During my stay in Goseong, I visited the Inter-Korean Transit Office (Donghae Line) as well. This office was active during the running of Mt. Geumgang tours with the Geumgang resort receiving about 400,000 visitors per year until July 2008. The tours to Geumgang ceased with the shooting of Park Wang-ja, a South Korean tourist, when she unintentionally crossed to a prohibited area and was shot by a North Korean guard. Calls for a joint-Korean investigation of the shooting were made, however due to the lack of cooperation from the DPRK side, tours were never resumed.
Through the Geumgang project, the North has benefited much from it economically, and since the ceasing of tours, it has suffered losses of more than US$900million.
The next monumental economic partnership after the Geumgang project was the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in 2004. Unfortunately, this project has fallen through too with the closing down of the KIC earlier this year in February.
The first time North and South Korean trains crossed the Inter-Korean or the DMZ border was in 17 May 2007, 56 years after the Korean War. Some of the distinguished South Korean passengers included former Unification Ministers like Lee Jong-seok and Lim Dong-won, the main architect of the ‘sunshine’ policy.
Goseong is also famous for its lagoon named Hwajinpo (화진포). Hwajinpo Lake is the biggest lagoon near the East Sea and boasts excellent scenery with its white sandy beaches and evergreen foliage. Due to its impressive scenery, Kim Il-Seong (1912-1994) of North Korea and former South Korean president Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) had their summer villas built here after the independence of Korea in 1945.
After visiting President Syngman Rhee’s villa, we headed to Kim Il-Sung’s summer villa which was located nearby.
When I visited President Syngman Rhee’s and then Kim Il Sung’s summer villa which are both located in Hwajinpo, Goseong, I felt a bit confused. Maybe it was because I had not expected to find Kim Il Sung’s summer villa in South Korea. If anything, it should have been in North Korea. When I examined my thoughts, I realised that the idea of the two Koreas as separate entities has been so ingrained in me, that it is hard for me to even picture that they were one united Korea before. After all these years of separation, it is of no surprise that people are generally disillusioned about the future prospect of the unification of the two Koreas. However, I would like to cling on to the small hope that the two Koreas can be unified, that they can return to the status quo. If they were unified before, they should be seen as one collective unit, and not two independent separate entities.
As one of the ASEAN students in Korea, I took part in a workshop titled ‘Significance of Korean Unification for Peace and Prosperity of East Asia’which took place on 20-21 May 2016, focusing on the key issues to the significance of Korea’s unification. Field trips were also organised to the Inter-Korean Transit Office the Unification Observatory and Hwajinpo. The workshop took place in Goseong, Gangwon-do Province and was organised by the Korea Foundation(KF) and ASEAN Korea Centre.
Goseong is a county located in the Gangwon Province in South Korea, and takes about three and a half hours to get there by bus from Seoul.
The red line in the above figure representing the Demilitarized Military Zone (DMZ) serves as the demarcation between South and North Korea. Prior to the Korean War, Goseong was part of North Korea, however after the signing of the 1953 armistice, Goseong became part of South Korea.
I had the opportunity to view North Korea from two different countries and locations. First was in Yanji city in Yanbian, China at the Tumen River, and then more recently in Goseong via the Unification Observatory. (see the two locations above circled)
The Goseong Unification Observatory (고성 통일전망대) is the closest view you can get of North Korea from the South Korea side.
In the horizon, you can see Geumkangsan mountain (금강산) in North Korea. The island slightly above the middle ground serves as a demarcation between North and South Korea. On the left side of the photo, there is a road leading into North Korea from the South. On the right side of the photo is the bordering sea of the Korean Peninsula, Russia and Japan. It is called by different names by different countries. Japan knows it as ‘Sea of Japan’, South Korea calls it ‘East Sea’, whereas North Korea prefers the name ‘East Sea of Korea’.
The East Sea is one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve seen. The azure blue contrasted by the foliage of green, is definitely a sight to behold.
I had the privilege of attending a workshop hosted by the Ministry of Unification that took place from 13 -14 May. During this workshop, I had the opportunity to meet with a North Korean defector, a lady who appeared somewhere in her forties.
When I first saw her, I was somewhat surprised. The lady had such a friendly and pleasant persona that I would never have guessed she was a North Korean defector. Maybe in my mind I was picturing someone bitter and resentful, which is fully understandable especially if one experienced the oppressive North Korean regime. Things were set into perspective when I heard the moderator of the Q&A session forbidding us to ask questions pertaining to her family back home in North Korea. He didn’t elaborate much, but it was enough for me to catch on; family of North Korean defectors ended up being under heavy surveillance, sent to prison camps or even tortured. In some cases, they simply ‘disappeared’.
