Children storm the DMZ

[This story was written originally in March 2013 reporting from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)  for The Korea Herald and later re-published by The Nation in Thailand.]

Children in DMZ
I took this photo at the amusement park near Paju when the kids were gathering up for the buses to take them back to Seoul after a day-long outing inside the heavily militarized Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea in March 2013.

A handful of tour buses carrying foreign diplomats, Korean reporters and children slowly lumbered across Unification Bridge into the demilitarised zone, carefully negotiating barricades assembled halfway along the bridge’s length.

The schoolchildren were fidgety and chattering excitedly, jumping out of their seats to peer out of the bus windows at sights they scarcely could have seen before – armoured vehicles, heavily armed checkpoints and nests of razor-wire, the legacy of a three-year civil war and 60 years of national division.

The schoolchildren, a dozen foreign envoys, and their entourage were part of March 21’s “International Children’s Peace Day”, a day-long tour of various tourist sites in and around Paju, a sleepy rural town north of Seoul. It was organised by International Cooperation of Environmental Youth, a US-based group led by organiser Lee Kyoung-tae and wife Melissa Lee.

The couple has made headlines over the years on peace and environmental issues, including a movement to build what the couple described as a “children’s peace forest” inside the DMZ.

“It is a great idea because peace is one of the most expensive ideas there is, and children can market the idea better than anyone else,” said Charitha Yattogoda, a diplomat from the Sri Lankan Embassy in Seoul.

“We also know how expensive peace can be in Sri Lanka. We had a civil conflict for 30 years and only recently achieved peace,” he said during the day-long event.

“We know how important it is, and we at the embassy immediately thought of joining this event to lend our support as best as we can.”

The DMZ can be a culture shock for any visitor. Barbed wire fences and security checkpoints abound, guarded by soldiers lugging machine guns.

The soldiers are not lonely, however, as busloads of tourists show up daily to gawk at the world’s most heavily fortified border, even as North Korea threatens to drown Seoul in a “sea of fire”.

“It’s a good experience for the children. This is not an easy place to organize a visit, so we appreciate the effort the organisers made for the children. Normally kids under 12 years of age are not allowed inside the DMZ,” said Wang Kai, wife of Austrian Ambassador Josef Muellner. Wang delivered welcome remarks at Imjinggak Pavilion at the start of the tour.

Imjinggak Pavilion was built “to remind Koreans of their painful past and their commitment to unification”, says the Gyeonggi provincial government.

The pavilion’s amusement park, fast-food joints and kitschy souvenir shops mix with an ever-present Cold War tension that is higher now than it has been in years, following North Korean outrage over UN sanctions and joint US-South Korean military drills that have included Cold War-style B-52 flyovers.

Sensing potential controversy, some foreign diplomats shied away from lending any insights about the divided Korea, the demilitarised zone or the North.

Most of them, however, realized the crucial role that today’s children must eventually take if peace and unification is to return to their country.

“War and peace is a game for politicians to play, but I think these young people will grow up to change the way the game is played,” said Sameer Alwahedy, an attache at the Jordanian Embassy in Seoul. “In Jordan, we believe in peace, everyone in the world has the right to live in peace. A children’s event like this could be a great help in the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well.”

It is easy to cynically dismiss the conflict-zone tourist industry that has slowly grown in the area, including the Dora Observatory, where one wave to soldiers and look at North Korea through binoculars for 500 won (Bt13), and the amusement park at the Imjinggak Pavilion, the start and end point for the day-long tour.

But the mix of tourist kitsch Cold War humor shows Paju’s residents are making the best of a bad situation, and it could offer hope.

“This event symbolizes to me the promotion of peace because, obviously, youth are the future. We have to make a commitment to conflict resolution and this is a conscious effort to promote peace,” said SU Ahmed, deputy head of mission at the Nigerian Embassy.

“Children are the ones who suffer the most in a conflict situation. That is why it is important to let them participate in being part of the solution in events like this one,” said Adamu A Musa, minister at the Nigerian Embassy in Seoul.

In addition to the amusement park, which is complete with rides and carnival booths, there are a number of other touristy things to do and see: take the bicycle tour; bang the Bell of Peace for 10,000 won; stroll on the Bridge of Freedom, which comes to an abrupt and symbolic dead end; and peer at the rusting steam engine stuck in situ since the end of the Korean War, riddled with bullet holes.

Musa, Ahmed and their wives returned to Seoul with souvenir DMZ baseball caps.


