USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

July 24, 2014

A Tale of Two Koreas

Filed under: Uncategorized — geakorea @ 2:04 am

by David Shin and Bill Xu

Following the Korean War, a new line of division known as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, was drawn between the two Koreas, more or less at about the same location as the previous one had been at the 38th parallel. Stretching a length of 155 miles and about 2 miles wide, a mile for each side, the DMZ is an impassable rift. With nearly a million mines and booby traps of which only three percent have been removed, the “Demilitarized Zone” may not have any soldiers within the wilderness as the presence, operations or installations of the military upon these grounds is in violation of international law, but it remains nevertheless an area densely filled with military contraptions, deadly and concealed.


For our DMZ trip, we had the privilege of visiting four locations: the Panmunjom that is formally known as the Joint Security Area or the JSA, the Dora Observatory, the Dorasan Station and the Third Tunnel. Prior to our entry to the DMZ, we were required to follow a strict dress code as well as heed instructions regarding desired conduct such as not making hand gestures to the North Korean guards and taking pictures only in designated areas.

The most important location we visited on the DMZ trip is the JSA, a point on the Western half of the DMZ where the North and South Korean soldiers face each other from just meters away. A historical location, the JSA is where Armistice Talks began on Oct 25, 1951 and were eventually signed between the Chinese, North Korean and United Nations Command Forces on July 27, 1953, the day the Korean War ended. Once the armistice was agreed upon, the Korean peninsula would be permanently occupied by two nations of different systems, capitalism and socialism.

The division of their country was not what the vast majority of Koreans wanted. Just as the saying “when whales fight, shrimps die” may suggest, Koreans were mere pawns in the Cold War, an ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union of which the Korean War was a product. Ideology is powerful as it is the cornerstone on which governments and countries are formed. However, ideology is able to not only form countries but also sever them into separate parts. Such is the case for the division of Korea which has lasted for over 60 years and is still influential in international political relations worldwide, especially in the Northeast Asian region.

In order to properly understand Korean society and culture, the DMZ must be taken into consideration. More than just a physical line of separation, the DMZ cuts through the consciousness and emotions of Koreans in regards to their ideological and political standpoints towards the other Korean half as well as among people within the same half in relation to how they view the other Korean half. Virtually all areas of South Korea, such as its economy, politics and culture are influenced by the separation of the peninsula. There have been numerous victims and separated families due to the Korean peninsula division and the emotions of South Koreans are affected powerfully towards either side of the spectrum in viewing the North positively or negatively. Koreans either desperately wait for reunification so they can reunite their families or possess nothing but hatred and disgust for the other side. The Korean War and division have been the greatest forces in stimulating social change in recent Korean political history.

Joint Security Area or Panmunjom

From Ewha University, our class boarded a tour bus that took us to the Panmunjom Travel Center but could go no further because it did not possess authorization to proceed to the DMZ. Therefore, we were required to transfer to a United Nations bus before continuing our way to the JSA. After we passed the first gate on the way to JSA, the number of military trucks and personnel began to quickly increase in number. Around me everything suddenly seemed tense and serious. I could see Korean soldiers standing around absent of any facial expressions behind their dark sunglasses. The sight of them armed with weapons, a pistol by the waist or a rifle slung in front of them compelled me to sit at the edge of my seat anxiously. In the United States, most people can purchase and own firearm, but in Korea it is different—even the police do not possess such weapons. In fact, the last Korean person I saw armed with a gun was an agent in front of the Blue House, the residence of the Korean president. Further adding to the serious and daunting atmosphere were two adjacent rolls of barbed wire lining the fences.


Barbed wire

There are two mandatory passport-checks during the trip to the DMZ. The first took place before we were given access to enter the JSA and the second was prior to our visit to the Dorasan Observatory. During the first process, the Korean soldier took ample time in viewing each of the passports and checking to see if it qualified. The second process was much simpler as the soldier that time seemed to be surveying just to see whether people had passports. After a short bus ride we approached the JSA and drew close enough so that the blue conference houses and the military base building of North Korea were within a hundred meters. Soldiers from both sides stood facing each other, with total concentration devoted to their duties. The lower ranking South Korean soldiers are required to stand straight with their arms bent and flexed and their shoulders also flexed and arched backwards for two hour shifts. They did this in addition to wearing sunglasses for the purpose of not only looking cool, but also intimidating those on the opposite side. The North Korean soldiers also had their arms flexed, but for some reason they looked relaxed, not arching their shoulders backwards as the South Korean soldiers did. Some tension between the two sides could be felt as a group of North Korean soldiers marched together in parallel to the boundary and the South Korean soldiers stood in their rigid statue-like postures, following the North Koreans only with their eyes.

NK soldiers from within the JSA

We then entered the conference house where there were brown wooden tables that appeared freshly wiped and reflective. On top of the table in the center of the room, there were three audio recorders arranged in a straight line in correspondence to the border. Simply walking across the other half of the room meant I was crossing the border to North Korea.

