It's So Complicated, It's Getting Poetic

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As a foreigner, I wasn’t very familiar with Korean reunification. All I knew was that the peninsula was divided between so-called communist north and democratic south. But the more I learned, the more I became aware that Korean division was not that simple. From a Marxist perspective, I think North Korea misapplies communism and is practicing authoritarian-Kim dynastic leadership. On the other hand, the regimes in South Korea are not always democratic. Such reality challenges the notion that North and South are separated due to ideological reasons.

When I began to study in Korea, I learnt that many people are tired of the North-South division and long to be reunified despite the difficulties. This longing for reunification felt stronger when I visited Cheorwon County near the DMZ with the International Strategy Center (ISC) this Sunday, July 19th.

This was not my first visit near the DMZ. Several months before, I had traveled to Inje. But Cheorwon was different. In Inje, I mostly saw military facilities and vehicles. Cheorwon was more relaxing with preserved historical sites and activities like rafting and bungee-jumping. Cheorwon was filled with more people and was historically rich. If the North-South division had never happened, maybe Cheorwon would have been an important city in Korea.

Many of the people I encountered in Cheorwon seemed unaware of the war. The regimes in the North and South Korea remain in armistice, so, technically, both sides are still at war. But in Geoseokjeong valley, only a few miles from the North-South border, South Korean families enjoyed the sunny weather by rafting and picnicking. Maybe they didn’t really care about the hostile diplomatic status between North and South—or maybe they simply had the courage to enjoy a picnic amidst military stalemate. Among those picnicking were older people. Their generation had witnessed the horror of war that also took place in Cheorwon. Yet, now, in the very same place where a bloodbath had occurred six decades ago, they played with their grandchildren while watching a younger generations taking selfies. Only time can explain such changes.

In nearby Dopiansa temple, we saw a vast agricultural landscape. “Cheorwon is famous for its superior quality of rice,” our ISC tour guide said. Our guide explained that one possible reason for Cheorwon’s fertility were the bodies of dead soldiers that had fertilized its soil. Time had converted something tragic into something blissful—or even romantic. Maybe the bodies of dead soldiers fertilized the elegant lotus flowers in the front of Dopiansa temple.

Nature has taught us to absorb tragedy and to grow something courageously beautiful out of it. In the bus, when we took turns writing and sharing poems as part of an ice-breaker, I tried to capture this sentiment in my poem:

Peace is the longing for spring during the winter,

Each of us eagerly anticipating its warmth

As a sign to blossom altogether.

Ceaselessly pushing another dawn to bring us the spring, we must.

Each of us is responsible to inherit this world as a lovely garden for the next seasons and the next generations.

But the North-South division/stalement is not as simple as nature. To penetrate the stalemate, both North and South depend on external powers such as the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. In one of the historical sites of the battle of White Horse, on the top of the White Horse Hill, we could see North Korea in our blue horizon. We could see Kim Il-Sung Hill quite clearly. It was so close, yet also so far away. To “cross” this distance, we would have to detour through Washington, Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo.

Both North and South Korean couples share the term “chagi” (dear) to address their loved ones. The two sides share the same language, culture, and history. Tragically, they depend on others to talk to one another. I can’t help but imagine North and South Korean people as two lovers whose relationship is unapproved by their families and society.

A few days after this visit, I visited a North Korea themed art exhibition in the Seoul Museum of Art. I found the art works in different media from Kwon Ha-Youn (3D video), Sun Mu (paintings), and Noh Sun-Tag (photograph) as desperately poetic. The stalemate of North-South division is so complicated, it’s getting poetic. I hope that these poetic perspectives (borrowing a verse of Indonesian poet Wiji Thukul) can spread the seeds on the wall that one day will grow together with the same belief: the wall between North and South must be destroyed.

written by Azhar Irfansyah[ref]Azhar Irfansyah is part of Sungkonghoe University’s Masters in International NGO Studies. His focus is on lesson Indonesian unions can learn from the South Korean labor movement. He is originally from Indonesia.[/ref]