While I was disappointed to leave Japan, I knew I had the excitement of visiting yet another new-to-me country: South Korea. My flight from Tokyo to Seoul was only about 2.5 hours, and since my last flight was 12 hours, that flight was a breeze! My flight didn’t arrive in Seoul until 9 pm, so after my contact, Sang, picked me up from the airport and took me to where I was staying, I called it an early night.
The next day, Sang picked me up to do a little sight-seeing. After going to a park by the river, Sang said, “Hey, do you want to see North Korea? The DMZ is only about 45 minutes from here.” I wasn’t expecting that, but I absolutely wanted to!
In the US, the Korean War is sometimes called “The Forgotten War” because this war’s issues were deemed as a little more unclear than previous wars and people today tend to forget about this war. In South Korea, it’s known as “625”, which refers to the date the war started (June 25th). In North Korea, they call it the “Fatherland Liberation War”, and in China (because China aided North Korea in this war), it’s known as the “War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea”. Wow! Everyone has some different viewpoints on this conflict.
The war, which took place between 1950 and 1953, erupted because at the end of World War II, Korea ceased to be a Japanese colony after Japan’s defeat. Who would help this newly freed nation? The Soviets would assist in the north, while American troops would help in the south. The Soviets ended up bringing communism to the North, and the situation turned into the first military act of the Cold War. Harry Truman, US president at the time, said that the US had to intervene because if not “the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.” Nearly 5 million people died during these 3 years, and, as you know, North Korea is still communist.
Now the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, exists. It’s a 150 mile area that serves as a large border between North and South Korea. It is the most heavily fortified border in the world with soldiers on the edges of it always standing guard, barbed-wire fences everywhere, and the knowledge that anyone that tries to cross illegally will be shot on site with no questions asked. The part of the DMZ that I went to was just right at the edge of it-still on the South Korean side.
People on the South Korean side decorate the fences with ribbons that have wishes written on them-wishes to be reunited with their loved ones. Can you imagine if someone suddenly cut your country in half and you were never allowed to see or hear from your friends and loved ones on the other side? North Koreans aren’t allowed to leave their country. They can’t make a phone call to family. They aren’t permitted to even use the internet. They are completely isolated. Sang translated some of the messages on the ribbons for me, and they made me so sad. One of the most touching was one that simply said, “Grandma. Grandpa. I miss you.” There was also a birthday card that said something like this, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again or if you’re even still alive, but happy birthday.” That’s when I just started crying. I just can’t even fathom how hard that must be on the Korean people on both sides.
There is also an official border crossing that is really only for South Koreans to cross. South Korea built a great deal of factories that give 100’s of 1,000’s of North Koreans jobs and many South Koreans cross that border daily to work there as well. I was allowed to take pictures from the car, but I wasn’t allowed to get out of the car.
Going to the DMZ was an eye-opening experience for me. I knew a few things about the Korean conflict, but this made it real to me. It is a sad situation that I hope can be fixed sooner rather than later.
When we were leaving, I asked Sang, “Do you have any family in North Korea?”
He said, “I do. But I try not to think about them. I don’t know if they’re living or dead. I can’t think about it, or I’d be sad every day of my life. I must put it out of my mind.”