Monday, November 19, 2012

Identity Crisis: The Narrative of South Korea


In August 2011, I spent two weeks in South Korea participating on a fully funded trip sponsored by CIEE/US-Korea Youth Network. The Korea Foundation generously puts on and funds the trip. I believe this coming August is the last trip that is going to be put on, so you guys who are still in high school or current high school seniors should definitely check it out. Just Google CIEE South Korea scholarship and you'll be sure to find it fairly quickly! 

Before I delve into this so called "identity crisis" that I witnessed while in South Korea, it'd probably be a good idea for me to give a bit of an abstract. This piece will be relatively long and relatively heavy. It'll be more of an academic piece, but I'll do my best to keep it interesting. I traveled to South Korea with 99 other students, so it would be really awesome to hear some feedback from some of you who read the blog. The post will have some pictures to keep things aesthetically pleasing. All of the pictures except for maps are shots that I took while on my trip. With all that said, I hope you enjoy. For those of you who love history and international relations, you'll probably find this post interesting. For those of you who just like taking the weekly poll, this might not be your number one post. Regardless, hopefully you all can get the most out of it. Rather than breaking this up into multiple parts, I think it'd be best to have this all in one large chunk. Bear with me, and we can all learn a thing or two!

South Korea Basics - History and Geography

Source 1
South Korea is located in a potentially problematic place. South Korea is a part of the Korean peninsula, and borders only one other country. You guessed it - North Korea. With air and boat travel the only two outlets for international migration, South Korea is, in a sense, isolated. When I was there, I definitely felt a sense of isolation. With nowhere to go but south, and south ending in roughly 4 hours by car maximum, you get a bit of "rock fever." Or at least I did.

To the left, you can see an image of the Korean peninsula. North and South Korea are split at the "38th parallel." This terminology is frequently referred to in N/S Korean conversation. The 38th parallel is simply a line of latitude. In reality, the border doesn't run even near to perfectly straight across. The border has a curve to it that runs north from west to east.
Source 2

To the right, you can see where South Korea lies in relation to the rest of Asia. Prior to traveling to SK, I often visualized it as being directly beside the SE Asian block. It wasn't until a friend traveled to Cambodia that I realized that the SE Asian block is a pretty far distance from S Korea. Now that we have a better idea of where South Korea is, it'll be somewhat easier to get a visual hold on the historical aspects of the nation.

Before the Korean War, North and South Korea did not exist - Korea simply existed as one united nation. Despite this unity, Korea's history is scattered with conquest. To keep things simple, from roughly 1910 to 1945, Korea was under Japanese colonial rule. Koreans were subjugated to the whims of the Japanese, fed Japanese culture, and taught the Japanese language. It takes no expert in the Japanese occupation of Korea to know that colonization of a nation does severe damage to national identity and national narrative. 

Source 3
After WWII, which ceased Japanese occupation, Korea was left fragmented. North and South Korean ideologies were conflicting, and war was eminent  In 1950, the Korean War broke out. The Korean War was essentially a civil war between the north and south. A very simplified version of the story puts the north in a communist sphere of influence and the south in a Western, democratic sphere of influence. 

As seen in the image on the left, Korea was split almost down the middle at the 38th parallel, with red coloring representing the communist sphere of influence (Soviet Union) and the green representing the democratic, free market influence (USA). It is important to note that at the time, China was not the communist influence in North Korea. China was undergoing domestic turmoil as well, and this period encompasses the Soviet influence in China as well. In closing, in 1953 Korea was left split; North and South Korea would now be two sovereign states, with the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) serving as a border. Another important note to consider is the fact that the Korean War never technically ended - to this day, the DMZ is on edge waiting for one side to end the cease fire of 1953. South Korea was left to pick up the pieces, and reverberations from this broken past can still be felt today, which creates, in my opinion, the identity crisis that presented itself to me during my travels in South Korea.

