One of the first trips we took outside Seoul after settling in last summer was a visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the border between North and South Korea. It was an experience that helped clarify the reality of the country we are gradually starting to call home and gave us a new perspective, although not in ways you might expect.
First a little background. When the Korean War ended in 1953, the dividing line between North and South Korea was re-established roughly along the 38th parallel. The war never officially ended but rather resulted in a cease-fire with a Military Demarcation Line (MDL) running the 155 mile width of the Korean Peninsula, effectively separating it into the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north. The DMZ is a buffer zone along the border and is about 2.5 miles wide. Of course, it’s not demilitarized at all but instead is the most heavily armed border in the world.
So, what were our impressions? Well, definitely this is a serious place. Just getting into the DMZ with its guard posts, fences, fortifications and security tell you this is not Disneyland. And yes, the potential for a military altercation does exist. But there’s a certain level of theatre and posturing that goes on here. The South Korean soldiers with their sunglasses and taikwondo stances, the North Korean soldier peering at us through binoculars from the steps of their building, the cameras, all are designed to convey non-verbal messages of defiance. The very fact that regular visits to the DMZ are scheduled is meant to send a message to those on the north side of the line. There are no such tours for North Korean residents to gaze southward. But, did we get the impression that a renewal of hostilities between the two sides is imminent or at least, inevitable. No.
Finally, the natural question is if and when will the two Koreas reunite? When will the North finally give up its self-imposed isolation and poverty to join its prosperous brothers in the South? That’s a much tougher question to answer because, in a sense, both sides need each other to maintain the status quo. The North Korean leadership and its huge military need to maintain the fiction that the South and the US are ready to invade them at any time in order to keep themselves in power. The South may want reunification from an emotional and historical standpoint, but not on a practical economic level. South Koreans have worked very hard to achieve their material wealth and their place in the world and are not excited about taking on a massive charity case should the North’s system collapse. So, every year the South sends humanitarian aid and assistance northward and officials exchange visits. But, for the foreseeable future, the two sides need everything to stay pretty much the way it is.