Life in a small town in the upper reaches of Gangwon-do
As I prepared to leave America last spring, I began to receive a lot of questions about my future plans in Korea. How would I learn the language? What age group would I be teaching? Was I nervous? What was the food like? But by and far the most common question I was asked was not about South Korea at all, but its neighbor to the north. Would I be safe, with everything happening with North Korea right now?
It was a question I received over and over again. Of course, I anticipated some fixation on North Korea; it’s a country that has drifted in and out of discussion in mainstream American media, with coverage of its government and human rights violations, and tensions with South Korea. Accessing information about North Korea is simply a lot easier for most Americans.
For instance, a few months before leaving for Korea, my dad and I visited a local Barnes and Noble in hopes of finding resources for this year. I scanned through the shelves, trying to keep track of my mental checklist for resources I would need next year, a few history books, a language book, maybe a travel guide? But as I went through the titles, I realized that I would probably not find what I was looking for. “A history of North Korea, North of the DMZ, Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea…” they went on, North Korea, North Korea, North Korea.
Around the time I left especially, North Korea featured heavily in American news. There was the U.S. student who was returned to America in a coma after being held North Korea, only to pass away a few days later. There were missile tests, and threatening tweets. Tensions seemed to be escalating.
At the time though, I wasn’t concerned. Everyone I knew who had experience with South Korea told me that it never seemed to impact day to day life. “Western media exaggerates the tension, most people in South Korea don’t even notice it in their daily lives.” I was interested in learning about North Korea, especially the refugee population in South Korea, and even hoped to volunteer at a North Korean defector center.* Besides that and my own personal interest however, I didn’t believe that I would have any reason to think about North Korea on a consistent basis.
Then, in mid-July, I found out that my placement, Hwacheon, was a small, rural military town just 6 miles south of the DMZ. I had no reason to feel unsafe, and after talking to the previous ETA’s, I felt really excited to see my new placement. But at the same time, I suddenly wasn’t quite so sure what to expect.
The first thing I noticed about Hwacheon was the scenery. The road into town twists and turns along the riverside, clinging against the side of the mountains. There are stretches of farmland that extend into the open, fields of yellow and green, and the actual town center is pressed up against a steep forested mountain face. The Bukhan river, which I cross over on my commute from the apartment to school, always glistens with reflections of the clouds and sky that loom above it. The bridge and city center are laced with purple flowers and roses along the railings and buildings. There is attention and detail in how the town cares for its surroundings.
The second thing I noticed about Hwacheon were the soldiers. I had never lived in a place with a large military presence before, and in Hwacheon, with its already small population, the green uniforms were quite visible.** The town center was filled with them during the day, directing traffic, walking to work, performing drills by the river. On the weekends, during their breaks, many soldiers fill up the local cafes and restaurants with their visiting girlfriends and friends. The bus lines home on Sunday evenings would often ebb and flow with the number of soldiers who needed to return home before curfew. One Monday morning, as my host mom was dropping us off at school, I glanced out the window, only to find that we were driving side by side with a small tank of soldiers, also on their way to work.
Initially a bewildering sight, gradually, I became desensitized to these encounters, even comfortable in this setting. South Korea has a mandatory military service for male citizens (although women can voluntarily enlist). The service lasts for two years and can be taken up at any time between age 18 and 35. Many young men end up taking the service either before or during their college years to avoid disrupting their career. Thus, many of the soldiers in Hwacheon actually seem quite young. I may see them running drills or on duty during the day, but then on bus rides home I’ll see them taking long goodbyes with their girlfriends or scrolling through manga on their phones. I think of some of my eager and wandering male students, the ones who get distracted or are extra sweet to their friends and try to wrap my mind around the fact that some of them will be in uniform themselves in as little as six years.
Living in a host family with a career soldier has also introduced me to a lot of what long term Korean military life is like. The schedule is busy and erratic, with long hours. At first, I found many of the older soldiers intimidating. During one of my first meetings with my host dad’s friends and families, I remember being uneasy for a little while, unsure of how to interact with everyone, until we discovered that we all liked tennis and started chatting about the U.S. Open and Rafael Nadal. Hwacheon’s civilian to soldier population divide is about half and half, and many of my students come from military families, with a parent in the army. In some ways, this extends the already small and close knit nature of the town, with so many families knowing each other through the schools, businesses, and military.
While I anticipated adjusting to Hwacheon over time, I never imagined how safe I would actually end up feeling. The young soldiers have a relatively early curfew, and tend to stay on their side of town. As it gets later and later, the town usually ends up becoming blissfully empty, save for a few older people going on night time walks or riding their bikes along the riverside, or young students visiting PC bangs or going on runs. Moreover, the more time I’ve spent here, the more familiar faces I find as I venture outside. I run into neighbors on evening jogs, or meet a student’s parent while shopping at the grocery store. Over time, I’ve grown more and more comfortable with every evening stroll with my host mom and every spontaneous interaction, and I think that sense of ease and familiarity is something I will miss a lot when I return home.
