Korea: From the Other Side

My short time in North Korea and my views of reunification

When people look at me for the first time, they can clearly tell I’m an Asian. However, Asia is a big continent and finding the specific country of my heritage proves to be tougher. My appearance is ambiguous to even my fellow Koreans who struggle to find the appropriate language to greet me as I mix with the huge Chinese tourist population in Myungdong.

My trips to Korea have been more frequent than in previous years so I cannot say that I am not always surprised. The main reason why I actually wanted to go back during my co-op term in Hong Kong, even if it was only for a week, was to eat proper Korean food (not the oily unauthentic crap they have in Hong Kong). Despite being raised in a Canadian environment for most of my life, my Korean DNA cannot lie and I need my proper fix of Kimchi Jjigae (Kimchi Soup).

For those of you that are unfamiliar of my academic background, I am pursing an International Relations major and an Asian Studies minor. The prime reason for studying these disciplines is to fulfill an ultimate ambition of contributing to the peaceful reunification of Korea. How I will get to that point I still do not know, but I am trying to experience and gain as much knowledge on the myriads of issues that stem from the division of 70 years and counting.

Something that has always been on my mind since gaining interest in Korean reunification is visiting the very line that divides the millennia old civilization. I had the awesome (mildly expensive) opportunity to join a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone), Joint Security Area, and 3rd Infiltration Tunnel as part of a package in explaining the current politics of Korea today.

After the Japanese surrender in WW2 and cessation of Japanese occupation in Korea, the two superpowers of the Cold War “liberated” both sides of Korea and agreed to temporarily supervise the sides until a successful transition to complete independence. This temporary phase had a lasting influence to how Korea is today, divided politically, economically, and culturally.

We were reminded time and time again on the bus that the two Koreas are officially still at war against each other and the North’s recent missile tests and the South’s THAAD deployment have only contributed to the tension. Arriving at Camp Bonifas, a United Nations Military Command Post close to the Joint Security Area, a number of American soldiers boarded our bus and thoroughly checked that we had identification and were not defecting.

American soldiers checking our passports and for defectors

The American soldiers would be our tour guides in the area, and despite showing seriousness during the initial checking, they soon warmed up and cracked joke (real story though) about the North and South competing to have the tallest flag tower and buildings. The only strict rules were regarding photography and making obscene actions that could be used by the North Korean government for propaganda purposes.

A rare moment of North Korean tour groups (of apparently North Koreans) happening at the exact same time as ours

I felt a weird sensation when witnessing a big group of North Korean tourists standing on the other side, doing the exact same things as us (mainly American and Western tourists). I yearned to make a signal of some sort to try to communicated, but knew it was absolutely not allowed for very good reasons.

Outside of the 3rd infiltration tunnel

Unfortunately we have not been able to take any pictures inside the 3rd infiltration tunnel for security purposes. The tunnels believed to be created by the North Korean military (although consistently denied) were very narrow and small, but could boast moving 30,000 soldiers per hour to the South. The tunnel was only discovered in 1978, and since then there has been 4 other tunnels discovered, but potentially there is 20 more in existence.

In terms of visiting the tunnel itself, it was an uncomfortable journey constantly crouching your back for several minutes, so I would not really recommend visiting it if you don’t have time.

Views from Doro Observatory

The steamy fog really didn’t help with the tour and I was barely able to see the actual contents of the 38th parallel and beyond from the Dorosan Observatory. If you have the choice of selecting a tour, I would also take out this portion and save some $.

Probably the cleanest if not least used station in the world

A cool sight was visiting the ultra clean Dorasan station, a train station connecting South and North Korea in 2007 symbolic for ushering in a new era of cooperation. The train was mainly supposed to carry goods in an out of the Kaesong Industrial Region, another symbolic cooperative area, however, freight services quickly ended the next year due to continuous clashes. The train station still serves going to Seoul, but will not enter North Korea until good time.

A monument with the Berlin Wall gifted by Germany in hopes of reaching a successful reunification

Reunification for Koreans is a fleeting goal. While time should ideally heal wounds and bring our divided country closer together, the astronomical price of reunification and indifference to the North’s antics lead my generation to have the lowest favourability of reintegrating with North Korea. As a generation, we do not have any direct family members separated and we have not experienced the hardships of the Korean War.

Personally, my main draw towards reunification is the fact that Korean modern independence has not actually happened since the Chosun Dynasty. Millions of Koreans recently celebrated Liberation Day on August 15th, yet we cannot claim to have been fully united and independent if we cannot freely travel coast to coast in our own country. There are economic arguments for reunification as well as a united Korea would not only be the 8th largest country in GDP by 2050 but could also alleviate the South’s shrinking population problem and dependencies on importing natural resources.

To avoid writing a research paper on the topic, I will stop my opinions here. Visiting the Joint Security Area and hearing the American soldiers’ stories regarding the disintegration of cooperation between the two Koreas and a certain hopelessness about improving the status quo fueled me further to work towards a career that could eventually see the better relations so that Korea could one day be truly independent.