North Korea has been making the news a lot in the past few weeks. This is largely due to their sixth nuclear test for a hydrogen bomb, as well as the country’s recent missile firing over Japan, and its rising tensions with the U.S.
While international tensions with North Korea are potentially catastrophic, it is worth noting the omnipresent struggles that exist for both South and North Koreans since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Last December, I visited South Korea during some of their coldest winter weather. I thought I could handle the brisk temperatures and assumed I was prepared for what the Korean winter would bring.
Prior to my visit, I heard ample tales of Korea. People compared the South to Japan, joking about eclectic K-Pop, and eagerly enquiring about whether I would be visiting the DMZ – Korea’s Demilitarised Zone. For several years of my life, I had been deeply enthralled with the history of Korea and what lay on the other side of the border in the North.
Much of what I had heard did mirror the reality of South Korea. Hongdae, the university suburb of Seoul where younger generation typically hangs out was just as psychedelic as I expected it to be. Similarly to Japan, it featured monumental skyscrapers, extravagant desserts, and flashing neon lights. There, in South Korea’s heart, was also an array of K-Pop CDs and paraphernalia juxtaposed against ancient temples and villages. It was in those areas that South Korea felt as vibrant as expected.
Love locks at the N Seoul Tower
What I didn’t expect was the temperatures. It was the kind of cold you feel in the back of your cheekbones. The kind that makes you think about all the people in this region, especially in North Korea, who cannot afford resources to deal with and manage the cold.
Another unexpected element of Korean culture was the overall rigid mentality of the people. While aesthetically similar to Japan, the single file lines that are upheld when boarding Japan’s railway system, are disregarded in South Korea. People shove past each other in haste, eyes almost always averted. All of Seoul’s train stations feature glass doors, which separate the public from the train tracks and open promptly when they are aligned with the arriving train.
Jogyesa Temple, Seoul
One of the most confronting aspects of Seoul’s train line were the screens that hang above the platforms. The screens feature cartoons of animated hippos, pigs, chickens and other cute animals. When I first saw these, my attention was caught by the seemingly light-hearted nature of these cartoons.
Yet as I continued using Seoul’s metro, I realised that these short clips had a much darker theme. One featured the cartoon hippo trying to jump on the train lines while his animal friends pulled him back and showed him a photo of his family. Another, showed a cartoon pig in a suicide vest – whose friends helped him change his mind.
Statistics gathered by the World Health Organisation in 2015 showed that South Korea ranked as having the tenth highest suicide rate in the world. It has the highest suicide rate among high-income Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
It was in the Seoul metro system that I began to understand the dire quality of life for Koreans and the continuous effects of the Korean War, which ended decades earlier.
This idea cemented itself further during my trip to the DMZ. Prior to taking the tour, my friends and I had to receive security clearance. The tour only runs on specific days, and is tentative depending on the current political tensions and security situation between South and North Korea. We were warned not to wear any clothing that was ripped, or had any identifying logos.
While initially scheduled for the Joint Security Area (JSA) tour, the heightened tensions at the time only allowed for us to do the DMZ tour. The JSA is the only area in Korea where South and North Korean soldiers stand face-to-face, and is the sight of many military negotiations. Our bus from Seoul had a quick interval where an officer checked our passports before we continued into the DMZ.
As we crossed the border into the DMZ, it became explicitly evident that it was no man’s land.
While the bitterness of the cold was felt in Seoul, here it seemed to be amplified. The landscape was desolate. There was no greenery, an endless row of desolate woods to one side, and barbed wire fences in every direction.
One of the highest points of the tour, is a lookout lined with binoculars. Through them, North Korea is visible. On one side of the horizon stands North Korea’s propaganda village, Kijong-dong. It is lined with empty skyscrapers and a 160-metre-tall flag pole, the fourth tallest in the world.
To the left of Kijong-dong, is an actual North Korean village. The houses appear miniscule in comparison to its neighbouring fake village. Occasionally, speck-sized North Koreans can be seen wandering around through the binoculars.
The most unnerving part of standing on the viewpoint is the eerie music echoing from North Korea. It sounds like that which you’d hear in a horror movie. A joyous chanting from children, praising their great dictator. The noise from the North Korean speakers is so muffled that the words are practically incomprehensible.
Dorasan Station in the DMZ, where trains used to travel to Pyongyang
Further along the tour, visitors are brought to Imjingak, a village where the Freedom Bridge is located. Injingak is the northmost point in South Korea where South Koreans can walk freely. The Bridge of Freedom has a deepset history and is the point where 13,000 prisoners of war were traded at the end of the Korean War. Now, the bridge is emblazoned with multi-coloured ribbons. A place of remembrance for families separated between North and South. Most ominously, the village also features an abandoned amusement park. The park was created for North and South families to play at once reunited, yet now serves as an eerie reminder of the estrangement of countless families.
While the DMZ and JSA tours may seem like a novelty tourist attraction, they provide a minuscule glimpse into North Korea as a hot zone, and the detrimental consequences on its neighbours.
Fear of North Korea continues to spread internationally. As of last month, Japan has begun conducting evacuation drills due to the looming threat of North Korean missiles. The head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg has called for an international response to North Korea’s recent missile and nuclear tests. Tensions between North Korea and the U.S. are continuing to mount. And mere days ago, Kim Jong-un held a gala in Pyongyang to celebrate the country’s most powerful nuclear test with scientists and engineers.
These recent events show North Korea’s presence on an international scale. Yet it is worth remembering the ever-present, ongoing impact for both North and South Koreans that has being plaguing millions of people for decades.