The 38th Parallel


The author Tanya Lara (fourth from left) with Seoul National University journalism fellows Vadim, Yani, Mansi, Eduardo, Sangnam Press Foundation’s Shanon, Han, Weitao and Svetlana in South Korea in 2007. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)


South Korea and North Korea got into a contest of who could build the taller flagpole and the bigger flag along the 38th parallel or the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. NoKor today has the world’s tallest flagpole and the world’s worst haircut on a leader (who probably has the world’s smallest penis too).

To this day, when I hear Blind Melon’s No Rain, I think of the 38th parallel — the demilitarized zone that divides South and North Korea — and writing fiction on a bus.

On a clear day several years ago, eight journalists stood on the lookout at the DMZ and had a glimpse of North Korea, the most isolated country in the world.

That they even had tourist telescopes to view the control zone along the 38th parallel north was fascinating to me…and so was the fact that the blue skies extended into Pyongyang and did not end at the South Korean side of the border.

Only 44 kilometers from Seoul, the DMZ is a tourist destination complete with a park that sells souvenirs including blueberry vodka made in Pyongyang (or so the bottle says). It has two kilometers of buffer zone on both sides to prevent military collision and restrict civilian access and was originally established five years after Japan ended its colonial rule of Korea. Then the two countries went under the trusteeship of the US for South Korea and the Soviet Union for North in 1950.

How different the world was when that demarcation line was drawn and split families apart: a newly independent country “needing” trusteeship from two other super countries. And look where it got North Korea — headed by a buffoon with the world’s worst haircut, an ego the size of China and, in all likelihood, a very small penis.


Looking into the world’s most isolated country on a clear day.

What’s interesting are the many anecdotes coming out of this buffer zone. One is that when South Korea built its flagpole, the North built a taller one and hoisted a much bigger flag. Then the South built an even taller flagpole for its new bigger flag. This contest went on until NoKor built the world’s tallest flagpole and a flag that takes several soldiers to raise. At this point, SoKor just said, fuckit.

Apart from the daily stare-downs and trash talk between soldiers, a NoKor soldier once tried to pull his counterpart through a door that would have put the latter into the enemy’s territory and he would have been held a prisoner. The SoKor soldier managed to escape, kicking and screaming. Our guide also said that the conference desk is marked in the middle down to the millimeter to establish territory and bolted to the floor so no one side occupies the other’s land.


A mockup metro station at the DMZ

The buildings at the 38th parallel are guarded by soldiers from the two Koreas, whose daily stare-downs and trash talk are a mine for urban legends and tour anecdotes. (Photo from

Another is that the tunnels dug up by North Korea to attack the South are unguarded on the other side because no one ever wants to defect to North Korea (except for that idiot who did everything to be thrown in jail so he could stay in Pyongyang).

Today, Pyongyang accepts tourists but they are highly restricted. You are never left on your own, a tourist guide is with you like leech that won’t come off no matter how much you try.

Two years ago, a friend showed me a video he took of Pyongyang from his hotel room, the only place he was unaccompanied by a guide. At 7 p.m., when the rest of the world is stuck in rush-hour traffic, the roads and highways of Pyongyang are empty. The only illumination is from streetlights, not from car headlights because there isn’t a single car on the road.

A capital city that feels like a ghost town. And yet, in its own bizarre reality, it lives on.

* * *


Lovely South Korean women wearing their traditional dress, hanbok (South Korea) or chosŏn-ot (North Korea). Divided even in the name of Korean clothing.

We had driven from Seoul to the DMZ — print journalists from Europe and Asia that were on a fellowship grant at Seoul National University. The routine was that after a week of lectures and talks, we would take off for the weekend to places like Jeju island, where we ate live octopus caught by the old women divers of Jeju (the youngest was 50 years old) with nothing but vinegar and chili sauce; second-largest city Busan, where we ate more seafood on the beach (cooked this time); and Pamunjon at the border of the two Koreas.

I was on a deadline with a magazine for a short story whose editor and I were mentored by the same man at different times. He had read the fiction I published when I was younger and working for a political magazine and compelled me to write fiction again — after 15 years! But I kept putting it off for months. And so on this road trip out of Seoul, I was writing on the bus.

It was nearing autumn and the weather was being eccentric and yet when we were about to step out on a road trip or go for a night out to eat “real food” (burgers and fries), the rain would become a slight drizzle and pretty soon the skies would clear up.

It was like that on that day at the DMZ. We had blue skies and then it rained while we were on the bus and then it let up in the afternoon.


Caught by the old women divers, the seafood on this Jeju island beach goes from sea to beach to your plate, eaten raw with vinegar and chili sauce.

One day, on a visit to a temple, the drizzle stayed with us. One of the guys started singing. All I can say is that my life is pretty plain, I like watchin’ the puddles gather rain. Pretty soon, we were all singing. And all I can do is just pour some tea for two and speak my point of view. But it’s not sane, it’s not sane.

It was nearing autumn and the weather was being eccentric and yet when we were about to step out on a road trip or go for a night out to eat “real food” (burgers and fries), the rain would become a slight drizzle and pretty soon the skies would clear up.

It was like that on that day at the DMZ. We had blue skies and then it rained while we were on the bus and then it let up in the afternoon.


The author (second from right) with fellow print journalists.

