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The 38th Parallel

Photo by Namrata Wakhloo

Located at latitude 38° north, a line divides a country with a long tradition and strong heritage. This line divides families, friends, and an entire culture in two. Korea existed as a united country for hundreds of years, but in the course of just a few years, it became one of the most divided countries in the world. Here’s how it happened.

The Cold War

In 1910, Japan successfully invaded and colonized Korea, bringing an end to the Joseon dynasty. Joseon dynasty kings ruled the land we now know as Korea for over five hundred years. At the end of World War II, Korea was freed from Japanese control but no longer had a stable and strong government to take control. To solve the lack of government control in Korea, the US and USSR split Korea at the 38th parallel and established temporary governments to help the Korean people recover from the occupation.

However, in the wake of the Cold War, plans to reunify the Korean peninsula were cast aside, and the divide deepened. By 1948, the government in North Korea and the government in South Korea were completely separate, and both claimed to have legitimacy of rightful governance over the Korean people.

The Korean War

Both governments wished for unification but had very different ideals and wished for the sole power and right to rule the Korean peninsula. On June 25, 1950, North Korea, led by Kim Il-sung, invaded South Korea in an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula, thus beginning the Korean War. The war lasted three years until the Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, at the 38th parallel. The 38th parallel came to be known also as the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), and the area two kilometers north and two kilometers south of that line dividing North Korea and South Korea became the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). However, the Armistice Agreement did not end the war. It was merely a ceasefire. There have been many instances of hostility between North and South Korea since the armistice, and North Korea has made many attempts to invade and take over its southern neighbors.

Separated Families

The Korean War not only had many military and civilian casualties, but it also split the Korean people. Friends and family were separated, and many had no idea if the people they were separated from were even still alive. They did not have the benefits of modern-day technology to help keep them connected. Thirty years after the war, in June of 1983, KBS (a South Korean TV broadcast station) started a broadcast in an attempt to unite separated families in South Korea. When KBS started the program, the intent was to run it for just forty-five minutes. However, KBS received requests from over one hundred thousand people to help find their families, so the program ended up airing for 453 hours over the course of 138 days. Through this program, more than ten thousand families in South Korea were reunited.

However, although this was a tremendous event and helped reunite many separated families, this only helped reunite members of separated families who were living in South Korea. Millions of people separated by the Korean War were still split across the 39th parallel.

Will There Ever Be Unification?

In the early 2000s, in an effort to improve relations with North Korea and work toward reunification, South Korea implemented the “Sunshine Policy,” meant to promote economic cooperation with its northern neighbor. As a result, a South Korean company built the Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the DMZ in North Korea. This economic cooperation helped to improve relations with North Korea by easing some of the tension between the two countries. This also allowed the organization of family reunions for people in North Korea and South Korea who were separated by the war. Unfortunately, not all the families were able to be reunited, nor was it a permanent reunification for the families.

For decades, South Korea and North Korea have been stuck in a stalemate, with neither being able to gain power over the other. In recent times, South Korea and North Korea have even begun to move further and further away from any ideas of the unification of the country. Aside from the issue of the separated families and the security of not being a country at war, there is little motivation for South Korea to unify with North Korea. In fact, most citizens of South Korea are now against unification, in stark contrast to the sentiment just two decades ago, when the people wished for little else.

Located in the Civilian Control Area, past the Southern Limit Line (the SLL is located two kilometers south of the MDL, outside of which the area five to twenty kilometers south of the SLL that acts as a buffer to the DMZ is the Civilian Control Area) of the DMZ, are remnants of these sentiments for unification and peace in the Korean peninsula. And this is a place where it is possible to see and learn about the history of the divide and the desire for the unification for yourself. I was able to go there when I was in South Korea and had the opportunity to see the Bridge of Freedom, where refugees escaped to the south. This bridge was especially memorable for me because of the ribbons tied on the barbed wire. On the ribbons are messages written by people in South Korea, people who were wishing for peace, for unification, and for the safety and reunification of both country and family. Another special memorial in this area is called the Stones of Peace. These stones were collected from battlefields across the world and from many different periods in history. They symbolize the need to remember war and the horror it brings, as well as the desire to unify and bring about peace.

But how do you unite two countries that don’t want to be unified? How do you bring together the families who have been separated for more than sev-enty years? Above all, how do you protect the peace of the world and promote unity instead of the division that is seen in the world today? There is no one right answer to these questions. However, we can remember the past and make ourselves into people who can do some good in the world. We cannot perfectly fix many of the issues in the world as we may like to, but how can we help those, like the Korean people, whose lives are directly impacted because of the consequences of living in a divided nation? How can we promote unity in the world and in our daily lives? There are many pos-sible answers to these questions, but I believe that we can do the best we can to protect peace and promote unity with the knowledge of the past and the wisdom of the present. We can seek out additional understanding and learn more, not just about the unstable relation-ship between North and South Korea but also about the unstable political situation in the world as a whole. The world is changing rapidly, and that change can hap-pen anywhere and at any time. The 38th parallel, divid-ing North Korea and South Korea, is just one place of many places in the world where that change can hap-pen unexpectedly.

Leneah Herrin