This week I went on my first tour of the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea).
The tour only skimmed the surface of the complex issues surrounding this divided nation, but seeing the land of North Korea, one of the infiltration tunnels the North Koreans dug to attack Seoul, and the train line that connects the South and North helped the reality of the situation here sink in a little deeper.
We got our first glimpse of North Korea from the bus on the way to the DMZ. Our tour guide said that people always ask how to tell which part of the landscape is North and which is South and that the easiest way is to look at the trees. The land covered by trees is South Korea. The land completely devoid of trees is North Korea.
The sharp contrast was striking. Our guide explained that the North Koreans had cut down all the trees for fuel and to make it harder for people to take cover as they tried to escape to the South. The sight of that barren land really stuck with me. We are so close to each other, have the potential to be so similar, yet are so utterly different.
Despite all the mentions of reunification throughout the tour, what struck me the most was the reality of the disunity of this land.
Sometimes I forget that I am living in a country that is technically still at war. One of the tour stops was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, one of the four tunnels dug by North Korea across the border into South Korea that South Korea has discovered. According to one North Korean defector, 16 more tunnels may exist! They were designed to launch an all-out attack on Seoul, and the first tunnel was discovered in 1973, two decades after the ceasefire in 1953.
Though almost 60 years have passed since the fighting halted, there is much deep-seated hostility and prejudice that remains unresolved in this peninsula. North Korea is still planning how to take over South Korea. Many South Koreans view North Koreans as potential cheap labor at best. Our tour guide told us she was taught in school growing up that North Koreans were devils with horns and tails.
Sometimes I wonder to myself, How will healing ever come to this land?
Things have been in this state of uncertainty for so long that many have grown complacent.
Our tour guide briefly mentioned that people in North Korea sometimes get so hungry they have to eat dirt, tree bark, or even human flesh. Then she moved on.
I myself went directly from the tour bus to a popular shopping district in Seoul and bought a pair of pants and some fancy eye cream. It is easy to let the very real suffering happening just a short bus ride away to completely slip from your mind.
Many friends here have told me they simply don’t have a heart for North Korea, and I can understand where they are coming from. It’s natural to decide that the situation is outside your control, that perhaps those who are suffering even brought it on themselves. It’s natural to even resist learning more about the situation. You want to be ignorant, because then you can’t be held responsible.
But I can’t do that. Something deep inside me refuses.
When we visited Dorasan Station, the train station from which people could potentially travel into North Korea in the future, I started praying. I hadn’t planned to, it just came out. I began envisioning and proclaiming that one day people would be sitting in these seats waiting to go into North Korea, that I myself would one day be passing through this station on my way to Pyongyang.
I am only beginning to get a grasp of the darkness in North Korea and of the complexities of the bitterness that haunts this land, but I don’t need to understand the darkness to proclaim its end. I know of a light that can defeat any darkness.