| A North Korean officer looks across the Demilitarised Zone at the US building on the other side. Picture by Jehangir S. Pocha
Demilitarised Zone (North Korea), Nov. 30: The North Korean colonel talking to American journalists during a government-sponsored tour grabbed one of the reporters by the waist and squeezed forcefully with both hands.
“It hurts, right'” Colonel Kang Ho Sop, 57, asked with a grimace. “That’s how it feels to be cut in half.”
More than half a century after the Korean peninsula was severed in two at the end of the Korean War, the pain of being a divided nation gnaws at millions of people on both sides of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea.
“It’s like a tragedy for me that I don’t know what happened to my relatives in the South,” Kang said as he looked over an expanse of the lush 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ that is often called the most dangerous place on earth. “I really hope that reunification will be fulfilled before I die.”
The dream of reunifying this fractured nation is never far from people’s lips in this isolated, Stalinist country of 23 million.
Such sentiments also seem to resonate with most of the 48 million people across the DMZ in South Korea, the 1.5 million Koreans living in the US and even the 2.5 million people of Korean descent living in northeast China.
“Of course, we all want to reunify,” said Peter Chuang, a professor of hospitality at the YoungSan University in Pusan, South Korea, who was visiting Pyongyang last month to attend celebrations marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Workers Party of Korea’s ascent to power. “This is a common ‘national’ mission of our people. Is that so hard to understand'”
Today, more than 10 million Korean families still live divided by an offshoot of the Cold War, and life for them can be hard, said Adrian Kim, 42, a South Korean businessman also visiting Pyongyang for the anniversary celebrations.
“Every birthday or festival day, my mother used to mourn silently for her sister and family members” in the North, he said. “So in a way, we always lived with this feeling of absence or loss around us.”
Significantly, Kim and many of his generation are increasingly blaming the US for keeping their families divided. Their most common complaint is that President George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech frightened insecure North Korea and forced it back into its shell just when it had embraced its “sunshine” policy of opening up in the late-1990s.
“I myself was furious,” said Chuang. “(North and South Korea) had just agreed in principle to reunify, which was a huge breakthrough, and I was working to create a bicycle race that would start in Beijing and come through Pyongyang to Seoul for the 2002 (soccer) World Cup. But Bush blew that away.”
Such talk surprises, even angers, some South Koreans. Sixty years ago, when the Japanese who had colonised Korea in 1910 were driven from the peninsula after World War II, it was the US that guaranteed the South’s protection from the communist-controlled North.
About 34,000 US soldiers died keeping North Korea from swallowing the South during the Korean War. Today, 37,000 US troops are stationed in Seoul to deter North Korea from further adventures.
“But the war was a long time ago,” said Kim. “The problem of separation is a real one that people are living with today, and today they see the US as an impediment.”
The problem is the worst for US-based Korean families who often try to reconnect with lost family members using unreliable sources, said Stephen Ko, 34, a New York-based second-generation Korean American.
“I’d met my uncles, aunts and cousins (living in North Korea) only once in 1986,” Ko said. “Then when I was living in Seoul (this September), I was suddenly contacted by a man who said he was my cousin.”
But Ko said when he went all the way to Yan Li, a Chinese town on the North Korean border, to meet his “cousin”, no one showed up. “He was probably a poser hoping to receive a handout,” Ko said sadly. “There are a lot of them about, preying on people like me.”
With Pyongyang and Washington currently working out a compromise on the question of the former’s nuclear weapons, it is possible that further progress on the issue will soon allow families across the DMZ to connect again.
“I hope the leaders keep this in mind when they meet,” a North Korean said on condition of anonymity. “They should understand how their political decisions change our lives.”