I photographed it during a day tour to the Demilitarized Military Zone – the ‘DMZ’ as it was usually known – a four kilometre corridor of land dividing North and South Korea.
It was one of the most tension laden borders in the world, a potential flash point, in this case the division line being ideology – communist dictatorship versus democratic capitalism – instead of religion or ethnicity.
On the northern side of the DMZ, the forests have been cleared so that no one can escape Northern Korea. Guards stand ready to shoot anyone who tries. The country is one big prison ruled by a psychopath armed with long range nuclear missiles.
On the southern side, the DMZ is a lucrative cash cow as everyday hundreds of tourists go on guided bus tours – which are not cheap. With stops at restaurants and souvenir shops on the way, the income for the South Korean tourist industry is definitely not to be sneezed at.
A day trip to the DMZ is on the must-do list of everyone who visits South Korea.
I wasn’t expecting much but I went along all the same. My low expectations were amply met. I found most of the tour underwhelming.
Except for one thing.
As soon as I saw it, I recognised its meaning, its symbolism.
I went over there and walked around it and took photos.
It was beautiful, clever, poignant.
No one else in the group – some forty people – shared my interest.
There was a large globe cut in half, like an orange sliced right down the middle, and the two halves were teetering away from one another and on the point of falling away forever. But behind each half of the severed orange were young people (boys and girls? It wasn’t clear and it didn’t matter) striving to defy the centripetal momentum and push the two halves back together.
To bring a divided world together.
There were few monuments in the world with a story behind it like this one. It was a story which being the son of a man who had been in the Royal Australian Air Force during the 1950’s I had grown up with – as I later realised during the coming weeks was also in so many ways the essential story of South Korea, past and present….
The DMZ was born in 1953 after three years of one of the most violent and bitterly fought wars in the history of humankind – really saying something given our species’ all too evident predilection for war and killing.
The story begins in 1945 and with the defeat of Japan.
For the previous 35 years, the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony and one so oppressive and cruel, that to this day tensions between South Korea and Japan remain troubled, especially given the latter’s refusal to publicly offer an apology.
With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of Japan, Korea found itself occupied again, this time by two different powers: the Russian and Chinese backed communists in the north and the Americans in the south. The dividing line between the two zones was the 38th parallel. It was to be a provisional line of demarcation pending elections.
These were never held.
Russia and China, bonded together by the ideology of Karl Marx and convinced that sooner or later they would dominate the entire planet, armed and funded the communists in the north. With the Americans tied up with the administration of post war Japan, they thought this was an opportune moment to advance communism on the Koran peninsula. Furthermore, Korea would provide a stepping stone to later conquer the rest of Asia.
In 1950, the communists launched a lightning invasion of the south, quickly overrunning it. They destroyed Seoul and the other major cities in the south.
But it was a gamble which proved costly.
The Americans did react, launching a surprise attack at Inchon, half way up the Korean peninsula and drove the communists back almost to the border of China. It was then that China sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops into North Korea in a human wave – like suicide bombers. The numbers killed were irrelevant. The American troops ran out ammunition. More troops were sent.
The stage was set for a long and bitter conflict. After years of inconclusive battles and the deaths of millions of people, a truce was agreed upon. The DMZ was drawn up on the 38th parallel – the same border which had existed three years previous – two Koreas officially recognised with one new significant development: the establishment of the DMZ.
It’s not an easy matter to depict the devastation inflicted on South Korea. At a guess: the Gaza Strip or The Ukraine in today’s terms. In 1953, South Korea was the poorest nation in the world. Two million people had died, millions more were left homeless and all the major cities had been left behind as rubble. A major famine loomed.
Within a few decades, thanks to American investment and troops permanently guarding the DMZ, the pile of rubble was fast on its way to becoming one of its richest nations in Asia. It was a miracle made possible by capitalism and democracy.
On the other side of the border, people lived drab lives in poverty and hunger. One Korea excelled in making consumer products, the other side rockets and arms.
For decades the great dream of the South Koreans was for reunification. There was more at hand than a frustrated longing for a homeland for a people sharing the same language and culture as well as a history of invasions and occupation by the hated Japanese. Korean society is strongly rooted in the family and there was hardly a family in the south who didn’t have family members stranded in the north. The economic miracle of South Korea wasn’t enough to assuage the lingering pain of family separation.
And so the monument – there amidst the miliary bases, the guards, the barb wire fences, the minefields: ordinary people striving to push two halves of a divided globe back together; a dream, a hope, an aspiration.
Yet it was a dream cherished by the people who had endured the years of war, death, suffering and hunger and their children; the generations who had lived on the coal face of a tragic history. Who had worked hard to lay the groundwork for the rise of the economic miracle of the South Korea.
But what about the later generations?
Those who had inherited the South Korean economic miracle – Hyundai, Kia, Samsung. K pop and K drama?
The ‘Gangnam Style’ generations?
For them, reunification could only mean higher taxes.
They weren’t interested.
It had cost Western Germany hundreds of billions of Euros to realise unification with Eastern – which was the most advanced economy of the communist eastern European nations.
North Korea was an economic basket case. Its economy ran on injections of aid from China and weapons sales, cybercrime and drug smuggling (e.g. Opioids and meth amphetamines). The people were malnourished and during some years, suffered from starvation. The costs of bringing a wasteland like that in line with high tech South Korea would be astronomical.
And so the statue in the DMZ became a relic.
The generations which had once relished that dream were either dead or elderly. They were easy to identify those people. I saw them in various places over the following weeks. Small, bent over, wrinkled – a vivid contrast with the later generations who were taller and healthier. It was a stark dichotomy, one far more apparent than age differences in other modern societies.
They were casualties of history those pioneer generations.
So there it was, a relic. That beautiful monument. The hope for unified country now a distant memory.
How one views a monument, a statue, even when mindful of its history, is influenced by the eye of the beholder…and in the idea of bringing a divided world together there was something there which resounded in our deeply divided modern world.
Bringing A Divided World Together.
I was no doubt guilty of the same naivety as those other causalities of history.