"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
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.
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
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."