The Issue of Unification - A Lost Sister 

Yonsei University 
Upon sitting down in one of the classes put on by Yonsei University (연세대학교) on North Korean-South Korean relations, I was immediately surprised by the lack of taboo surrounding the words North Korea. Born and bred in the US of A, it is the easy assumption to clump North Korea, Nazis Germany, and the Soviet Union into the same mass of evil. Furthermore, it is also incredibly easy to forget about the individuals living in North Korea. I have found that many US citizens view North Koreans as dark and communist human beings. Seeing as I have never spent any extended time speaking with North Koreans, it's hard for me to speak objectively and accurately; however, many North Koreans would give the world to defect to South Korea. Unless you are favored with a spot in the North Korean capital of Pyeongyang, life as a North Korean is pretty rough Many people are unaware of just how rough being a North Korean can get. North Korea is littered with concentration camps. Work camps. We're talking about flashback to the concentration camps of Hitler in all his Nazis pride. Let's get back on track.

With all that said, it was a shock to me when I heard the professor speak of North Korea as a "lost sister." There was an overarching sentiment of pity towards the northern partner; a sense that somehow along the way the Korean resolution failed, and that modern South Korea was left longing for a sister that is only engraved in the memories of the eldest South Korean generation. It was sobering. The United States breeds a hate for North Koreans. And maybe not so much a hate, as a growing fear that manifests itself in highly personal conversation - conversations you have with your grandfather who fought against the "commies" in WWII, Vietnam, and Korea. It feels unnatural to pity North Korea. It feels like treason; it feels as if by showing even the slightest hope for domestic North Korean improvement is throwing yourself into the pits of everything it is to be "anit-American." Enough with the drama. 
My hosts - The Baek Family 

Despite this sense of North Korean longing, there was certainly a mix of sentiment among the Koreans that I spoke to. Keep in mind that all of this may seem like a diversion from the original identity crisis - it's not, we'll get there, eventually. When I walked the campus, there were student protests which I later learned demonstrated support for the unification effort. Based on the enthusiasm and immediacy that the protesters demonstrated, a foreigner could easily be tricked into thinking that unification was just around the corner. Words from the same professor that conveyed sadness for North Korea suggested that unification was a long way out, that maybe it was not possible despite desire. (Did I mention he met Kim Jung Il?) My host sister, Ji Eun, showed disinterest. North-South Korean unification didn't rival in importance with her various tests, examinations, and school requirements. Though I never met a Korean with a strong anit-unification sentiment, I am sure there are Koreans who would be opposed to a unified Korea.

An anecdote - before arriving in Korea it was my job to figure out a gift for my host family. Among other gifts, I brought a collection of mixed CD's and titled them (romanized versions to follow) Namhan. The name for Korea is Hanguk. Hanguk technically refers to a potentially unified Korea; however, when speaking of South Korea, most Koreans use Hanguk. When I looked up how to say South Korea, I came across the translation of Namhan. Yes, this does mean South Korea. But when the gift was presented to my host family, they looked surprised, confused, perplexed. Terrified that I had done something awful, I asked about the confusion. The family was honestly taken aback by seeing the written words of Namhan - South Korea. Though Namhan accurately describes the nation in which they live, Hanguk is the default name for the country. Though I would have been met with plenty of surprise by other families if I had given the same gift, as an outsider, it seemed odd that Namhan was so inaccurate. Why would Hanguk be the country's name if it refers to an entity that simply does not exist. After all, the North Korean word for a unified Korea doesn't add up - Choson. 

**Now would be a great time for an intermission. We're about halfway through and I know you're probably tired of reading at this point. Go take a snack break, eat a cookie. Just make sure you come back to read the rest of the article! Simply clink the link below to open the rest of the post! Thank goodness for pictures, right?**

The Demilitarized Zone 

DMZ - View of North Korea 
The DMZ. The 38th parallel. The most tense and heavily guarded border in the world. The line of ceasefire. Quite the experience. 

The reason I include the DMZ in the discussion of South Korea's identity is simply because one cannot ignore it. The DMZ is a once in a lifetime sort of ordeal, and it is hard for me to grasp that I was actually there, gazing into North Korea. Or even more, to think that technically I have stepped foot onto North Korean soil. 

