This winter for the first time I visited Panmunjom. As a New Yorker takes the Empire State Building for granted, I did the same with Panmunjom as a native Korean. It has been ''there'' ever since this truce village came into existence in 1953 as the conference site for the United Nations (currently de facto United States) and North Korean Military Armistice Commission. It is hard to believe that I have made no special efforts to visit the place until this time. Still, it is better being late than never.
Panmunjom is located just an hour-and-a- half bus ride from Seoul. Such a short distance struck me, let alone the stark contrast between the pretensions of peace in Seoul and the preparedness for war in Panmunjom. The fragile ceasefire has continued except for the occasional bloody incidents and military flare-ups along the 151-mile demarcation line running east to west on the Korean peninsula.
Actual war has stopped for good (hopefully forever!), but during my visit there I discovered another kind of war - flag war (not as deadly but as serious and silly as any war). In the heart of the Panmunjom village, there is the Military Armistice Commission building where both sides hold their meetings. At one end of the long table inside this building, the tiny flags of the United Nations Command and of North Korea stand side by side.
I was told by the military guide that each side tried to make its own flagpole taller than the other, until both flags nearly hit the roof of the building. When both parties realized the sheer absurdity of such acts, they finally agreed to limit the size and height of their flags. I don't know when such an agreement was struck, but the two flags still didn't look the same. The UNC flag seemed a bit shorter yet fatter (heavier) than North Korea's which looked skinnier yet taller. But neither one was conspicuously taller than the other.
Near Panmunjom two villages were built within four kilometers of the Joint Security Area, one in the North Korean zone, and the other on the South Korean side. The Baeksung-li was a showcase village constructed of white cement by the communist North, and the Daesung-dong, often called the ''Freedom Village,'' was built of red bricks by the anticommunist South. The North and South Korean flags flew on top of some 180-foot-tall flagpoles in both villages. As with those miniature flags inside the Military Armistice Commission Building, I was informed by my guide, a flag war went on in these two model villages, with each side attempting to make its flagpole taller than the other.
Childishness is certainly not the monopoly of children. Children usually play harmless games, but adults often play deadly ones. The flag wars appeared silly but not as dangerous as the arms race between North and South Korea. Why do grownups play such childish games?
My visit to Panmunjom was indeed an emotional experience. It stirred something deep inside of me. For some time now, I have been brooding over what that ''something'' was.
Panmunjom is not just made up of soldiers, barracks, ammunition dumps, multilayered barbed wire fences, antitank walls, and trenches. Nor does it stand for a tourist attraction.
Rather, it symbolizes a political division that separates father from son, North from South, and the communist ''utopia'' from the capitalist ''free'' world. It is the only place where both sides can ''talk.''
Verbal abuses are not unknown to both sides during their talks, but for nearly 30 years no conference tables were turned over or broken. It is indeed the only forum in the midst of military tension where a semblance of civility reigns between the two.
This may be a hopeful sign, but the ever-increasing military stockpiling dims such hope each time.
The uneasy ''peace'' between North and South Korea symbolized by Panmunjom is as fragile as a peacelike war or a warlike peace between the US and the USSR, or , on a global scale, between the ''free'' world and the communist world.
Perhaps we need more flag wars to awaken us from our folly and absurdity before a real deadly quarrel commences.