Whenever I tell people that I’m about to move to Korea for a year, it happens more often than not that I get “witty” reactions along the lines of: “Oh, to North Korea?” or “Really, are you moving to the good or the bad Korea?”. I’ve slowly learned to avoid these awkward moments by just telling people that I’m going to Seoul, but it seems that people are still very keen on bringing up the issue of North Korea.
I think most people know about the very unique situation that represents the Korean peninsula. One nation for 5000 years, a divided country for the past 70. The two Koreas are technically still at war with each other, and military tensions often arise thereby requiring South Korea to have one of the world’s strongest armies in case of a new attack. Every Korean man between 18-35 must serve two years in the military, something most Korean guys do from they are around 21 years old.
Before I started studying Korean or making Korean friends I knew very little about the isolated nation north of the 38th parallel. I always thought that South Koreans viewed the North Koreans as their enemy, and that there was no sense of belonging between the two countries. My friendships with Koreans and my studies have taught me differently. My good friend and LP once told me in casual conversation on my 7th floor deck on a bright fall day that he really liked the view overlooking the city. Then he added just as casually: “Where I live, just north of Seoul, we can see North Korea from our rooftop”. I nearly dropped my jaw in amazement. “See North Korea?!” To him it was completely natural, and here I was thinking that it must be like being able to stare straight into hell. He went on to tell me that he had strong hopes for a unification of the two Koreas during his lifespan. I realized that I had never really thought about this possibility.
I’m just old enough to remember the unification of East- and West-Germany. Obviously not in detail since I was five years old when it happened, but I remember my parents watching the news and telling me about it. Since then I’ve written countless reports on the topic for my German classes through middle and high school. As I’ve progressed with my Korean studies, my textbooks have presented me with texts about the Korean war (in Korean often referred to as 6.25 (육이오), since it broke out on June 25 in 1950). I’ve also recently read several pieces on requirements for a reunification. In fact, South Korea even has a “Ministry for Unification” actively working on measures toward reuniting the two Koreas. (A short text for intermediate Korean learners on the Korean war and division can be found here.)
Obviously, there are still large obstacles to overcome in terms of differences in ideologies and economic structures, and unification will surely not be an easy process. However, by viewing each other as part of the same family there is hope for a peaceful solution. Rather than distinguishing between the “good” and the “bad” Korea, it would be better to address the problem of division and gradually build bridges across the border through exchange of culture and art that is rooted in 5000 years of shared history.
The Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Oh Joon has recently given a talk in Seoul about “Korean unification – hopes and reality”. For those of you who are interested, and who understand Korean, I’ve posted the video below. I find it very informative, and also very touching, and I hope it will help broaden your view on the Korean people, who did not necessarily stop being one people just because someone drew a line along the 38th parallel.