One day, on a visit to a temple, the drizzle stayed with us. One of the guys started singing. All I can say is that my life is pretty plain, I like watchin’ the puddles gather rain. Pretty soon, we were all singing. And all I can do is just pour some tea for two and speak my point of view. But it’s not sane, it’s not sane.

Some nights on campus (we were staying at the visiting faculty house), we would gather in one room with a guitar and drink whiskey and beers — having had our fill of soju or Korean vodka at lunch or whenever we sat down at a table. In Seoul, it seemed that if you went into a restaurant and ordered coffee, they would bring you soju instead and you couldn’t say no.

Back in 2007, the idea of reunification seemed like a real possibility. They said it was only a matter of time and diplomatic maneuvering. They said families would be together again. But in Seoul, the young Koreans were unsure — what would that mean to the economy, to jobs that weren’t easy to find, to the prosperity they enjoy?


Cooking bibimbap. Before you even get to your main entrée, you will be full from the small appetizers laid on your table.

In Pyongyang, the highway leading to their side of the DMZ is called the Reunification Highway. On it is the “Reunification Arch” — two Korean women symbolizing North and South and holding a sphere bearing the map of a one Korea. At the DMZ on South Korea’s side is the Unification Sculpture. They put it right outside the Third Tunnel of Aggression, which the North was going to use for an attack on Seoul (the DMZ is only 44 kilometers from the capital) and was discovered with the help of a defector.

I thought it was telling that they didn’t use the word “reunification,” which refers to restoring political unity, and instead used “unification,” which is the process of making something whole again.


The Monument to Reunification, south of Pyongyang, has two Koreans in traditional choson holding the map of a one Korea. (Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/


The Unification Sculpture at the DMZ on the South Korean side shows figures pushing a globe split in half to become whole again.

And that is what the sculpture represents. It is a globe split in half depicting the division of Korea. On both sides are figures of people, including children, pushing the two halves to make it whole again.

You’d think that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, previously divided countries would be whole again. Except the exact opposite happened. The Soviet Union fell apart, Yugoslavia split, and autonomous regions became independent republics — at the cost of bloody wars and so much human loss.

For the two Koreas, the Unification Sculpture might as well be a monument to what will remain a dream for broken families as long as Kim Jong-un is in power.

Because no matter how hard you try or whatever you do, you just can’t negotiate with crazy.

Categories: ASIA/MIDDLE EASTTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. Tans, I was in Seoul a long, long time ago, and one afternoon, we heard the shrill of a siren. Our guide said it was some kind of a drill in case the North attacked and everybody was supposed to go into hiding. Nobody should be seen in the streets. I couldn’t run fast enough to hide so I thought, if there was an attack, I would have been the first casualty. Do they still have that kind of drill now?


  2. This was really interesting to read. Living in the US, it’s really hard for me to imagine what it’s like to live in a situation like that, but I liked hearing this story.


  3. That is quite a story. Living in the USA it’s hard to imagine. The pictures are great. Diane Sullivan

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow this is really interesting! I live in Canada and often times feel everyone lives like we do and forget not everyone does! This was a great read. I feel very blessed to live where I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was completely fascinating! It’s so weird how the capital city has no cars on the road by 7pm. Whoa.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great pictures! It’s nice getting new perspectives on things like this! Very interesting read ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I traveled extensively but nowhere in Asia..the more I read these types of posts, the more it inspires me to visit these places!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, it’s almost hard to imagine living life like this from here in the US. Praying hard for both Korea’s tonight ❤ Thank you for sharing such an insightful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love learning about different countries and cultures. Thanks for sharing your story, it’s so interesting!


  10. I love learning about different countries and stories. Thanks for sharing yours, it’s so interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is such a volatile area to be in between North and South Korea. It’s interesting to be in the DMZ area though with their tourist attraction.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Your article is so fascinating. You have me wanting to visit but afraid to visit at the same time. As I got closer to the end and you speaking of countries being torn apart, America is just like that. There is still this invisible line that’s not so invisible that keeps us separated… on the outside it looks like race is the separator but it’s really wealth. Most poor people reside in the South with few wealthy people and that’s how they’d like to keep. Truth be told they’d start another Civil War if anyone tried to change it… just crazy. The way you feel about Kim Jong-un, I feel about most Southern radical supposed Christians, you can’t negotiate with crazy azz hatemongers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. 🙂 You’re right, too many crazies ruling the world and talking loudly. I feel sad about North Korea and I’m not even Korean! (I’m Filipino) I can’t imagine living in a country where there is no free speech. On the issue of poverty, it is the same in the Philippines. Sadly, there is too much extremism in the world today, whether that’s economic or religious or political.


  13. What fun pictures! I looks like you are having a great time in that part of the country!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. What a great article. The stories about the guards along the DMZ are interesting. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great post! And what a cool experience to get to do this. Such a fascinating place to explore.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. What an eye opening post! I love the pictures, and the glimpse into a totally different world!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Very interesting post! You definitely helped paint a picture of somewhere I’ve never been and now would love to go!


  18. Very interesting to read, as I always have intrest to know about different countries, their life style & tradition. I never know living in North Korea is such a hard task. I am sure you had a great experience altogether.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. this was an interesting blog post. I have never been to Korea myself but I have several Korean friends and I love going to Korean restaurants with them… bibimop or however you spell it is my favorite

    Liked by 1 person

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