South Korea's Forgotten War

The battle over the 38th parallel is fading from memory -- even as its legacy continues to dominate life on the Peninsula.

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South Korean soldiers are seen through barbed wire at their checkpoint near the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas on November 26, 2010. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

Many young South Korean men today describe the two years they are required to serve in the military as "wasted time." It is an imposition on their prime years -- when they could be getting ahead in their education, getting a job, or meeting their life partner, they spend 21 to 24 months in a sort of man camp. Of course, they are trained to defend the country from North Korea, but that is usually the third or fourth thing they mention, when asked to talk about what the military experience means for them.

"The day I completed my service was the best day of my life by far," said Chung Minjae, 24, who served 23 months as a Korean Augmentation To the United States Army (KATUSA) at the American base in Seoul from 2008 to 2009.

KATUSA conscripts serve alongside approximately 28,500 U.S. troops that remain stationed in South Korea today since the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, in 1953. The American presence and joint operation with South Korea continue to play a major role in deterrence efforts against aggression from North Korea.

"The hardest thing being in the army is that you are stuck in one place [...] for two years while everyone else continues to move on with their lives," Chung told me. "Once I was done, I could finally move forward, along with everybody else." This is probably a heightened feeling in a speed-obsessed, extremely modern city like Seoul, where two years out of the civilian loop can leave you technologically and socially disoriented.

Chung said he felt an "enormous burden being lifted" from his shoulders the day he finished his military duty, which he compared to being grounded for two years. He is now finishing his bachelor's degree in East Asian international relations at Yonsei University in Korea, from which he had taken a break in order to enlist.

Still, a 23-month KATUSA experience is hardly anything to complain about. Most men end up in the regular ROKA (Republic of Korea Army), where the quality of time-biding is said to be several times inferior. While Chung might have been bored with mostly administrative duties at the American base, Lee Seung Joon, 25, recalls long and irregular duty hours that disrupted his sleep. Lee served 24 months in an ROKA artillery division near the 38th parallel.

The 38th parallel marks the highly fortified no-man's land between South Korea and North Korea. It was a line drawn by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War days, from which sprung a Stalinist regime to the north and a U.S.-backed democracy to the south.

If North Korea were to storm into South Korea by land, as it did in the 1950 invasion that escalated into the Korean War, the men at the 38th parallel would be the first to see action. The duty schedules are demanding there, and Lee and his companions often had to wake up in the middle of the night for shifts on the border.

Although it is said that this is one of the world's tensest borders, most have served their two years without many incidents. But two of the most provocative North Korean aggressions since the 1953 armistice happened during Lee's term at the border: the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in March 2010, which killed 46 seamen, and the shelling of a South Korean island in November 2010, which killed two marines and two civilians, and injured others. These were contained incidents involving the navy and marines along the sea border west of the Korean peninsula, but ground forces along the 38th parallel and everywhere else were on alert, ready to go to war at the government's word.

"When the Cheonan (the South Korean navy ship) sank, we really got ourselves ready for war, and then nothing happened," said Lee. "Two-and-a-half weeks passed without anything, and during those days we couldn't even take our boots off. It was nasty -- we were dirty and greasy, waiting for days ... but nothing happened." Lee said the anger in the beginning eventually gave way to frustration.

"These are high school graduates and college freshmen who barely know what the country stands for, doing long shifts on the border, and they're tired," Lee added.

He recalled thinking that it could have been him or his friends on that ship -- he had almost enlisted in the navy -- and being upset about the men who died. But even after living these scenarios and serving under extreme pressure, Lee admitted that most don't think much about the North after getting discharged from service.

"They're more concerned about getting a job, studying, building up their resumes," Lee said. "We go into the army with the mentality that we are giving up two years -- those two years are dead." This mentality does not seem to change after service. The two weeks of smelly boots and not showering become stories told over drinks.

Lee's experience at the front lines led him to shift his academic trajectory as he prepared to go back to school. His two years at the border were difficult and allowed him to grow "stronger psychologically and physically," but he said he thinks it also changed what he wanted to study. He is switching out of a psychology degree to pursue subjects more along the lines of international studies.

"I had a lot of thinking time during those two years," Lee said. "I got to thinking about the kids on the other side [of the border]. They are the same." Lee described the North Korean soldiers he saw from observation post photos at the border, and the way they diligently swept the snow at their guard posts, just the way he and his companions did. "They probably complained as much as we did about long duty hours."

Reunification on the Horizon?

South Korean children have been taught in public school that the North Korean children are their poorer brothers and sisters, and that someday they must seek a happy ending as one unified nation. But for some young South Koreans, the notion that they share a common destiny with their mysterious northern neighbors is perplexing, and abstract at best.

"Reunification would be a really bad thing for South Korea," said Park Sung Woo, a 24-year-old university student studying life sciences and biotechnology in Seoul. "It's not really our responsibility to take care of North Korea, and I think most people would think this way -- at least among my friends from the Army."

He concedes, however, that it is probably an important issue. He considers himself emotionally detached, acknowledging that he might think differently if his family had North Korean ties.

"Now we are entering a second generation of Koreans with no memory of a unified Korea, so [reunification] has become more abstract, much less real," Charles Armstrong, Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, said. "And of course, in the South, there is a concern that any sudden unification, or even gradual unification ... would be detrimental to the quality of life that people have in South Korea."

To be sure, reunification has a much larger significance for older generations, especially for those who have known the pre-war unified Korea and those whose families were separated by the 38th parallel. Older members of the South Korean society regard it as an obligation for the younger Koreans to pursue that dream. "We are the same people," is their mantra.

