The tour bus on the way to the demilitarized zone was full of foreigners, one of the first places I’d been in Seoul with no Koreans. Our tour guide at the front of the bus started telling us about the parts of Seoul as I watched the Han River out of the left window.
In the past year, North Korea has been the subject of media attention, both because of nuclear weapon development and opening channels of communication with South Korea and the United States. These two ideas of North Korea were in my mind when I moved to Seoul with the class of 2021 in September. I was interested to learn more about the conflict and differences between the two countries, so I jumped at the opportunity to visit the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates them. On one Sunday morning in October I took a day trip from Seoul to the border that has recently been the subject of so much attention.
Our guide transitioned to talking about the Korean War and why the peninsula is divided. She told us that after Japanese rule ended, the USSR occupied the North, establishing a communist government, while the US established a democracy in the South. Each government claimed to be the one legitimate governing body of the Korean peninsula. When violent conflict broke out, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States were all involved, escalating the military presence and resulting in a full-fledged war.
But conflict and unity are in constant tension in Korea. In many ways, North and South Korea are one nation; they share one language, history, culture, traditions, geography, and values. For this reason, it makes sense to many Koreans to be one political country governed by one state.
However, the societal structure of these two countries has diverged in recent times because of globalization, the Korean Wave, and the rapid economic growth and modernization of South Korea. North Korea’s isolation has stagnated cultural changes such that sudden urbanization, availability of information, and economic opportunities may overwhelm North Koreans and make it harder to integrate into any unified Korean society which may exist in the near future. The sharp class distinctions in North Korea are also a remnant of 20th-century society and an identifying feature of the lack of modernization. Further, North Korean isolation contributes to the weakness of the economy and lack of resources for the people. While North Korea is resource-rich, it struggles to keep up with other countries because they rarely engage in international trade.
But for many Koreans, the desire to unify doesn’t come from the theoretical reason that one nation should be governed by one state. Instead, it is deeply emotional. The Korean War was recent, more recent than I had realized. The older generation of today lived through it; many people have family across the border. Thus, the current political and humanitarian issues in North Korea are deeply personal for many South Koreans. The border is separating Koreans from their nation, their land, and themselves.
However, at the DMZ all of this talk of unity was placed alongside the descriptions of North Korean invasion attempts. In the museum, it seemed that North Korea was simultaneously working with Moon Jae-in to unify the countries and ordering soldiers to dig tunnels under the agreed-upon demilitarized zone. How can we (indeed, how can Koreans) reconcile these two ideas? How can South Korea think of friendly relations or unification while still intensely fearing an invasion?
We walked through part of a tunnel that was dug by North Korea 435 meters into the South Korean demilitarized zone. The last such tunnel was found as recently as 1990 and there might be many more that remain secret. I could easily walk the length of the tunnel up to the barricades, and I could imagine how quickly an entire army of soldiers could run through it. Only three barricades separated the tourist area from the rest of the tunnel across the border. Considering that solid granite didn’t stop the North Korean army, how could the barricades?
The North Korean army is larger than the South’s, despite the greater South Korean population. While South Korea has the support of the US, it is conceivable that if conflict broke out again, Russia would join in a proxy war against America. At some parts of the tour, I felt that those 4 kilometers are all the peace that exists between the two countries.
In Seoul, there is a more hopeful attitude. Several organizations work to help North Korean refugees, and many South Koreans believe that unification is possible. The relationship between the two countries is obviously not perfect, but I believe it will continue to improve. One of the reasons I wanted to visit the DMZ in 2018 was because it isn’t clear how much longer it will exist.
A highlight of the tour was Dorasan Station, a finished train station built as the last stop in South Korea on a northern-bound route. Tourists can take a train from Seoul to Dorasan Station, but the platform with a sign “To Pyongyang” was empty. The station looked brand new, as if it could be opened tomorrow. Even after the war and the tunnels, South Korea seems ready to build ties again. Perhaps in the near future, we’ll be able to take a train all the way from Seoul to Pyongyang.