Peaceful, vibrant South Korea marches to its own beat


Seoul: The eerie silence spoke louder than the years of the ominous standoff across the borders of the world’s last divided country, Korea.

We were a small group of journalists walking in the barbed wire corridor in the Civilian Control Line alongside the Han River, escorted by army staff who were pleasantly friendly and surprisingly responsive. “This is a rare privilege because this corridor is strictly off-limits and is used only by the military or special delegations,” the tour guide, said, adding that it was also a first for her. No pictures were allowed, and the visitors were supposed to walk in silence, under the sharp eyes of surveillance cameras. But journalists never do even when they are in one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders, and soon they were contemplating the area heavily marked by almost seven decades of heavily loaded history and sharing comments in a plethora of languages. It is impossible to come to Korea without preconceptions whether they are about Samsung’s endless quest for more amazing technology or the latest developments with North Korea. But Korea invariably finds ways to awe its visitors, delve with them into history, soar with them to new heights of technology and win their hearts and minds. From towering skyscrapers to underground museums, the sobering Jinkwansa Temple to the defiant Saemangeum Seawall, the ultramodern Samsung City to the historic Changgyeonggung Palace, Korea is a country that challenges myths, marches to its own beat and invites visitors to join in the experience with unrestrained enthusiasm.

Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)

For the journalists on their last day in Korea, the overwhelming reality of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and the Civilian Control Line were a brutal eye-opener and a must-witness for the journalists covering world affairs. The Friendship Bridge, the rusted wagon of a train on the rail line that linked the two countries, the bunkers, the tunnels dug by North Korea deep under the ground into South Korea and running for long distances post the borders, and the observatory that allows visitors to take a peek into North Korea border installations are among the essential elements that should not be missed. The Third Tunnel, discovered in 1978, was only 52 kilometers from Seoul. The 1,635 meters long tunnel was 73 meters beneath the surface and was two meters in diameter and two meters high. According to officials, up to 30,000 armed soldiers could go through it in one hour. For the press corps, such information and the visit to the DMZ eclipsed for some time the impressive technology, the ambitious dreams and the unashamed obsession with success and achievements they witnessed in the last six days across the country.

The DMZ has been a unique feature in Korea since July 27, 1953, when the armistice was signed following 765 sessions of talks that involved the US, North Korea, and China. The situation may last much longer since the road toward peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula remains particularly rocky. It is visited by large crowds of school children, locals, tourists, and historians keen on its significance during the Cold War and well beyond it and on its status as a striking illustration of the complex situation on the Korean Peninsula. Koreans tie colorful messages of hope, dreams, and wishes of reunification to the fence or glue papers with contact details as they hope to get in touch with loved relatives they have not seen for years. Very striking reminders of how brutal and distressing separation is.


Different priorities for the younger generation

But while the older generation of Koreans seems focused, even obsessed with the Korea reunification issue, the young generation shows less enthusiasm. “We understand that our parents and older family members pay so much attention to the issue as it is a strong component of their lives and identity, but to us, it is not so crucial,” one young Korean said. “Of course, we would like to be a reunited country with greater potential and better possibilities, but we are faring well. We have a strong economy and a happy way of life. We are successful and we look forward to greater achievements with confidence since we know we can do it. We are concerned that focusing on North Korea would slow us down or confine our dreams. We can assist and help them, but we cannot afford to miss good chances if we keep waiting for them.” Another young girl said that South Korea was a peaceful country that wanted peace to prevail everywhere. “You can see that even at the DMZ, an area often cited as among the most dangerous in the world, we have a message of peace and we show it ostensibly. There is even a fair that proves that it is so peaceful and safe that people can enjoy themselves while learning about history,” she said.

According to the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank funded by the South Korean government, “the public will for inter-Korean integration has been on a constant decline.” A survey conducted in 2017 found that 57.8 percent of South Koreans believed that reunification was necessary. The figure is down from 62.1 percent in 2016 and 69.3 percent in 2014. The number of those who said that unification was not necessary if the two Koreas could peacefully coexist without war was 46 percent, a 2.9 percent increase over 2016. Only 36% of respondents agreed that “our society should pursue unification at the sacrifice of many aspects of our lives”, a decrease of 8.3 percent from 2016. According to the study, “the continued crisis phase on the Korean Peninsula since North Korea’s nuclear test in January 2016 seemed to have contributed to a significant increase of a group in favor of the divided state.” However, the study found that 68.8 percent of South Koreans believed that the unification would be beneficial to their country, a 12.9 percent increase from 2016.


Country above everything else

A particularly strong display of South Korean patriotism is sensed kilometers south of the DMZ, at the Hanok Museum and at the Jinkwansa Temple in Bukhansan National Park in the suburbs of Seoul. This is where newspapers published by independence fighters from 1919 were found alongside Korea’s original flag. The find was a confirmation that country came before religion and that Baek Cho-wol, a monk at the temple, and the fighters were more interested in the independence of their nation than in collaborating with intruders who might have the same religious affiliations. The notion of the nation before religion seems to prevail despite the accelerated massive changes to the society that usually prompt anxiety and concerns and push people to seek answers and refuge in religion. No single religion really dominates in Korea, unlike in most other countries. The country has a culture that includes a wide variety of religious elements that have shaped people’s mindset and behavior. The spiritual rooms at the Incheon Airport’s arrival and departure terminals are meant for all worshippers. Muslims can easily perform their prayers. The direction of Makkah has well marked in the dedicated rooms and the number of rugs is enough for collective prayers.


