Living Cold War Legacy: Panmunjom, South Korea

I grew up in the county next to the world’s most mysterious state. The country was divided 35 years before I was was born, and North Korea was already a different country to me. At times, my parents or seniors in the university told me stories about how they were educated against North Korea, more specifically communism. In 1970s and 1980s, the South Korea government prohibited people from reading or accessing any of communist materials and knowledges. So, a number of intellectuals who purely explored a tabooed ideology were caught by police force and tortured on suspicion of spy from the north.

Also, if you live near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) so called 38th Parallel can see many leaflets indicating propagating North Korea regime with sensational phrases and graphics were rolling around the floor. Nowadays, the media has become bold and people have more access to information on the world. This trend must have reached North Korea. Every time I visited my parents’ place, I could see many North Korea defectors working in local restaurants. Come to think of it, I had a classmate who escaped from Sinuiju, a city of North Korea, in high school. He failed to accustomed himself to the normal South Korean school life. He at last had to be sent to another school that provided more programmes for North Korea defectors to settle down. I still remembered he was very skinny, and had a small body structure for his age. When I asked him how he escaped, he just smiled and answered “I got caught twice in China, and sent to a jail. But I escaped again”.

Other than missile and nuclear test hearing from news, I, most South Korean people, was busy with my life. In fact, we are already numb by threats from our communist neighbour. 2 weeks ago, I visited my parents’ house in South Korea. The tension between North Korea and South Korea had arisen due to North’s missile test as well as the leader Kim Jung Eun’s provocative comments towards Trump. So, most TV news and talk shows featured the security threats in Korean Peninsula and press from overseas cast spotlight on my country.

I once lived with my grandparents when I was about 8 years old, who now and then told me her story about how dreadful the Korean War was. While talking about the war, she had to wipe tears as the war separated my grandmother from her cousin. My grandmother passed away two months ago, and visited her at the ossuary as I couldn’t attend her cremation. She was a humble and quiet lady who only knew her children’s happiness. Before my grandmother passed away, she was suffering Alzheimer for a couple of years. However, she remembered my face and name and always welcomed me. So, I told her “Let’s join the Mount Kumgang tour”. “Sure, I miss my cousin so much. We played together until the sun went down so we were scolded by my parents.” The South Korea government and Hyundai, Korea Conglamerate, developed this area as a tourist region and the tour started from 1998.

Panmunjom - A North Korean soldier is watched by US and South Korean security as he lookes in on a tour.
Panmunjom – A North Korean soldier is watched by US and South Korean security as he lookes in on a tour.

 

After the World War II,  Korea Peninsula was whirled by the Cold War era ideology. The Cold War lasted three years since its beginning on June 25, 1950. My grandmother also illustrated grandfather had to carry her on her back, as she couldn’t walk anymore to escape from the north invasion. “The fire was everywhere, and people all packed their stuff and abandoned their house. But, I was bloody tired so could not walk anymore. I heard that some went down to Pusan. But, I couldn’t and didn’t want to leave for too far away.”

At the end of war, the armistice was signed initiated by Soviet and the US. The Armistice was signed at Panmunjom, which now became a big tourist attraction. It was such a weird atmosphere that everything was controlled by soldiers and I was unable to talk due to its tense. Soldiers from both South Korea and North Korea still stand each other right in front of the border, a few centimetres away from each other. No wonder why this site attracts so many foreign tourists. Visiting Panmunjom required a lot of courages due to the security reasons. You are even required to sign the document stating that your life is at your hand, many tourists still visit the place to see the vestige of the Cold War era. It is bloody scary. On the other hand, it is pretty sentimental as we speak the same language and share same history, but the border drawn right in front of your eye stopped us from seeing each other.

My grandmother couldn’t see the reunification nor was she able to see Mount Kumgang or Panmunjom. When thinking about the fact that her memory of childhood is before the Korean War, it is really recent the incident that separated the people in the peninsular. I could only imagine how the my grandmother’s Korea was, whether the one Korea could come true.

 

Location

Panmunjom is located in North Korea. The image below is from Wikipedia.

Panmunjom Location
Panmunjom Location
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