Let’s acknowledge the big elephant in South Korea’s metaphorical room… North Korea.
With rising tensions between North Korea and the U.S., the possibility of war is well, quite feasible. While this potential scenario unsettles me, I have chosen not to be paralyzed by the fear of a potentiality, and continue to live my life as normal as possible, while hoping that peace in this region continues for a long time to come. But I will disclose that I compulsively check the news for updates on this situation because I half expect something to go down. And also because like most humans, I care about my immediate safety.
On today’s piece (written a year ago) Rob does an excellent job of deep diving into how South and North Korea came to be, why they’re able to coexist ~peacefully~ (but with constant tension), how the situation is perceived by Koreans and Westerners, and the uncomfortable uncertainty the future holds.
Rob Defina is a Canadian writer that shares my passion of cultural ethnography and will be featured on this blog as a guest writer, dissecting various topics that make up Korea’s cultural fabric. Check out his observations of love and relationships in South Korea.
NOTE: As always, my information comes from various sources and does not always represent a full truth but instead represents opinions, conversations and comments made from people who only participate in a small section of their culture. If there are any issues with facts here, please let me know in the most constructive possible way in the comments. Thank you and enjoy.
It happens every now and then… I’ll be teaching in my classroom when the booming sound over the sky reverberates throughout the classroom. The first time it happened I opened my eyes wide and looked over to my co-teacher who was going on as if nothing had changed. The students were the same. I stopped speaking and it was almost as if they were confused as to why.
When the fighter jets slash through the air, I always pause my class. Firstly, I’ve no reason to yell above their booming engines and secondly, it almost feels like a moment of silence is a necessary response.
“What was that?” I asked the first time.
“Airplane.” my co-teacher told me with a stern smile, until the sound ended and my class continued as normal.
They’re not airplanes. I don’t care how close I live to the Daegu International Airport, airplanes don’t break the sound barrier in the manner that these fighter jets do. These are war planes of the South Korean government, constantly flying through the sky at all hours of the workday, their passengers training for the possibility of a potential outbreak of war.
Scattered around Daegu (and every other Korean city, no matter how small) are American military bases. American soldiers have been stationed in South Korea since July of 1957, following the end of the Korean War, the most devastating civil war in modern history.
If you are as undereducated about the Korean War as I was, I hope these brief explanations can help you grasp what has happened here: Before World War II Korea was entirely occupied by the Japanese. Everything from their media, their education, their religion and even their language and culture was systematically erased and replaced with Japanese propaganda. Korean citizens who participated in the world Olympics stood beneath the waving Japanese flag at medal ceremonies, a constant reminder of who controlled them. It’s safe to say Koreans were not pleased with the occupation. Still, to this day, there is resentment between Koreans and Japanese. Korea had enjoyed its own separation as an entire nation, ruled by a King, up until the late 19th century, where they signed a treaty with Japan for fear of war. The Koreans that knew of life before Japanese occupation, then, were quite angered by the life they were forced to live.
When World War II rolled around, the pressure of the Japanese worsened. Korean men were forced into labor conscription in Japan, while others were forced to join the Japanese military. In the meantime, and prior to the war, some Korean women were sold to the sex trade. What truly became the turning point for Korea was the Soviet occupation. As Japan and Germany began to lose its grip on the war, the Russians began to slowly overrun Korea. At this same time, the American atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing the Japanese to retreat and ending the Second World War When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Korea was free of their 35 year occupation.
In an act of name reclamation by the American government, made at the 38th parallel in 1946, Koreans were allowed to change their family names and rid themselves of their given Japanese names. Being influenced by the royalty of Korea’s past, most Koreans chose names of high standing – 박 (Park), 김 (Kim), 이 (Lee) and many various others that you likely are very familiar with and may have once made a passing comment about how “they all have the same last name”.
The 38th parallel is the line that divided and still divides North and South Korea. The Soviet occupation went from the Chinese border and stretched down to the 38th parallel, while the Americans agreed to reclaim the area south of the parallel, stretching from Seoul to Busan. Negotiations went on for a few years, but tensions from the Cold War made it difficult for reunification to occur. This created the two parts we are aware of now – The Republic of Korea (or, South Korea) and The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). From 1948 to 1950, many lives were lost at the 38th parallel from disagreements between the two sides, evolving into an invasion by the North of the South and thus, the three-year long Korean War, which lasted until 1953.
