Last month I stood on a rock in the Hantangang River running through South Korea’s Cheorwon county and stared up at the stone structure of the Seungil bridge.
Adjacent to the UN-patrolled demilitarised zone wedged between the two Koreas, Cheorwon was controlled by North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s Workers’ Party of Korea until his ill-fated invasion of the south in 1950.
Now part of South Korea, the county is littered with reminders of Korea’s ongoing division — none more poignant than the bridge.
Its construction is shrouded in myth. It is said to have been started according to a Soviet design by the North Koreans in the late 1940s. With progress halted by the advent of war, it was left to the South Koreans to complete the project a decade later.
You can discern the subtle differences in the two halves of the bridge, with the arches built by workers ‘mobilised’ by Kim’s Workers’ Party huddled closer together, as if for warmth.
According to one legend, the bridge’s name is an amalgam of the names of the founding leaders of the two Korean republics — a symbol of hope, reconciliation and possible reunification.
As a newcomer to Seoul, it can be difficult to get one’s head around the sheer physical proximity of a country in which people labour under what is widely regarded as the most brutal regime on earth.
“They are so close, just a couple of mountains away from the luxuries of Seoul,” says Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, an organisation that supports North Korean refugees. “It feels as though you could shout and they would hear you — you look up and realise that they are staring at the same sky.”
Just as striking, however, is how few South Koreans, especially younger people, appear to feel any connection to the national and humanitarian tragedy stemming from the decades-old division of their peninsula.
Questions about the North, about North Koreans or about the prospect of reunification are usually met with a shrug.
These are things that foreigners ask about or that politicians preach about — they are rarely things that globalised young South Koreans talk or even think about.
“My Korean friends and I never discuss it,” says Se-ri, 30, who works at a tech start-up in Seoul. “It is only when my foreign friends bring it up that it even crosses my mind.”
To the uninitiated, this might come across as callousness. After all, these countries are not just neighbours; they are twins, separated at Korea’s rebirth. But what Park, who is in his 30s and grew up in the UK, describes as the “learned cynicism” of many South Koreans is understandable.
Despite its astonishing economic and democratic achievements over the past half-century, the Republic of Korea has problems too: the highest rates of suicide and elderly poverty in the OECD, skyrocketing property prices, and one of the lowest birth rates in the developed world, as well as issues with corruption, alcohol abuse, misogyny, and inequality.
These may be dismissed as ‘first-world problems’ when compared with the repression and hunger endured by those in the north.
But South Korea is a first-world country. Yes, its citizens live with the knowledge of nearby human suffering and the threat of annihilation without giving either much thought — but then so do most of the rest of us.
Some in Korea argue that obsessing over reunification is counter-productive, even selfish, as it draws attention away from the plight of ordinary North Koreans and focuses it instead on the fears of their richer neighbours in the south and the possible derailment of their more promising futures.
Seen this way, perhaps the Seungil bridge doesn’t mean quite what people think. The two Koreas built it, but they did not build it together.
As if to make their point, the South Koreans have since built a gleaming new bridge right next to its wistful counterpart, rendering it obsolete.
The two halves of the old bridge, derived from the same source, constitute two parts of the same structure. But as long as it stands, the differences between the two nations are literally set in stone.
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