Conference room table

As we boarded the bus again and were leaving the JSA, we saw tourists emerging out of a building on the North Korean side and taking pictures in the direction of South Korea. Seeing that they were dressed in modern clothes, I had thought at first that they were the wealthier, more privileged North Koreans who were able to visit the DMZ. However, I learned moments later that North Koreans are not allowed to visit the DMZ, which means that the tourists we saw were Chinese. The visualization of them being on the other side and waving at us but unable to cross to our side to shake our hand, and vice versa, despite the fact that we were so close to each other and there was no fence between us, revealed to me just how powerful ideology is in its manifestation as an invisible, yet impassable boundary. This realization brought me to ponder just how difficult it must be for separated families to be restricted from seeing each other. The sight of them smiling and waving at us from the other side struck me as very odd and paradoxical of the entire situation.

The Dora Observatory gave me an opportunity to actually observe through a binocular into North Korea. Without the binocular I could only vaguely see the North Korean propaganda village and Kaesong, the third largest city in North Korea, but with the binocular I was able to perceive with great detail each building and vehicle in the area. I could see that one of the buildings in Kaesong had a Hyundai logo on it and realized that the influence of South Korean chaebols extended into the North past the “impenetrable” DMZ. In the expanse between me and the buildings in North Korea, there was the wilderness that was preserved perfectly. Before the wilderness there were barbed wire and forts outlining the boundary.

Dora Observatory

The Third Infiltration Tunnel was originally built by North Koreans who had planned to invade Seoul by emerging from underground. Because the tunnel was discovered, the North Koreans smothered coal along the walls and claimed that the reason for making the tunnel was in search for coal although only granite is present in the area. South Korea prepared its defense by inserting water pipes into the ground to flush out intruders and building three layers of solid underground wall along DMZ. So far, four tunnels have been discovered by South Korea since 1974 but more are expected to exist. This particular tunnel is located at a depth of 240 feet below ground and wide enough for thirty thousand men to pass through per hour. As we ventured further down the tunnel, it grew narrower and dark, temperature dropped and humidity increased dramatically. Spring water seeped through the cracks and dripped on our helmets and clothes as we progressed deeper into the tunnel, ducking this way and that to avoid bumping our heads into the ceiling of the tunnel. I had to alternate through a series of walking positions in my venture down the tunnel: slouching my back forwards, straightening my back but walking with bent, flexed thighs or walking normally with my neck bent horizontally to either side. After some time of walking through the tunnel, I had become an expert in determining the most suitable walking position given the height of the ceiling.

After we walked back up the cool tunnel gasping for breath, we were intercepted by the heavy humidity that we had escaped and forgotten. Across from the entrance of the tunnel were a theater and a small museum dedicated to the Korean War. In the theater we saw an eight-minute documentary on the background of the tunnel. From this documentary I was given mixed feelings about the DMZ because it portrayed the North Koreans in a fearful light and highlighted the natural scenes perfectly preserved by the DMZ. Witnessing how the farmlands and green mountains create a sense of harmony, the meaning of the DMZ transformed in my mind as not merely about politics but also the protection of the environment.

The Dorasan Station is a railway station that once connected North and South Korea. Like other Korean railway stations, Dorasan has a modern design and a wide open hall. The only pity probably is that passengers cannot yet make it to the intended destination, Pyongyang. In the hall, we were attracted by a railway route that goes from Seoul to Moscow. According to the tour guide, it will be the first railway to China and Russia once political tension is eliminated. The Dorasan Station, a railroad ready to link the North and South Korea together as of right now, reflects the desire, anticipation and expectancy of reunification on the part of the South Koreans.


Dorasan Station

Inside the Dorasan Station

The trip has caused me to think deeper about the tension between North and South Korea. During lecture, Professor Lee informed us that the main conflict between the two sides is one of political perspective and now I can better understand what he meant. After all, through several decades, both sides have developed their own way of living based on their political institutions. Huge disparities in wealth, infrastructure and investments in the military have resulted and will likely expand. During the time North Korean people have been compelled to trust the leadership of their dictator and his economic decisions that put the people second to his personal ambitions, South Korea has already become a big global player. An Ewha student in the GEA program shared her opinion on reunification that even though she feels sorry about the people who suffered greatly from family division, reuniting would surely bring more problems. South Koreans are faced with the dilemma between knitting together displaced kinship and keeping their society stable. The DMZ tour leaves us with a wonderful impression and reminds us  that political conflicts are still going on in the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, according to Professor Lee, being successful means taking on more social responsibilities. We are blessed to be living in a relatively stable area, but we should also be aware of situations of the people in North and South Korea. The GEA Korea program has not just been about obtaining knowledge, it has also educated us to be a better group of people.


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