As an immigrant to the U.S., I often find it humbling to visit other countries. My most recent trip to Vietnam and Korea with my family was just such an experience. In my “An Immigrant Abroad” series, I’ll be sharing some of these events and what the experience means to all of us…
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone. I must say that this one-day guided tour was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. I studied world history as a 14-year-old secondary school student in Cameroon, West Africa, and have always been interested in history, but especially why people go to war. In fact, I did a case study of the Korean war from listening to my very charismatic history teacher, and from reading about it in my history textbooks. As you may imagine, I thought I knew much of what to expect.
Nothing could have prepared me for this experience.
Fast forward 28 years. I am a father of two young boys whose mother’s ancestral home is South Korea. My wife and I decided to take them with us to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.
We spent the first few days sightseeing, sampling Korean cuisine and immersing the boys in everything Korean, from the traditional attire to the cultural experience and visiting ancient Korean palaces. One thing I knew we had to do was visit the Demilitarized Zone, the stretch of land that separates North and South Korea. It is considered the “most heavily armed border on earth.”
We did our homework to be sure it was safe for the kids. Indeed, it was. For my wife and kids, it was the piece of the puzzle needed to understand the history of modern Korea. For me, it turned out to be more of a spiritual adventure.
The trip began early in the morning with our tour guide picking us up from our hotel. She was South Korean, and for someone who lives with the constant fear of a nuclear war, she had the most optimistic view of the future. As soon as we were seated in our tour bus, she checked our passports and handed me a folder, titled “PEACE: A NEW START.” She asked us to go through the booklet and familiarize ourselves with the history of Korea, from the Japanese occupation, then the Second World War and the Korean War. The picture on the front was the map of the Korean Peninsula with North Korea in orange at the top and South Korea in green at the bottom. In between, both countries were separated by a thick blue meandering line, labeled Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
We were given strict instructions on everything including dress code, when not take pictures, what to expect, etc. About 45 minutes into our ride from the South Korean capital of Seoul, we came to the first heavily militarized checkpoint for passport check. After a brief inspection and a headcount, we got the clearance to proceed with our tour. The tour included the Imjingak Park, the Dora Observatory, the Third Infiltration Tunnel, and the Dorasan Station. Because each of these locations has vital importance, I am going to share each in a separate post, beginning with:
This park was built by the South Koreans on the banks of the Imjin River to console people from both sides of the Korean war who were unable to return to the families. Imjingak village is the farthest point toward the North that anyone could visit in a private car. Beyond this point, a special permit is required to go farther North.
The park was built in anticipation of the future reunification of the two countries.
All around the park are monuments and remnants of the Korean war, including aircraft and war tankers, all offering visitors a sad reality of the consequences of war. Most impactful was the Mangbaedda Altar as you walk towards the Freedom bridge. This Altar has been used for many years by South Koreans whose ancestors and family members are buried or still live in North Korea. They would visit to pay their respects by bowing in front of the altar while facing the direction of their ancestral hometown in the North.
We saw millions of ribbons with messages in Korean along the Freedom ridge. Words of peace, love, and especially hope that someday the families will unite again. The Freedom bridge crosses the Imjin River, and it was the location where 13,000 prisoners of war and United Nations soldiers were returned to the South at the end of the Korean War. For many years, this bridge represented the only link between the truce village of Panmunjom in North and South Korea.
Amazingly, our tour guide, whom I am sure had seen this many times before, got emotional when she talked about her hope for a peaceful reunified Korea. She mentioned to us that she too has relatives who are still in the North and hopes that she will be able to unite with them in her lifetime.
I could not help but wonder what that must feel like. I thought about my village in Cameroon which recently was significantly damaged by the current conflict in the South and North West region. Most of the villagers had been displaced, but we have been able to locate our family members and help them get situated somewhere else in the country.
The people in Korea have no idea if their families are still alive or where they live in the North. All they have is memories of where these family members resided before the Korean war. Once my guide remembered that we were Americans, she recommended we go across the park to a monument that was built by the South Koreans in appreciation to the United States for helping the South during the war. There were just a few tourists here, but I ran into several South Koreans.
After a brief visit, I could see the profound appreciation they still have for the Americans who lost their lives during the war, and for America today for insisting in the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and for protecting their democracy. Once again, I thought of Cameroon…
Stay tuned for the next installment, and I invite you to please visit https://www.amazon.com/My-Fathers-Gift-Purpose-Journey/dp/1633936759 to pre-order your copy of My Father’s Gift, releasing August 24, 2018.