Some background information on the North Korean defector: (Let’s call her Ms. Kim for convenience’s sake) Ms. Kim defected to South Korea in 2010, and it has been her sixth year here in South Korea so far. She is currently co-heading a school for North Korean defectors’ children. The school, called “미래소망스쿨” (literally translating to “Future Hope School” in English) is located in Nowon-gu in Seoul and is fully funded by Somang church. The school targets elementary school students with the objective of eventually helping them integrate into the local school system in South Korea. (For more details visit the school’s site: http://www.miraesomang.kr)
When asked on what was the most difficult part adapting to South Korean society, Ms. Kim said it was language, at least for people in her age group. Although both South Korea and North Korea use the Korean language, there are significant differences between the two. South Korea has many of its modern words taken from English (e.g. chocolate, shampoo, cake et cetera), whereas North Korea has distinct terms for the above items mentioned, which may be quite confusing for the North and South Koreans when they communicate.
Ms Kim decided to write a book to help other North Korean defectors better integrate into the South Korean society, through her own personal experiences.
I haven’t got the time to properly read it but as I flipped to the book index, I saw that the book was classified into categories like “Manners used in Greetings”, “Manners in Public Spaces” and “How to make a good first impression”, just to name a few.
During the Q&A session, I wanted confirmation of what I heard from a guide that I had during my visit to Yanji, China last year; whether it was true that North Korean defectors preferred to escape to China via the Tumen River over the Yalu River. In response, Ms. Kim replied that what I knew was the reality, and stated matter-of-factly why this was the case. As I listened to her, I found myself wondering if she too crossed over to China via the Tumen River, and imagining how it must have been like for her to leave her family behind, and how terrified she must have been while escaping. She didn’t share the details of how she escaped and throughout the entire Q&A session, I never saw her get emotional. However for some reason, that left a deep impact on me. There was no need for words to understand her past predicament; she had to remain strong in order to survive. Even now, I could tell she was still trying to be strong, for herself, for her family.
My encounter with Ms. Kim has inspired me in various ways. It reminded me of the importance of my role as a student reporter, and that there is always hope even in the seemingly hopeless moments; that the night is darkest just before the dawn.
To be honest, I’ve never really had that much of an interest in the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. I mean, why would I, when there were already so many issues grabbing my attention? Besides, the issue of the Korean Peninsula has been ongoing for decades. New headlines and issues are being churned out every day, so why would the issue of the reunification of the Korean Peninsula be any more different or special?
I would say this indifference continued until the end of December 2015 when I had the opportunity to go to Yanbian, China, or more specifically to Yanji, the capital of Yanbian. Yanbian is an Autonomous Prefecture in northeastern Jilin Province, People’s Republic of China, and is part of the China-North Korea border, an international border separating China and North Korea. Due to the sharing of a common border between China and North Korea, it is said that many North Koreans cross over into China despite having the Yalu River, Paektu Mountain and the Tumen River dividing the two countries.
If you see the map above, you can see how the Yalu River and the Tumen River forms the China-North Korea border.
Most North Korean defectors prefer crossing the Tumen River into China to the Yalu River, because the Tumen River is relatively more shallow and narrow, unlike the latter which is more deep and broad. In addition, the Tumen freezes over in winter allowing North Korean defectors to cross over without having to swim.
While the Tumen River also connects North Korea into Russia, North Korean refugees still prefer to cross into China because China’s stretch of the river has less patrol, making it less risky. Moreover, the sizeable ethnic Korean community that is present in Yanbian allows these North Korean refugees to receive support, or at least face less obstacles in terms of language and communication.
I was able to see the Tumen River first-hand after a short hike up at the 두만강조각공원(Sorry there isn’t an English translation but it literally somewhat translates into Tumen River Park)
After a manageable 1km hike up in our bulky winter wear, we finally got a bird’s eye view of the Tumen River.
As I stared in awe at the view that was in front of me, whatever feelings of disinterest I had initially started to dissipate. I found myself becoming more curious of what lay beyond the frozen Tumen, the country dubbed as the ‘hermit kingdom’. There have been many varying opinions of what and how it is like, and while some of these opinions may be valid, I wanted to understand for myself and form my own view of North Korea; is it just like how the media sources portrays it, or is it a country that is misunderstood? My feeling of awe slowly changed into that of sadness as I realised that access into this country was very limited, and the view that I had in front of me was perhaps the closest view South Koreans could have of North Korea. It is truly sad to think that many families still remain separated due to warring ideologies.
In the picture above, there is a bridge that connects North Korea to China, suggesting that North Korea is not as ‘reclusive’ as we think. Though there is a good-sized number of North Koreans wanting to leave North Korea, the reality is that, it is virtually impossible for the majority of North Koreans to defect through legal means. And because the monetary cost to defect from the hermit kingdom is far too steep for the average North Korean, the majority of North Koreans end up resorting to illegal means to escape North Korea.
Even though it has been several months since my visit to the Tumen River, I cannot erase what I saw and felt. The timely appointment as one of the the International Student Reporters for the Ministry of Unification has given me the privilege and access to exploring the issue of unification more in depth. It is my hope that through this role, I can gain greater clarity on the issue, and use this platform to share with others whatever I have learnt and experienced.