Fairy­tales over­come night­mares in Paju

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Ahalf-hour’s drive north of Seoul, along a high­way lined with barbed wire, lie two shop­ping malls the size of sev­eral foot­ball sta­di­ums, a stone’s throw from the world’s most mil­i­ta­rized bor­der. The malls are in the city of Paju, gate­way to the UN truce vil­lage of Pan­munjom, where mil­i­tary of­fi­cers from the com­bat­ants of the 1950-53 Korean war dis­cuss ar­mistice mat­ters when the two sides are on speak­ing terms, which they aren’t these days.

“Fairy tales come true in Paju”, is the ad­ver­tis­ing lure from the Korean Tourism Board. But it was night­mares that were all too true here dur­ing the Korean war, when Paju fea­tured some of its fiercest bat­tles. Paju is home to the coun­try’s only “en­emy’s ceme­tery”, where the re­mains of Chi­nese and North Korean sol­diers are buried.

That’s all but for­got­ten his­tory now. On the rooftop of the Lotte Pre­mium Out­let, chil­dren and their par­ents can view North Korea across the Imjin River through binoc­u­lars. The mall also fea­tures a merry-go-round, cin­ema, and a mini-train. At Shin­segae Paju Pre­mium Out­let, about a dozen chil­dren jump and scream around a foun­tain in­side the mall on a siz­zling, July sum­mer day. Just a cou­ple miles away is a vil­lage mod­elled af­ter France’s tourism cen­ter of Provence, where restau­rants, bak­eries and cloth­ing shops are dec­o­rated like a chil­dren’s play­book.

Else­where in Paju, kids carved wood to make Pinoc­chio dolls at a mu­seum, while adults tasted wine made of meoru, a Korean wild grape, at a farm. Paju, in­deed, shows lit­tle signs of the ten­sions that have arisen since North Korea marked the US July 4th hol­i­day with a suc­cess­ful launch of what it said was an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile. The mis­sile test prompted the United States and South Korea this month to con­duct air force bomber ex­er­cises in the skies near here.

Lit­ter­ing Land Mines

But at Paju’s Provence Vil­lage, Kim Ki-deok, a 41-year-old of­fice worker from south of Seoul and fa­ther of a 4-year-old boy, said he doesn’t feel any more dan­ger from be­ing close to the bor­der. “If North Korea re­ally wants, they can shoot mis­siles far away,” said Kim. “I feel re­freshed and would like to come here again.” The sense of in­sou­ciance can even be seen at the US mil­i­tary’s Camp Boni­fas on the out­skirts of town, home to a three-hole golf course that Sports Il­lus­trated once called the “world most dan­ger­ous golf course” be­cause of the Korean War vin­tage land mines lit­ter­ing the area. The Korean War, in which the United States fought along­side South Korea and China with the North, ended in a truce that has yet to be re­placed by a peace agree­ment and has left the two sides tech­ni­cally at war. It means South Kore­ans have long grown ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing in a dooms­day sce­nario, one that in­cludes up to 10,000 ar­tillery guns pointed to­ward the South and ca­pa­ble at any mo­ment, in the words of North Korea’s pro­pa­ganda ma­chine, of turn­ing Seoul into a “sea of fire” and a “pile of ashes.”

For 30-year-old Park Chol-min, it’s noth­ing more than empty threats. “It’s just a show or per­for­mance. I think North Korea has a lot more to lose than to gain by turn­ing Seoul into a sea of fire,” said the video game pro­ducer from Seoul, vis­it­ing the Shin­segae mall with his girl­friend to buy her a birth­day gift.

De­fence Mech­a­nism

Paju stepped up North Korea-re­lated tourism in the 2000s, when lib­eral gov­ern­ments launched a “Sun­shine Pol­icy” of en­gage­ment with North Korea. For­eign­ers and lo­cals flocked to Pan­munjom to see stony-faced North Korean sol­diers on guard and an un­der­ground tun­nel built by the North, and to Imjin­gak, which houses the Bridge of Free­dom, where pris­on­ers of war were traded at the end of the war. The tourism push took a huge leap late in 2011, when two mas­sive pre­mium out­lets run by South Korean re­tail gi­ants Shin­segae and Lotte opened. More than 12 mil­lion visi­tors went to the two malls last year - more than Seoul’s pop­u­la­tion of 10 mil­lion. It was not long af­ter the malls opened, though, when North Korea dra­mat­i­cally stepped up the pace of mis­sile and nu­clear tests un­der Kim Jong Un, who took power in Py­ongyang when his fa­ther Kim Jong-il died in Dec 2011.

“The tests have not dented vis­i­tor in­ter­est at all,” said a Paju city of­fi­cial in charge of tourism, who asked not to be named. “It has be­come just part of a daily life, al­though it is sad to say so.” Nor­mal­iz­ing the North Korean threat is part of a “de­fense mech­a­nism” for South Kore­ans, says Kwak Keum-joo, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Seoul Na­tional Univer­sity. — Reuters

Army sol­diers of North Korea (top) and South Korea stand guard at the bor­der vil­lages of Pan­munjom in Paju, South Korea on July 19, 2017. — AP

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