After a long series of connecting flights and inconvenient layovers at airports across the globe, our crew finally arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. Our team consists of eight students and two faculty directors, Professors Aimee Kwon and Eunyoung Kim. After landing in Seoul, the group, so relieved and excited to get things going, eased through customs, grabbed our luggage, and we were off to our guesthouse in Hongdae, an area of Seoul named after Hongik University. Hongdae is known for its art, music, and entertainment scene, a culture very fitting for us college students! Upon arriving to our guesthouse, our faculty directors kindly gave us a full day of rest before we would head to the Institution for Unification Education for our four-day seminar on the issue of Korean Unification, which serves as the foundation for this particular Duke Engage program. We used the free day to explore the vibrant streets of Hongdae, stopping by parks, live music performances, coffee shops, and restaurants. By the end of the day, we were worn out and ready to rest up for our excursion at the IUE.
The IUE campus was about an hour away from Hongdae via subway and then bus, and situated on the very mountainous outer edge of Seoul adjacent to the Bukhansan Mountain National Park. Following our arrival at the Ministry of Unification, we left for a tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the border between North and South Korea. The DMZ was created in 1953, at the end of the Korean War as a part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces. This buffer zone sits along the 38th parallel, dividing Korea in half, and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Our first stop at the DMZ was the Unification Village, a civil control zone where we were able to gain insight into the products of a farming village, particularly soybean. From there we moved to Dorasan Station, the northernmost railroad station in South Korea. The station is just 700m from the southern boundary line of the DMZ, and 205km to Pyeongyang, the capital city of North Korea. Dorasan station serves as a representation of Korea’s division and also its unification. Once traffic is possible between the two Koreas, both goods and people from countries like China and Russia will be transported and will go through the customs and entry center at Dorasan station. Following our stint at Dorasan station, we were able to walk through the 3rd infiltration tunnel. Designed for a surprise invasion into South Korea by North Korean forces, the underground tunnel, lined in bedrock, was discovered in October 1978. The tunnel is 1.6 km long, 1.95 m high, and 2 m wide, and capable of allowing the passage of 30,000 North Korean soldiers! Our last stop at the DMZ, and the most surreal for me, was the Joint Security Area and Panmunjom village. The JSA lies in the DMZ, and is the only section where North and South Korean soldiers are standing face to face. JSA is now used for diplomatic negotiations between the two Koreas. The emotions flowing through my body while standing on the South Korean side of JSA looking into North Korea were unreal as I was actually standing in a place that I had seen so many times on television in the news. I could almost feel the tension between the two sides as the South Korean soldiers were staring down one North Korean soldier, who would occasionally pull out his binoculars to check out the visitors. On our long bus ride back to the IUE I reflected on this experience at the DMZ, as the separation of a people of the same culture was so captivating and the origin of my interest in the program. Our group became further informed on the history of the division of Korea, and there was no better location for us to learn about this issue than the demilitarized zone.
On our third day at the Ministry of Unification, we continued to participate in a series of lectures pertaining to Korean unification. The first lecture was focused on the current unification policy of the Park Geun-Hye government, presented by Duk-haeng Lee, a senior policy cooperation officer of the Ministry of Unification. After the previous day’s lectures, which gave a background to the issue of unification, this was the first time we engaged with concrete ideas as to how unification could be brought forth. Our lecturer stressed that the government must have two different policies prepared according to the circumstances and timeline of unification. One policy should take into account that sudden changes may occur in the next few years, which would accelerate the unification process. Especially in the past few years, there have been signification changes in leadership within East Asia – Kim Jong Un inherited the position of power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, becoming the new leader of North Korea, Park Geun-Hye was elected as the president of South Korea in 2013 and Xi Jinping became the president of China in 2012. Changes in government policy could significantly affect the process of unification, and the South Korean government must be prepared for such circumstances. On the other hand, even if there is no catalyst for unification in the new few years, the government should still have a policy in place that encourages unification in the next 15-20 years. This second policy should stress that unification may be costly, but that any costs incurred should be seen as an investment that brings about benefits that will eventually cover any losses experienced at the beginning. Most importantly, any unification policy should be focused on achieving happiness for all Korean people.