Tributes to fallen heroes

Koreans honour those who died fighting for their homeland and make sure that the younger generations keep up the tradition. The May 18th National Cemetery, in front of Mudeungsan Mountain, is for the nation a symbol of freedom and democracy. The cemetery contains the graves of people who were killed during the uprising for democracy in 1980. The much-revered memorial, built in 1997, pays tribute to the fallen people and serves to deepen in the collective conscience of the nation the significance of self-sacrifice for the homeland.

Solemn rituals, including the use of white gloves to burn incense, are performed as busloads of students and other visitors come to pay tribute to victims buried in graves lined in impeccable order and to gain emotional insights into the history of the country. The visit becomes more emotional with a pensive look at the photographs and blood-stained flags in the small museum and watching a hitting documentary that highlights the traumatic events. With a total floor area of 23,424 square meters, the Independence Hall of Korea is the largest exhibition facility in the country.

Located in Cheonan in the south and opened in 1987, the history museum focuses on the independence movements during the Japanese colonial period. Six of the seven exhibition halls feature collections and historical pieces detailing the harsh realities of occupation, records related to independence movements, dioramas, models, and images related to the armed resistance and movements of the Independence Army and displays that use technology to help visitors experience Korean history. Hall One includes historical and cultural artifacts from Korea’s 5,000-year history, primarily from the prehistoric age to the late Joseon Dynasty. But, Korea while honoring its fallen heroes and highlighting its independence movements, refuses to live in the past or to remain frozen in the present.


Samsung City

A striking example is Suwon, the city where Galaxy mobiles are developed and tested, the first designs for Samsung’s Curved UHD TVs were sketched and many other cool gadgets are being conceptualized. Welcome to ‘Samsung Digital City.’ It is not a city, but rather a well-manicured campus where some of the world’s brightest minds work. The “city” boasts 390 acres of office space, 35,000 Samsung employees, four landmark office towers up to 38 floors high,131 smaller buildings, a heliport, a helicopter, and 500 shuttle buses. It also has ten basketball courts, four badminton courts, three football fields, and two baseball diamonds. Employees can join any of the 650 clubs available. The Samsung Innovation Museum showcases the evolution of the electronics industry around the world with many original devices over the past 270 years.


Work Smart approach

A “Work Smart” approach allows engineers, developers, and designers to turn up for work at any time before 6 pm, “as long as they feel efficient and productive.” Addressing journalists, Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-Young beamed with pride as he talked about Hwaseong Fortress and Samsung, the city’s major landmarks. The former environmental activist has been, since his election in 2010, working on turning Suwon into South Korea’s “eco-capital.” Such forward-looking approaches have been a strong drive in the country towards greater accomplishments, from peace on the Peninsula to innovative programs and projects that secure the future of Korea and the wellbeing of several generations.

“Incheon National University does not want to become ‘the first’ or ‘the best’ university. INU wants to become ‘the only’ one university. To reach this goal, we set up a vision called “Focused Research University,” which means that we do not want to become another comprehensive research university along with Harvard, Oxford, or Seoul National University. We do not want to become another intensive research university along with MIT, CalTech or KAISET. As a uniquely different university, INU pursues focused research,” the vice dean of the university said.

“We developed a ‘Matrix College’. Through this program, companies and institutions can design their own courses for students who want to work for them upon graduation. As of now, 43 companies are taking initiative in developing new courses and innovative educational programs, which would reflect industry demand for new employees. The Ministry of Education officially recognized and mentioned this Matrix College as a model example of innovation.” Songdo International Business District, 64 kilometers south of Seoul is an amazing embodiment of this positive spirit that is willing to take on all challenges regardless of their complexities in order to secure the wellbeing and the success of the people and the nation. Built within the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), South Korea’s first FEZ, and connected to Incheon International Airport by a 12 km bridge, Songdo is conceptualized as the ultimate smart and sustainable city. It can best be seen from the 150-meter skyscraper, the G-Tower. The “G” stands for green, growth and global.


Saemangeum seawall

Another bold expression of the country’s ambitious dreams is the 41-kilometer Saemangeum seawall, the world’s longest seawall. Driving over the causeway jutting into the sea about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, we could sense the magnitude of the massive project to reclaim the ocean for industry, tourism, and agriculture by 2020. A new sprawling city will focus on logistics, industry, tourism, and leisure as well as floriculture. And this is where the 25th World Scout Jamboree will be held in 2023 as South Korea has won the bid to host the international competition that brings together thousands of participants from more than 170 countries for 12 days. President Moon Jae-in appreciated the significance of the location. “The Saemangeum region is a land of challenge and exploration. I’m confident that it will be the best place for all Scouts from around the world to explore their potential and to nurture their dreams,” he said in his congratulatory message when Korea won the bid to host the quadrennial event that brings together Scouts from around the world, promoting international understanding of their different countries. Korea hosted the games in 1991 in Goseong County in Gangwon-do Province.

International host

Major international sporting events are in safe hands when organized in South Korea. Seoul hosted the summer Olympics in 1988 and South Korea co-hosted the FIFA World Cup with Japan in 2002. In July this year, Gwangju in the south of the country will host the 18th FINA World Aquatics Championships.

Message of peace

“The Republic of Korea is a safe and peace-loving nation, despite being the world’s last divided nation with painful memories,” Jung Kyu Sung, the president of the Journalists Association of Korea, the organizers of the conference, said. A clear message that is easily shared by the locals and visitors.

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