The visit to the DMZ was a major reason that I chose the trip to Korea. For me, the North Korean-South Korean conflict is one of the most interesting in the world, and what I learned when I went to the DMZ was just how much I didn’t know.
On the way, our tour guide pointed out the first signs of North Korea out the bus windows. He pointed at the bareness of the mountains (relative to the lush greenery on South Korea mountains) and explained that the reason they were bare was because the North Koreans had cut down all the foliage to stop defectors from hiding in the trees. With that as our intro, we entered the DMZ.
My first misconception was that the DMZ was a border or a small strip. It’s actually much bigger: large enough to encompass a village of 305 people. It’s full of farmland and wildlife, and the South Koreans actually look at it in a positive light, as an area of peacefulness and tranquility.
At the same time, there was a heavy feeling of sadness to the area. While in the DMZ, we delved into the events of the Korean War, the number of families separated, and the death toll. In the woods just off the road, there were still landmines from the war.
Another misconception I had was that the South Koreans wouldn’t want to be reunited with North Korea. I had thought that since South Korea was so much more prosperous than North Korea, and because North Korea had been so hostile, that the South Koreans would want to stay independent. Instead, both South and North Koreans view the separation as a tragedy. The conflict isn’t about one side being conquered, it’s about who will rule if (and for many Koreans “when”) the Koreas are united.
Another thing I didn’t realize was that many Koreans assume that it’s just a matter of time until the two countries are united. They solemnly describe the “70 long years” of separation, and while they’ll defend South Korean from hostile attack, the South Koreans also sorely miss their relatives.
The division of North and South Korea is generally much more nuanced than I realized. Because I’m from the US, I’ve always been biased towards South Korea. I used to see North Korea as a tyrannical force constantly and needlessly attacking South Korea out of a cultural hatred. I now realize that the North and South Koreans are one people under two governments. It’s not about the South hating the North or vice versa. It’s a dispute over who will rule the Korean peninsula: more about governance than anything else.