Scholar to publish book on Soviet involvement in the Korean War

This story was written originally for The Korea Times on Dec. 12, 2011.

An American professor, who brought to light in much more detail than ever before the nature and extent of the Soviet Union’s pivotal involvement in the Korean War, has decided during her six month teaching sabbatical in Seoul, to publish her original findings in a book for the Korean domestic audience.

Prof. Kathryn Weathersby, a visiting professor at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, mined Soviet archives for some four years in the early 1990s immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in search of the true nature of the relationship between North Korea and the former Soviet Union.

Weathersby revealed that North Korea’s Kim Il-sung had to first receive permission from the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin in order to invade South Korea, as well as logistical support, training and military advisors.

“Kim Il-sung was a young idealist picked by Stalin,” Weathersby said. “He was an underling and Stalin was the big boss. (Kim) had to turn to him to make a major decision like that.”

She is credited as having been the first scholar to bring to light in much more detail the extent of Soviet involvement in the Korean War. Many researchers followed her example, mining Soviet archives to help tell the story of the Cold War as history.

She said what was of importance in her search was Stalin’s calculation, not Kim’s. “Kim’s not thinking. He only wants to invade the South, bring his revolution to the South. He’s not a careful tactician,” said Weathersby, a professor of political science and diplomacy, in an interview with The Korea Times at her office on the campus of the women’s college in Seoul.

She said she has not yet found a publisher, but she is aiming for 2012 for publication.

Weathersby received a Ph.D. in modern Russian history from Indiana University in 1990, with a second field in modern East Asian history. She said this is not her first time in Korea, but it is the professor’s first time for an extended stay.

She heads back to the United States this coming Thursday.

Her findings had a huge impact on how scholars and policy makers understand the Korean War and, by extension, the Cold War. In the 1990s, it was academically incendiary adding fuel to a polemical debate over how much Kim Il-sung was in actual control over the invasion he launched on June 25, 1950.

“It invalidated the so-called ‘revisionist school’ by showing that the decision was made directly by the Soviet Union,” she said, adding “it supported the original American decision to intervene.”

She cautioned against drawing direct parallels from a historical understanding to current political decisions.

“It’s not that there is a direct link between one piece of historical understanding and any specific current situation,” she said. “It does shape our collective understanding on issues like deterrence, on whether such policies worked in the past.”

Is Germany’s Unification Experience A Lesson for North and South Korea?

German Ambassador Rolf Mafael poses for a photo with other officials who convened at a panel discussion on national unification in Seoul on Thursday. From left are: Mafael; National Assembly Rep. Lee Jae-young; professor Ra Jong-yil of Hanyang University; Saxony-Anhalt Minister-President Reiner Haseloff; professor Werner Patzelt of Technical University of Dresden; Norbert Eschborn of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation; and Kim Myeon-hoei, president of the Korean Society of Contemporary European Studies.
German Ambassador Rolf Mafael poses for a photo with other officials who convened at a panel discussion on national unification in Seoul on Thursday. From left are: Mafael; National Assembly Rep. Lee Jae-young; professor Ra Jong-yil of Hanyang University; Saxony-Anhalt Minister-President Reiner Haseloff; professor Werner Patzelt of Technical University of Dresden; Norbert Eschborn of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation; and Kim Myeon-hoei, president of the Korean Society of Contemporary European Studies.

This story appeared originally in the Korea Herald on Sep. 28, 2014.

South Korean and German officials and academics convened in Seoul on Thursday to discuss what lessons might be gleaned from the unification of East and West Germany on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

German Ambassador Rolf Mafael, professor Ra Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador and vice minister at the National Intelligence Service, and other senior officials discussed the significance of German unification and the many differences between the German case and the challenges South and North Korea face in reconciling after more nearly 70 years of division.

The talks took place during a panel discussion and dinner reception, entitled “25th Anniversary of Germany’s Peaceful Revolution: Lessons for Korea.”

The revolution began in the East German cities of Leipzig and Dresden in 1989, and eventually precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the country the following year.

“This is a historic year. So, the Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt (Reiner Haseloff) is visiting here. The region is very meaningful and significant in remembering German division and unification for West Germans because we had to pass through the region to enter into East Germany,” Mafael said. “I also remember waiting there for a couple of days before receiving permission to enter East Germany.”

The German Embassy and the South Korean government are commemorating the historic event this year with over a dozen events, including academic seminars, cultural exchanges, visits by VIPs and trade delegations, and a huge reception on German Unity Day, which is celebrated on Oct. 3.