Eighty percent of South Korea’s buildings were destroyed in the wake of the Korean War, as the North Korean infiltration had managed to take over most of the country. Busan (the most southern part) was the only safe haven left when the UN forces joined the fight. The North Koreans were then pushed back, almost entirely overtaken at the Chinese border until China got involved, managing to bring the South Korean forces down to the 38th parallel, where a ceasefire agreement was signed and the two countries have lived on tense pause since.
For 60 years, the two countries have lived in this manner, the border highly guarded from the built up DMZ or Demilitarized Zone (which is now the most militarized area in Korea, ironically), protecting the inner border, lying at the JSA or Joint Security Area, where the South and North Koreans have guards stationed daily, in case any disruptions occur from the opposite side.
This has been the norm for more than half a century. So what has happened, then, to the people of these nations?
While in University, I remember watching a documentary called National Geographic: Inside North Korea. It told the story of an American journalist disguising herself as a doctor’s assistant to an optometrist who was called into North Korea to fix a recurring cataract problem in the people there. North Korea, for the past 60 years, has refused to trade with many modern countries and, as a result, has been prone to widespread malnourishment. I recall the scene at the end of the documentary where the healed patients ignored their thanks for the doctor and instead stood in front of a large picture of 김정일 (Kim-Jeong-Il), the now deceased but then ruler of North Korea. They praised their leader for the blessings of sight and promised that they would kill every American citizen in his name. While this is not a direct quote of the documentary, it’s really what was meant by the words spoken.
So is North Korea like this? Is this overstated media coverage about a nation that holds its members captive and brainwashes them into believing the world is a terrible place the whole truth?
Some would say yes. In fact, most Westerners are likely to comment on how “fucked up” North Korea is and occasionally they might compare it to something like the land of Panem from The Hunger Games. It has even become a source of entertainment for its presumed absurdity, highlighted by the 2014 film, The Interview, whose release was apparently stopped due to North Korean officials threatening the United States for its conception. Whether this was a publicity stunt or not is still to be determined, and if you are truly curious you could always watch it on Netflix because apparently North Korea was okay with that (I mean, c’mon, it’s Netflix). But what do we really know about North Korea? From a nation that is so locked up and closed off to the outside world, our glimpses of it are properly controlled and its methods of isolation prevent anyone from inside telling their story unless they successfully flee and doing so is indeed a very difficult endeavor.
I’ve always had a fascination in its unknowns. I bonded with an EPIK teacher from Busan over wanting to visit North Korea to write a book about it – how wonderful it would be to see the world from a different perspective, to see what they live their day to day lives like and to experience, first hand, the communist rule that has the entire world captivated. Many foreigners have chosen to visit, in fact. The process is not as difficult as you’d think. Processing your passport and obtaining a North Korean visa can be done if you wish to travel there for a 3, 4 or 7 day, entirely guided trip, where a one-time payment will cover all expenses. Reports that hotel rooms are wired are rampant from these experiences. The claustrophobia felt by a Western citizen in a dictatorship is unimaginable.
Growing up in a Western society, we are so affixed to our wider freedoms that we seldom operate under the idea that our subtle actions and behaviors have any viable consequences. Being raised in a society that allows us our many freedoms prevents us from consciously operating properly in a new environment. We are hard wired to believe certain things and appear foolish in the eyes of others for our naive belief that our humanity somehow gives us the right to explore and discover every last part of the planet as if there will be no ill effects done by doing so.
People in my generation just don’t understand war. I’ve yet to decide if that’s a fortunate thing or not because it prevents us from understanding many of the people we share our world with. For a country like Korea, whose entire history for the past century has been fraught with war, whether cold or active, there is a much different perspective on life and the value of nationalism. As a Canadian (Italian 2nd-generation immigrant), it is clear that I have had quite the easy ride through life, dodging the statistically charged bullets that should be more than likely to land a hit, considering most of the world suffers war or famine on a day to day basis or at least at some point in their lives. For me, this creates a feeling of invincibility, a subconscious notion that I can travel all over the world, at my will, and not be treated differently or suffer any negative consequences. In fact, this is literally what I am doing now while living in South Korea. The irony that I chose the one country in the world to teach in where I would live miles south of a nation whose citizens know nothing close to my lifestyle is difficult to ignore.
