A California Yankee in Kim Jong Un’s Court

Contrasting Cultural Perspectives on the Korean Conflict

Illustrator: Jaye Ahn

There I stood on that cloudy spring day with the too-short haircut one of the Handsome Factory barbers had given me and the conservative clothes that kept my image from being used for anti-American propaganda—such was required of all visitors to the Joint Security Area. Less than two miles separated me from Kijong-dong and the flag atop the Panmunjom flagpole that waved gently in the breeze, and yet I felt an infinite separation from that world. It was as though rather than across space, my spyglass peered through time, into a fragment of the world left over from when my grandpa was a Seabee.

From the moment I landed in Incheon last spring, I became keenly aware of the fact that I was immersed in a political and social atmosphere that differed both from that of my own and from other Asian countries I had visited. The relaxed brusqueness with which the driver of that midnight taxi ride joked of Xi Jinping giving hamburgers to pacify the big baby Trump when I told him I came from California (I tried to avoid directly saying I was from America) made me aware both of the way Trump’s actions are perceived internationally and how open the South Koreans were about expressing their feelings about him and his actions.

While there is no doubt that the United States is impacted at some level by North Korea—it is among the targets of the country’s most vitriolic rhetoric—there is still a certain degree of abstraction that separates its threats from our lives. That is not so in Seoul, merely 35 miles from the DMZ, and that is certainly not so in the DMZ and in the Joint Security Area (JSA). When I stood in that UN conference room over North Korean soil and saw the real-life KPA soldier on guard outside only yards away, I felt the weight of the conflict on me in a way I never could have before. When I learned of the tunnels of aggression dug under the demilitarized zone and of the 1976 axe murder incident in the JSA that killed two U.S. Army officers, I had a chilling realization of how real the North Korean threat was.

That said, my perception of North Korea seemed to contrast with that of the locals I interacted with. Whereas I, more than ever, felt North Korea was a powerful threat that needed to be dealt with as a hostile power, the locals I spoke with viewed North Korea as this tragically estranged part of their own country. While I felt worried that North Korea and its enemies were teetering on the brink of war—especially in the wake of the recent actions taken by the POTUS—the feeling I got from the locals was that they wanted to believe the two Koreas were teetering on the brink of reunification and were trying as best they could to avoid conflict. Unlike in the U.S. where, in the tradition of Cold War-era brinksmanship, it seems that we must respond to every threat against us in kind, the South Koreans seemed to want to try to respond to hostility from the DPRK with efforts toward peace. They resented the warmongering nature of U.S. interference. In spite of the fact that their country has been essentially locked in a stalemate war, the men I spoke with over a mug of OB lager offered a refreshingly optimistic outlook toward peace that I would not have ever imagined.

All of the exhibits I looked at about the ongoing Korean Conflict, both in the city of Seoul and at the DMZ, focused less on the aggressions of a continuing war and more on the roadblocks along the path to reconciliation and reunification. From the piano crafted out of repurposed barbed-wire from the DMZ to the stray cat the troops in the DMZ took in and raised, to the continuous efforts on the part of the defense ministry to recover and repatriate the remains of fallen soldiers from the Korean War to their appropriate country seem to indicate that South Korea was more interested in symbolic gestures of peace than symbolic gestures of power—a notion that pleasantly surprised me. While I cannot speak to the power of these gestures as negotiations toward reunification still seem to be in a perpetual standstill, and the death grip the North Korean government has over the minds and beliefs of its citizens seems to be inextricable, the words and sentiments of the people I met during my travels abroad served as a reminder that love is just as valid a response to hate as hate is.