tourist overlook on their side where they can look at us in South Korea. Our guide says no one knows what goes on on the other side. As a lark I stick out my tongue at the unseen eyes on the other side. Childish? Yes. But maybe it drew a laugh, and heaven knows you need one in this somber place.

David A. Belforte
belforte@pennwell.com

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