But already the North Korean accent is alien to South Koreans, and the North Korean defectors that come to the South are often discriminated against. Unable to adapt to life in South Korea, many become depressed and even regret leaving the North.

South Korea has received around 24,000 North Korean refugees by now, most of whom left the North risking dangerous consequences and because they were hungry. The number of refugees escaping through underground trails in China has been steadily increasing, to the point that it's raised concerns in the South Korean government about funding for refugee resettlement. Seoul's burgeoning budget problem was stopped in its tracks only when the North's new leader, Kim Jong Un, virtually halted the refugee flow this past year.

Many have speculated that the thousands of refugees, with their hearts in the North and their feet in the South, would eventually facilitate the reunification process, if an opportunity came.

However, Danny Lee, 25, who left North Korea at age 17 and chose to live in the United States instead of going to South Korea, said that people his age in North Korea "don't care [about unification] -- they don't really know anything [about the Korean War, or our history]."

"When I was young, in the military and in high school, they told us that South Koreans are poor. [They told us], 'you will grow up and help the [poor] South Koreans with your knowledge.' ... But now, [people] are starting to watch South Korean drama and movies," he said, referring to the DVDs that have been smuggled into the country and are being watched secretly. He explains that young people in North Korea know little about the South, but they are starting to realize that it is different from how the North Korean government has portrayed it for them.

Armstrong said younger people's disinterest in reunification is probably similar in North Korea, because of the passing of generations and much more urgent economic concerns than in the South.

Still, he believes that reunification is "inevitable."

"If the circumstance arises in which there is real change in North Korea," said Armstrong, "it's hard for me to imagine that South Koreans will simply say, 'No, we don't want unification; we'll keep the countries separate. I think that -- and I partly base this on what happened in Germany in the early '90s -- it's a feeling ... about the depth to which there is still, underneath the day-to-day reality of practical considerations, the idea of Korea being one country.

"I don't think it's so much that South Koreans would actively go out of their way to pursue unification, but circumstances can change, sometimes very rapidly, in which the opening for unification happens. With the long history of a unified Korea, it's hard to imagine that [a separated Korea] could simply go on forever."

Armstrong places much weight on the long history of Korea and its strong ethnic identity. This is perhaps what Lee Seung Joon reflected upon during his service at the 38th parallel, when he saw the North Korean soldiers sweeping snow on the other side of the border.

"I think that once you have a real opening up of North Korea, which I think will happen eventually, then the time between that and unification could be quite rapid. What we don't know is when that opening will happen," Armstrong said.

The Forgotten War

Today, after 59 years of an ongoing armistice in which the two Koreas are still technically at war, the South has grown to be the 13th largest economy in the world, a dramatic departure from the war-ravaged, poverty-stricken country it once was. Meanwhile, the North, the last Stalinist state in the world, has remained disconnected from the international community, and most of its population is chronically hungry.

The stark difference between the two estranged countries can be seen from satellite images of the Korean peninsula at night: The northern half is plunged in darkness, while a sudden burst of light beneath the 38th parallel clearly outlines the piece of land that belongs to South Korea.

From what observers are able to collect from North Korean state media, the Cold War rhetoric is still very much alive in the North, loaded with invectives directed at the United States and constant referrals to the U.S.-friendly South Korean government as a "puppet government." The North Korean government has held its grudge against the United States for the past 60 years, rehashing the U.S. involvement in Korea as evil and damaging to the Korean peninsula.

But south of the 38th parallel, most of these issues have been relegated to history books and faded from collective memory.

About a mere 35 miles from the border, the South Korean capital, Seoul, bustles with the footsteps of over 10 million people and the wheels of 3 million vehicles on their way to business. Buildings pop up fast, tall and eager, in a steely show of indifference to the North Korean artillery pointed directly at the city.

The crippling violence of the Korean War has long been forgotten. Some sources say there were as many as 2 million civilian deaths, but the chaos was such that there is no real, accurate way of knowing, according to Charles Armstrong. There is, however, more certainty about the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in the war.

In the United States, the war that took more than 36,940 American lives had largely faded from memory -- until a memorial was built in Washington in the 1990s. Armstrong said one of the reasons for collective amnesia is that the Korean War ended inconclusively -- "and it became folded into this mystery of the Cold War."

Few Americans today are aware that tens of thousands of American soldiers are still stationed in South Korea. There has been talk of ending the U.S. military presence, but recent moves from North Korea threatening the security of the region are complicating this plan.

The two incidents in 2010 -- the sinking of the warship Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea -- brought unusual violence to the surface and reminded us that fighting could resume at any time. Yet the tension seems to have dissipated for many in South Korea.

Ahead of the December 19th presidential elections, public opinion polls from media outlets, including Gallup Korea surveys, show that North-South relations, and North Korea as an issue in general, lag far behind concerns about the economy, jobs and education. And as South Korean news channels reported the North's recent rocket launch, anchors assured viewers that the stock market was in stable condition.

"The way that North Korea is presented [in the western media] makes it difficult for Americans, who know very little about Korea, to understand why people living in South Korea aren't terrified every day of their lives about the threat from North Korea," Armstrong told me. "The reality is that people are focused on their life ... It's a very practical, day-to-day kind of reality."

Like many young South Koreans, university student Park Sung Woo doubts there's much he can do to change the current situation in Korea, and he gives it little thought.

Asked about his service in the ROKA between 2009 and 2011, Park simply replied, "I just needed to get [my military service] over with."