Career: PhD Candidate | University of Washington, School of Law | Seattle, Washington, USA
Some Truths About the Korean Peninsula: Between Image and Reality
I still remember with astonishment the moment that someone asked about my nationality during my first trip abroad at the age of 12. To my response, “Korean,” he replied “North?” It was not until leaving the Korean Peninsula for the first time that I heard the term “South Korean.” There existed only a single version of “Korean” for me, and this sudden addition to the name of my nationality was somewhat unpleasant and awkward. For the first time, I realized that the perspective on the North–South relationship of a South Korean living in the Korean Peninsula was considerably different from what it was for outside observers.
On November 2010, North Korea bombarded Yeonpyeong Island, located in West Sea of South Korea. The international world, not to mention the United States, was shocked by the event. Watching the Internet news in St. Louis, I truly feared the possibility of a war on the Korean Peninsula for the first time in my life. If I had been in Korea at the moment, however, I might not have taken it too seriously and reacted like my father, who told me from home, “Yes, it happened but it will go away.”
In 1996, 13 guerrillas from North Korea penetrated the defenses of a small city on the east coast where I grew up. A taxi driver discovered the submarines they used and reported this to the police. My school was closed for security reasons because the mountain in which the guerrillas allegedly were hiding was only a few miles away from my town. This may sound alarming to others, but that day my town was very peaceful, just like any other day. It seemed to us that only the news media and the special military forces involved in the operation against the guerrillas were in a state of emergency. This operation ended with 11 guerrillas killed, one captured and one missing. The next day schools opened and everything went back to normal.
This story is about a North Korean provocation for me as an elementary school student. My parents have other stories from other times, but the take.away message seems to be the same, and this is why Koreans, including my father, reacted in such a remote way to the Yeonpyeong Island attack and why his reaction differed from that of the international world. When living our daily lives in South Korea, we are just living part of our history, living as citizens of a divided nation constantly facing and dealing with North Korean issues.
Over the years there have been numerous provocations by North Korea. Under the circumstances, we are so used to North Korea’s provocations that we do not take them nearly as seriously as the outside world does. In the eyes of South Koreans these provocations routinely involve three stages: a provocation occurs, a furious political dispute boils up and then all is soon forgotten.
However dangerous it might seem to the international world, we view North Korean provocations as part of our life and daily routine; nothing is new.
But in following this routine, we in South Korea may be failing to recognize that the war has never ended on the Korean Peninsula. South and North Korea reached only an armistice agreement in 1953, and that agreement has been kept until now. Because the ceasefire has been maintained for nearly six decades, people in South Korea often forget that we technically are still at war. What appears to be a nonchalant stance may grow as time goes by. My grandparents’ generation actually experienced the Korean War and witnessed our nation’s division at the 38th parallel, but this generation is shrinking by the day. It was the people from this generation who defined North Korea as an enemy. This means that there are inevitable generational gaps in how North Korea is viewed. My parents’ generation, people who are now between 50 and 70 years old, does not see North Korea as an enemy that needs to be defeated. However, they have also been influenced by education grounded in an anti-communist ideology, and from this perspective they tend to have feelings of hostility toward North Korea. My own generation of Koreans in their twenties and thirties has grown up in a setting defined by a peaceful mood and a sunshine policy toward the North. We consider North Korea as a cooperative partner with which we need to communicate in order to develop a good relationship. But like those in our parents’ generation, we may need to remind ourselves from time to time that the end of the Korean War has not yet been declared.
Of course my point is not that we should create more tensions between North and South Korea. In fact it is probably true that the reality on the Korean Peninsula is not as serious or dire as the images appear from an outside worldview. Instead, my point is to call into a question just how accurate the reality of the Korean perspective on the North is. Depending on the context, image can be reality or vice versa, so we must not become complacent about this topic.