It's Not About Korea: Peace on the Peninsula

War and Peace

The past few weeks I have been working on a dream series with my freshman English class. As first years, they have all recently declared their majors and thus career goals are fresh on their minds. My initial plan was simply to focus on personal dreams. I wanted to give them the opportunity to talk about their life goals and hopes for the future. Do they want to get married, run a company, or become an astronaut? Do they want to travel and see the world? Furthermore, what are the events and people in their lives that help to shape those dreams?

Fortuitously, their boredom with this topic coincided with the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street protests. As I had been following this movement from its infancy, I was intrigued by its potential and was excited to discuss it in any forum. I was curious to see what might happen if I switched this class discussion from personal dreams to those of a political and social nature. Would this group of easily distracted, fairly immature, teenage boys be able to have a discussion about political dreams? There was only one way to find out.

To give the students a bit of context, I decided to focus on two major historical events I knew they would be familiar with: the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the 1980 Gwangju Massacre. For those unfamiliar, in 1980 the citizens of South Korea mounted a massive protest in the city of Gwangju against the military dictatorship of then President Chun Do Hwan. What began as a peaceful protest turned ugly as the military began to fire on civilians. Official numbers are still disputed, but estimates put the death toll at approximately 144 civilians. Like many social movements, many of these protestors were young college students. My students were all too familiar with this story, particularly as these protests began at the main campus of our university.

As the days went on, themes of democracy, peace and freedom were standards as we discussed world protests. Eventually, our discussion turned to South Korea and what sort of political and social dreams Koreans might have for their country today. The students offered suggestions of progress in the realm of alternative energy and environmental conservation efforts. They spoke of advances in technology and economic stability. Yet, the students never brought up the issue I was most interested in. So, I asked the million dollar question:

What about North Korea? Do South Koreans have dreams of peace and reunification with the north?

Without hesitation a student in the front row stated: “It’s not about North and South Korea. It’s about the U.S. and China.” This was followed by the question, “Why are they so interested in Korea? Why do they care?”

I was reminded of a Daily Show clip from last fall when Jon Stewart likened the situation in Korea to a game of Rock’em Sock’em Robots, with the two Koreas as the boxers and China and the U.S. at the controls. The truth in Stewart's joking comparison is not lost on those of us familiar with the ongoing dispute. For decades, there have been four countries intertwined in this debacle.

This situation on the Korean peninsula is, of course, more complicated than this. But one wonders how the political dreams of this next generation are being shaped. If they grow up believing peace on the peninsula has little to do with them, will it ever be acheived? Will they ever rise up and call for an end to the ongoing war, or will they continue to be apathetic about a situation that has "very little to do with them?"

Follow Corrie on Twitter @Corrie_Hulse

North Korea, South Korea