Because it is hard to really make a point pertaining to the DMZ, I thought this would be a good time for storytelling. I will simply tell you my experience (briefly) of going to the DMZ. South Korea in August is gray. There is no other way to put it. The air is heavy. You sweat upon walking outside almost instantaneously.  The sky is gray. The sun is gray. The atmosphere in many respects is gloomy. The day we travelled to the DMZ could not have been more Hollywood-worthy. It was incredibly foggy, wet, and in a sense, eerie. The DMZ is roughly an hour north of Seoul (if my memory does not fail me). We went by bus. As we traveled north of the capital it became quickly evident that we were no long in Seoul. The buildings disappear and are instead replaced by mountains, rivers, and fields. 
Proof of Chris' presence at the DMZ 

As we moved towards the DMZ, we had to stop to get our tickets. It almost seemed comical that one must have tickets to go to the DMZ, but hey, I don't make the rules. The bus was a charter bus, and we had a tour guide. Straight tourist status. Our guide was an elderly  short Korean woman who seemed to know way to much about the world's most tense border. But again, I don't make any decisions here. We stopped at a park to get the tickets. The name of the park is escaping me, but the imagery is still vivid in mind. We pulled into an empty parking lot. The sky hung heavy. Imagine an building placed at the entrance of a state fair or public facility - this is the building. Behind it there is a ferris wheel - yes, a ferris wheel - that is completely empty. The visibility isn't much more than 20 yards, and the top of the ferris wheel almost dips into fog cover. We sat in the parking lot for a while for the tickets. When our seasoned tour guide returned we were off again. Already filled with a sense of the eerie and the bizzarre, I was somewhat apprehensive to see what else was coming. As well pulled out of the lot we were met with a statue of (again my memory fails me of the number) say 3 gigantic people. The three statues descended in height. We were told that each statue represented yet another generation of Korean separation. As the statue grew smaller, the links between North and South shrunk as well. So much for an amusement park. A ferris wheel ride would have simply been too much. 

Insadong Street View 

Upon arriving, our passports were checked. No big deal. First stop was a video introduction which featured a segment on the flourishing wildlife of the DMZ. Fun fact - people actually live on the DMZ grounds. Soldiers roam the area at night for security and there is a 9PM (I believe) curfew for the villagers. If memory proves correct, 60 people still live at the DMZ. Before going to the DMZ I imagined the border - it is much larger. It takes a good 20-30 minutes upon entry before you arrive at the border. This is a very large area. After the video we took a cave trolly underground a few hundred feet to the tunnels that the North Koreans dug in order to attack the South. It was, by far, one of the strangest experiences of my life. The walls of solid rock were saturated, and without the hard hat provided and required I would have definitely lost my head. We walked to the edge of the tunnel space opened for tourists, and peered into the vast depths of the bowels of North Korean earth. 

Said Train Stop
After visting the tunnels the group age lunch, wich was delicious, all seriousness aside. At this point the rain was pretty much ridiculous. It was as if the weather was solely focused on creating the utmost of gloom for our trip to the DMZ. It was suiting. Eventually we made our way to a location that I unfortunately don't recall specifically. I know that this is where I took a photo with two stone-faced South Korean soldiers, and where we visited a prospective train station that would be bound for the capital city of North Korea. The train station was completely empty, lights off. There was a terminal to get onto the train that was blocked off. It was like the journey to hell, under maintenance. And the eeriness just amplified. 

Seeing as this bit is never ending, I'll skip to the climax. We finally arrived at the border. Second passport check. Dress code check - no baggy or loose clothing, no clothing with holes. No waving, smiling, or faces to be made towards North Korea. This could be used as propaganda against the "poor West craving to enter North Korea." No facing South Korea once at the border. Two lines, single file, hands by your side. Armed guards to assure this. You pull into a parking lot. After said checks, you are given a badge that says tourist/visitor/I can't remember exactly. Seeing as the DMZ is the epitome of the cease-fire, war can potentially break out at any moment. These little badges were supposed to assure us that if war did break out, we would not be killed but rather taken hostage by North Korean soldiers. You enter a very large building. I mean, it's huge. It's ornate. As you walk in, it is completely empty. The lights are off. You walk up a large and dramatic staircase to the second floor. You walk out the back doors and you are now 20 feet from North Korea. You are given 120 seconds to enter the building that straddles both nations and step foot on North Korean soil. Then it's time to go. You walk back through the gigantic show building, board the bus, get a look at the worlds tallest flag poll. (North Korea boasts a 500ft+ fagpole that lingers through the haze.)

We drove back to Seoul, feeling conflicted over the beauty of the surrounding lake and mountains with encroaching clouds in the valleys and the barbed wire, gaurded fence that separated the road from the river. 