But then again, this lifestyle is something I’ve only understood through reflections of South Korea’s own propaganda. Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure (and after, the jitters) of visiting the Demilitarized Zone and Joint Security Area of the 38th parallel with two friends visiting from Toronto. How you ask? Well, of course, with an organized tour.
All we had to do was send scans of our passports to the travel agency and we were booked on the tour (a mere $88 Canadian got us a full day tour of the DMZ and included lunch as well as a roundtrip coach bus to and from Seoul). The email I received from the operator warned that we were not allowed to make eye contact or do anything to disturb the North Korean guards on the other side. Part of me felt anxious about this but another part wondered if this was all part of the entertainment involved with participating in this tour – sort of like the thrill you get at the top of a roller coaster.
On our bus to the DMZ, which takes about an hour and a half from Seoul’s city hall, our tour guide repeatedly told us that anything the North could consider offensive to their side would immediately end the tour and send us back on the bus for “our own safety”. The bus crossed through two separate passport checkpoints, where the young Korean soldier came on the bus and checked each individual tourist’s passport. Once we were twice approved (first at the DMZ, then the JSA) we moved onward. Our bus stopped in front of a building where we took a group photo (sigh) and then went into a briefing room where a simultaneous Japanese/English presentation on the war’s history was held.
The thing we noticed most, and when I say we I mean my friends and I, was that the presentation had an overwhelmingly biased tinge to it. Sandra pointed out that the tour guide referred to the North Koreans overtaking the South as an “invasion” but said, when the South were overtaking the North, that “we almost had unification“. The word choice was clearly tinged with the South Korean agenda. This made me slowly realize that, while North Korea is probably a very un-Democratic place to live (despite its name), there may be a lot of embellishments that we receive as media consumers. This would be due to the agenda pressed by the specific countries in question. Of course the United States and South Korea want us to fear the on goings of the North – they are the enemy of both countries and this rationalizes our belief that something must be done to stop them.
There are always two sides to every story, and accepting what you are told your entire life about something instead of critically thinking about it and possibly objecting to its alleged truth is the only way to clearly see through some of the notions you’ve been fed your whole life. As humans, we are usually satisfied with our ignorance. And thus, North Korea is seen as the feared nation, as opposed to, perhaps, a nation constantly living in fear since the USA and their neighbors to the South have been consistently at odds with them for 70 years.
So here we are, a pack of tourists being shuttled through a borderline where North Korean guards stand mere meters away from us, and instead of acknowledging that this is quite possibly the most tense area on the entire planet, we are told which two spots we are allowed to take pictures in, we are given a small amount of time and then we are shipped to a gift shop where we can buy alleged North Korean wine, North Korean currency, South Korean solider outfits as costumes for our children and families, or how about a book of our entire day filled with the group pictures we took inside a blue conference room where negotiations to stifle war still take place to this day. This tour feels like the South Korean government wants us to be entertained by what is happening so that we can agree with them wholeheartedly and support their efforts. Those jets that fly over my classroom every day then, are funded by the entries we take into the DMZ. We are part of a modern day war fund.
I could get all devil’s advocate and speculative about the nature of the media’s representation of North Korea versus its true status, but the truth is, many people have escaped the nation to tell their stories, and there’s a reason they leave.
If you didn’t already know, many families were separated when the nations split into North and South – siblings were separated and to this day, their lineages still lie on opposite sides of the 38th parallel. Some people don’t even know their families as South Koreans are forbidden from entering the North and the North are prohibited from leaving the country entirely.
Naturally, defecting North Korea is a mission that some citizens have attempted. Here, in the outside world, we have heard of some fantastic escape stories (there is even an organization called LINK – Liberty in North Korea, which raises funds to bring North Korean refugees from China to South Korea, where they can live a freer Korean lifestyle) and there are plenty of failures which I’m sure we will never know about. For more on escaping North Korea, you can watch a documentary since many of them highlight these moments. I’m more concerned with the reasons why they defect.
