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  Field Notes From
Dangerous Divide

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From Author

Tom O'Neill

Dangerous Divide On Assignment

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From Photographer

Michael Yamashita

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Michael Yamashita (top) and
Amanda MacEvitt


Dangerous Divide

Field Notes From Author
Tom O'Neill
Best Worst Quirkiest
    Most days at the DMZ I looked at the topography the way the soldiers did. "That hill over there hides a cluster of artillery cannons that could destroy us in a matter of minutes," they warned me. "That roadside field is seeded with mine fields, perfect for slowing down invaders from North Korea."
    But every so often the view would snap into a different focus. Looking at a forested hillside, I would suddenly gasp at the blazing oranges and reds of trees in their October glory. Once when I was staring out a jeep window at a mountain range, I shivered with the recognition that these highlands rivaled the Great Smoky Mountains as a rugged wilderness. And I was staring at rice fields in the middle of a snowstorm when suddenly a flock of rare red-crowned cranes swooped through the air and landed on the ground in front of me. They came in peace.

    Everywhere I went cameras watched me, soldiers followed me, guards checked my papers, and officers looked over my shoulder at my notebooks. It made me feel guilty, furtive, up to no good. In a tense, high-security zone like the DMZ, anyone from the outside is viewed first with distrust, later with more distrust, and finally with mere suspicion. I understood—and appreciated—the rules, but it was always good to dissolve back into the civilian world.

    So what did I eat in Korea? Let's see. I ate donuts, pizza, burgers, and moon pies. And what did I watch on TV? Oh yeah, I saw a World Series baseball game, rodeo, and lots of fashion shows.
    The strangest thing about traveling near the DMZ in South Korea is how much the military camps try to reproduce American life. I visited almost half of the 17 bases and camps run by the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division, and never did I fail to do a doubletake at the mess hall menu. Outside the Koreans were eating dog, eel, and cabbage. Inside it was hot dogs, fish sticks, and iceberg lettuce. The mess halls are noisy too. Not from all the chewing but from the blasting sound effects from a big-screen TV showing the latest sport's highlights and violent videos from Hollywood. 
    Inside the officers' quarters, the atmosphere was more hushed. Open-mouthed, they watched a bevy of models walking down runways in Milan and Paris. Must-see TV for the brass: The Fashion Channel. Don't tell our enemies.

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