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Rose Richard:Cultural ignorance creates war

What do you know about the Korean peninsula? I’m not talking about what you’ve seen on “M*A*S*H,” and if you even mention that show to me in serious discussion about Korea, I’ll stop talking to you and walk away. Because that show has nothing to do with the real Korea.

When I got back from Korea, the first two questions people asked me were, “What kind of houses do they live in?” and “Omigod! Did you go to North Korea?”

Some rocket scientists posited that perhaps Koreans “like, live in tents.”

And no, I did not visit North Korea. Americans can’t just catch a flight to P’yongyang and hang out for a few days. We aren’t friends with the North Koreans, in case President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech didn’t sink in.

For those of you who don’t know, South Korea is an industrialized nation. South Koreans live in real live apartments, they drive cars (heard of Hyundai and Kia? They’re both South Korean companies), and they even wear Western clothing.

Though I did not visit North Korea, and it never occurred to me to do so in the first place, I did have an opportunity to visit the Demilitarized Zone. I went to the DMZ on the east coast of Korea. Miles before we even got to the DMZ, the beautiful, Mediterranean-blue East Sea (don’t ever refer to it as the Sea of Japan to any Korean) was blocked by ugly barbed-wire fencing. When we got into the actual zone before the DMZ, a soldier carrying some sort of high-powered assault rifle boarded our bus and barked orders at us in Korean.

There are rules at the DMZ. It’s not another tourist stop like the Olympic Pavilion. You can’t take pictures of military facilities. You can only be in designated spots. You must carry your passport at all times (Korean police can demand your identification at any time, and you must provide it). You can’t point your camera at North Korea.

The part of the DMZ I visited was surreal.

As we walked up the steps to the Unification Observatory, there were the words “unification” carved into the hillside facing the North. One thing any serious visitor to Korea must learn is unification vocabulary. You must be able to say things like, “I think there is a strong possibility of unification.” The division of Korea is something that has cut the Korean psyche to the core. You hear unification words on the news, in songs, in dramas, movies and any other Korean media. Families are separated and people miss their relatives. It is very tragic, and it is a subject to be treated with a great deal of respect.

The South Korean military band played “Copacabana” as we arrived. The drum major sang it entirely in Korean. It was extremely surreal.

After the song was over, the band disappeared and an ajumma (meaning aunt, unrelated to you) yelled, “Dae Han Min Guk!” This was the rallying cry for the South Korean soccer team. The World Cup was still in full swing at the time. Any time anyone said this, the crowd was always to respond in kind, and enthusiastically.

So there we were, in one of the more dangerous places on the planet, clapping and yelling “Dae Han Min Guk!” Not only was that setting so weird, but despite all the barbed-wire fencing, the area was beautiful. The hills were green, the beach almost white, and as I mentioned, the sea was the most beautiful color of blue I’ve ever seen.

When I looked toward North Korea, I could see nothing but rolling hills and, of course, the ubiquitous barbed-wire fence. There was a North Korean observation tower in the distance and what looked like an empty billboard. Our tour guide informed us that sometimes the North Koreans would post propaganda on the billboards. I suppose that carving the word “unification” into the hillside facing the North amounted to the same thing.

The tension at the DMZ is palpable.

While I was in Seoul, a North Korean ship fired on a South Korean naval boat, killing some of the seamen. For a few days, I tried to figure out the quickest way to get to the American embassy, just in case something went wrong but, by August, North and South Korea were discussing unification again.

In a recent article in Newsweek, the authors pointed out American policymakers really don’t know what to do with the Koreas.

Frankly, this is disturbing.

It is easy for Donald Rumsfeld to blow steam and huff and puff about kicking Kim Jong Il’s ass. But do they really understand how the two Koreas interact and how the peninsula really doesn’t want a war?

I am not discounting the badness of Kim Jong Il. He starves his people while he collects “Friday the 13th” videos and writes damning pronouncements of James Bond movies. He sells weapons to terrorists. He will have any religious person shot in the face. North Koreans do not have it easy. Separated from family and freedoms their neighbors in the South enjoy, certainly something should be done. But is warhawking the answer when American policymakers don’t even understand the countries themselves?