While never admitted by the North Korean government (and why would they?), the nation allegedly has labor camps where many people are forced to work strenuously while their government officials are treated like royalty. There have even been overwhelming reports that political prisoner camps exist for those who dare to stand up against the country’s reign. Through time, as more people escaped, and even as many government officials (such as prison camp guards) have defected, the evidence piles up overwhelmingly in favor of all the reports being true – North Korea is indeed a nation that uses fear to keep its people in line, and threatens their lives if they choose to exercise any form of freedom which they clearly do not have. The list of issues that occur in North Korea go on and on and include corruption, limited ability to travel within the country, no freedom of speech and/or religion, etc.
So what about South Korea? How do they feel about all of this?
If you are brave enough to ask a South Korean their thoughts on the matter, they are usually not very expressive about it. The adults I work with are all extremely avoidant of the topic and I haven’t been able to get more than one sentence out of them in regards to these kinds of conversations. The truth seems to be that no one wants to talk about it or acknowledge it. However, it is more of a long-term solution here. It’s a natural human coping mechanism at play. There are no benefits to worrying about potential war continuing or freaking out every time a plane flies over the classroom. It is common for South Koreans to forget because it is the best way for them to get on with their lives, and I take very little issue with that.
The problem occurs, then, when North Korean refugees attempt to assimilate to their new environment. One day, while I was teaching in my class, a couple of students called a kid “북한사람!”as a joke (buk-han-sa-ram = North Korean) and they all laughed it off together in an almost diabolical way. Another time, I had asked the students to write down one thing they were looking forward to this year and another thing they were worried about. One student wrote “I’m worried about North Korea attacking me” and when I looked up I saw his friend laughing at him and then everyone got in on the joke, while the teacher came over, giggling, and gave him a smack on the head with a grin on her face (which, by the way, is normal here). Even today, I was marking an essay that said “I want to travel to North Korea to see how ugly Kim-Jong-Eun is.” The hate for North Korea is built into their society. The boys at this middle school well know by now that when they turn 18 they will be expected to enroll in the military and complete their two years of service to their government, training for any potential war that may come their way. All of these factors contribute to discrimination towards North Korean refugees, and deviates from the understanding that they have made a brave escape from their nation to be a part of the freedom that South Korean students don’t seem as grateful to have. By the nation not taking North Korea seriously, it seems South Korean children are raised into believing it’s all one big joke and that anyone from North Korea is lesser to them because they didn’t have the fortunate luxury of being raised in South Korea.
This of course, stems from fear. A typical coping mechanism for something like this is to subdue its severity and laugh it off. It just seems the entire nation is on board with doing so. Groups such as LINK, then, are vital to integrating North Koreans into South Korean society, as it is their only hope at a successful life.
Unfortunately, the amount of information I was able to gather with one-on-one conversations here was bleak. There is just no desire on the part of South Korean citizens to discuss and get at the hard details of their history.
The nationalism is very strong, and this is likely a result of the South Korean government doing all it can to advertise North Korea as an enemy. Still, certain Koreans hope for re-unification, but the layers of what that would take seem naively skipped over. While walking downtown, I was asked by a group of Korean students having a fundraiser if I believed that the North and South should reunify. When I said “it seems a bit more complicated than yes or no” there was almost a non-reaction.
It all came together for me at “Freedom Bridge”, a bridge not far outside the DMZ that was used to shuttle refugees from the North back to the South. There, we saw banners and ribbons and posters, all written with 한글 characters, stating that reunification is possible, that hope for the two nations to come to an agreement is still on the horizon. Truthfully what these banners say is “my ideology is right and one day you will see that too”. This is the basis of war. I wonder if a similar bridge exists on the North side.
I wonder what hope is… Is hope the belief we hold that one day everyone will live happily together, or is it the notion that our beliefs are correct and one day, everyone else will come around and believe the same things that we do?
While it is clear there are many North Koreans suffering day-to-day from the life they are subjected to, communist regime is still a form of government that people choose to uphold. While I’m not defending anything North Korea does, there’s, unfortunately, no universal right or wrong to be determined on the matter of which government works best. There’s only what you believe, and what you’ve been brought up to believe as a citizen of your birth country, and whether or not you’ve decided that that is how you want to live.
Differing ideologies are the root of the things we fear most.
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