Conundrum of South Korea and The United States

Shinchon District - Just outside of Yonsei Gates
In 2008 President Obama stated that South Korea was one of the US' strongest allies. Additionally, South Korea views itself as a nation of utmost importance in Asia and the West. However, ideals of unification play a strange role in the way I perceive US-Korean relations. South Korea, boasting strong ties with the US, desires to be reunited with a nation that is at the forefront of much US hate and fear. For me, this creates an interesting contrast that relates to the South Korean identity crisis.

Traditional Korean Village - "Hanok"
In addition, the US has strong relations with Japan. I have to admit that I am not very informed on South Korean-Japanese relations, but I'm sure that good relations cannot entirely diminish past colonization. With the bizarre nature of US-Chinese relations lingering as well, it is hard to ignore the Chinese complex of being big sister to North Korea. So if North Korea and South Korea were to unite, to me at least, it would spark a long process of international relations reformation, just adding to the complicating nature of the whole situation. 

Though the role of the United States in terms of international relations probably isn't the most pressing facet of this proposed identity crisis, the influence of the West and the contrast of traditional Korean culture continue to obfuscate the big picture.

Westernization and Industrialization 

Stone Marking at Buddhist Temple 

When you drive through South Korea you will be met with some interesting sites. Picturesque mountains meeting picturesque lakes, meeting a picturesque fishing village, meeting a picturesque apartment complex...wait. Something doesn't fit. If you are feeling perplexed, don't worry, so did I! Though I am pretty unfamiliar with zoning laws and the history of South Korean industrialization, my blind-eyed guess would lead me to believe that the incredibly rapid rate of industrialization in South Korea over the past 60 some odd years led to this odd layout. This was not a microcosmical occurrence either - all over South Korea I saw this phenomenon. 

South Koreans loves to speak of the country's dominance as an Asian country. They like to point out the rich history of the nation; however, in m experience, at least, Seoul was primarily concerned with preserving modernity and Western culture. Advertisements were placed on the subways to encourage youth (especially women) to get surgeries done on their eyes and mouths to make them look more Western. Western music is well known. Western clothing is well known. Yet again, another facet of this identity crisis. 

Concluding Thoughts

View near Buddhist Temple 
If you are still reading this congratulations! You got through it all. This was an incredibly lengthy post, and towards the end I somewhat cut it short. This phenomenon could have a novel ready in no time, so it was challenging to compress all of my thoughts and feelings into one cohesive blog post. All of the facets I touched on are primarily based on my own experience in South Korea. Disagree with what I have to say? Let me know. I'm not sure if any of the other kids that went on the trip read this blog, but if so, definitely let me know if you have any input or correction. (I especially would like some fact checking) I was treated fantastically by my host family and their hospitality leaves me impressed to this day. CIEE provided an unrivaled experience to a novice of all things South Korean. I suppose the program would be happy to see that I did pick up something from the trip, and something that stuck at that. I hope you all learned something, and if not, at least enjoyed the pictures!

Thanks so much for reading and be sure to leave a comment! 


  1. I loved your descriptive paragraphs on our trip to the DMZ! I was definitely transported back to that day. You're right, the fog and mist were almost impenetrable, but so fitting for the moment. A blanket of gray uncertainty. I had forgotten about the creepy amusement park, too! And the train station - the idea of tracks built for a train that will probably never arrive is so poetic. And sort of chilling?

    One question. You wrote, "South Korea, boasting strong ties with the US, desires to be reunited with a nation that is at the forefront of much US hate and fear."

    Does SK really want reunification? I got the impression that it's more of a "thing we say" than a "thing we actually want." SK has made so many economic strides over the past few decades and reunification would add a huge burden to growth. What do you think?

  2. Azeezat,

    I'm so glad to see that you read the post! I was hoping that you would. I'm glad that the DMZ section resonated with your memories.

    To you question - it's interesting that you raise it because when I reread the section before publishing the same thought crossed my mind. I think when I say "desires to be reunited with a nation" I'm speaking with the same thought process as I had while I wrote the section on unification. Unification in and of itself is a topic of much controversy within Korea already, and I suppose my real point is not so much their strong desire to reunite, but how that desire, no matter how strong, further complicates potential US-Korean relations.

    Does that help to clarify?



Have a question, comment, or suggestion? I'd love to hear it.