The second lecturer of the day was Professor Sandip Mishra, a visiting professor from the University of Delhi, who offered an alternative point of view by looking at the Korean unification issue from an international perspective. He noted that there were three ‘levels’ of players involved in the unification process. The core players are North Korea and South Korea – there is no doubt that unification must be instigated within Korean peninsula. The second level consists of key players like Russia, China, USA and Japan, nations who have strong political and economical ties with North Korea and South Korea. The third level contains all other countries that may have weaker ties with the two core players, but can also take part in the unification process. This last level of players is often forgotten or dismissed as unnecessary – however, Professor Mishra pointed out that ignoring this ‘third level’ would be to forego the global nature of the Korean unification issue. It is also possible to use indirect connections to augment communication between the key players; for example, Pakistan has close connections with both China and North Korea, and South Korea could reach out to North Korea with Pakistan as an intermediary. In other words, seemingly uninvolved nations could play a role in bridging the gap between the two sides of the Korean peninsula. Professor Mishra also mentioned that the issue of unification has gradually become more prominent in India in the past few years because of the Hallyu wave – as more people all over the world become interested and invested in the Korean peninsula, the process of unification may need to evolve into an international matter.
Our third and last lecture of the day was on the topic of life in North Korea, presented by North Korean professor Jeong Eun-chan. Our lecturer gave us many examples of shops in Pyongyang, and how items were priced – for example, coffee would cost the equivalent of an average worker’s monthly salary in North Korea. Needless to say, these are items that can only be afforded by high-ranking officials. Meat is also very expensive and beef is especially rare because cows are considered laborers, not a source of meat. In fact, killing a cow is a crime punishable by death. She also talked about education and student life in North Korea. Education in North Korea is provided for every student until high school; after high school graduation, students can choose to get a job or enter university. School dress code is extremely strict and any student who does not dress appropriately would be asked to leave the classroom – apparently, on the day our whole group would have been dismissed if we were North Korean students because of the way we dressed! Professor Jeong compared university to military training – in fact, when she was in university she was an expert in artillery and even learnt how to throw a grenade. In terms of the political climate in North Korea, the population has significantly less deference for their leader compared to the past – Kim Il Sung is still considered a godly figure, but Kim Jong Il was simply considered a leader and Kim Jong Un is even less revered. This decline in popularity could mean that the North Korean people are beginning to lose faith in the regime, especially as outside culture is much more accessible now in North Korea due to technological advance. When asked how much it costs to defect, our lecturer responded that crossing into China costs 10,000USD, and getting to South Korea would cost another 10,000USD.
To conclude our trip to the Ministry of Unification, we had the opportunity to visit the Hanawon Resettlement Center and the nearby Hangyeore School. The Hanawon Resettlement Center is the bigger of the two resettlement centers North Korean refugees go through when they first arrive in South Korea. Out of all the refugees in South Korea, 70% are female and most are between the ages of 20 and 40. At the Hanawon Resettlement Center, about an hour away from Seoul, refugees partake in a three month long resettlement program focusing on improving health conditions, learning about South Korean culture and gaining practical skills that could help them get a job. Female refugees can take part in twelve training courses that teach skills like sewing, cooking and baking. Male refugees can choose from three courses that train them to work with heavy machinery. Furthermore, there are field trips to markets or clothing stores so that the North Korean refugees can become accustomed to purchasing items in South Korean stores. After the program, the refugees can participate in further programs at smaller centers scattered around the country. We were given a tour of the facilities, which consisted of several teaching buildings with a variety of classrooms, health clinics and dormitories. There was also a school on the premises for young North Korean refugee children.
Our last stop was at Hangyeore School, a middle and high school for North Korean refugee students. Just last year, two Hangyeore students visited Duke and hosted a panel to discuss life in North Korea. The school itself is very big and consists of two buildings connected in the middle, symbolizing bridging the gap between the two Koreas. This school is considered a ‘model school’ and has a wide range of facilities, including a classroom for learning how to be a barista. In fact, one of our student guides had won second at a national barista competition. We were able to meet several students and asked them questions about life at the school and the difficulties adjusting to South Korean culture, while they asked us about our experiences as Duke students. Afterwards, we toured the school grounds, visited two dormitory rooms and got to watch a student performance in the assembly hall. Interestingly, one room was set aside as a museum of sorts with textbooks, movies and a set of school uniform from North Korea. Going to Hangyeore and seeing the enthusiasm of the students made us even more excited to begin our work at Kumkang School!
The first week of our stay was definitely a great experience, both informative and exciting. Being able to personally visit the DMZ while learning about the history of the Korean division was a surreal opportunity that the whole group will remember, and will use as the foundation for the rest of our time in South Korea.
Check out some photos from our first week in Seoul!
Traditional Korean Village House
Street in Hongdae
Posing with a South Korean soldier at JSA
JSA: South and North Korean soldiers in a staring face-to-face
Campus of the IUE
Seminar at the IUE
Entrance to the Tracks at Dorasan Station