Some images from around Gangwon-do
Along the Bukhan River
On my commutes to Hwacheon from other cities, I always pass a little stone a few miles south of the town with a little 38° mark indicating that we’ve passed the 38th parallel north. The Bukhan, North Han, river in my town actually flows upwards through the DMZ and into North Korea (Bukhan, 북한, also happens to be the name that South Korea uses to refer to North Korea). Gangwon-do, the province that I am in, is one of three on the peninsula that is “split” between the North and South.
Perhaps due to the location of my town, I’ve talked to several people who have had their families, usually a few generations ago, split between the North and the South. A friend of my host family’s once told me that she often wonders about the potential cousins and nephews and nieces she may have across the border. Another time, in a teacher’s discussion class, someone asked the group what they would do if given access to North Korea. One of the teachers responded without hesitation, “I would visit my family’s homeland in North Gangwon-do and see how things are today.”
As generations go by, there’s a sense that these connections will be lost. The pain of families being broken apart, or the separation of the Korean nation seems deeper among older Koreans, some of whom may actually remember what it was like to be a single country. Younger generations are reportedly less enthusiastic about reunification, hesitant about the economic problems that could arise. That said, I think there are still many young Koreans invested and curious about North Korea. During Orientation, over a meal, a visiting high school student told me that, while she’s not sure how she would feel about the two Korea’s reuniting, she often wonders what it would be like to see famous places in North Korea. One of the other teachers in our program actually teaches at a missionary school that specially caters to North Korean defectors. There are also many South Korean students who attend this school, and often they have a special interest in reunification.
One day at school, the students kept getting distracted by the sounds of sirens and military drills outside. My co-teacher assured me that this was a routine event that happened every year, but the constant disruptions still proved to be chaotic. Up until that point, I rarely heard North Korea mentioned, and was apprehensive about bringing the topic up with friends and coworkers. But that night, as the sirens continued, I asked my host mom if she ever felt worried by the news, or about living so close to North Korea. She nodded. “Sometimes things seem scary,” she agreed. But she really believed that things would be okay. She thought for a bit, before typing into her phone and showing me the translation of what she wanted to say, “My husband and his friends will protect us.”
At different points in the year, I know that the news cycles were a source of stress for a lot of ETA’s. At one point, a friend suggested drafting an email to send out to family in case anything were to go wrong, but I wasn’t sure what I could or should possibly write. The idea of Hwacheon being anything other than a small safe town in the mountains felt unfathomable, the idea of my friends and students here being in any danger too impossible to really feel.
As winter began though, the news around the two Korea’s started to shift. There was the united Korean team at the Pyeongchang Olympics, where spectators were eagerly handed the blue “united” flag. Most surprisingly and importantly, there was the Peace Summit in the spring. On April 27th, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un met on the South Korean side of the Joint Security Area- the first time that a North Korean leader has come to the South since the war. While many elementary school students didn’t seem to pay too much attention to the event, at high schools, friends mentioned that the entire summit was streaming in classrooms and offices throughout the day. I heard my co-workers and host family mention it in passing, a wave of interest and energy. Many people weren’t sure whether they could trust North Korea, but expressed excitement nevertheless.
Coincidentally, my friends and I had arranged a trip to the DMZ on the 28th of April, the day after the Peace Summit, before we had known the event would happen. Thus, we ended up on at the border on a fairly busy Saturday, onlookers discussing the events of the previous day as they passed the trains and monuments at the border.
Visit to the DMZ
I want to emphasize that even steps away from the border in a military town, I had little to no reason to personally be concerned or worried about North Korea this entire year. I’ve still thought about it of course, in part because of what it might mean to the people in this town, whose lives and livelihoods are centered around their soldiers, or the young students I’ve taught who know that they will serve in the military when the grow older. But it’s also been an extraordinary year to be in Korea, in no small part because of the potential for change in the relationship between the North and South. I’m not sure what lies in the future for North and South Korea, but I will never forget seeing the paintings of Kumgang mountain***, the TV’s flooded with images of the two countries’ leaders shaking hands, the kids who wondered about what lies in the North, or the flurry of white and blue flags being waved around at the 2018 Olympics.
*Many ETA’s are volunteer English teachers at Hana Centers, or North Korean defector centers, where support, assistance, and education is provided to help North Koreans as they try to integrate in South Korean society. Linguistic and cultural differences can visibly separate North and South Koreans, and contribute to stigma in South Korean society against these defectors. Additionally, many defectors face financial hardship and struggle with their mental health. There are actually not many Hana centers in my province, as many defectors feel uncomfortable living so close to North Korea. Instead, most North Koreans move to Seoul or Busan, or other larger Korean cities.
**The exact statistics on Hwacheon’s population seem to vary, but it seems to sit around 20,000 people for civilians, to an additional 20-30,000 soldiers. (This appears to be for all of Hwacheon county, rather than just the town area).
***Kumgang mountain is located in North Korea’s part of the Gangwon-do (Kangwon-do) state. In a school trip to an art museum, we were able to see early paintings of this mountain from before North and South Korea divided.