The Korean borders: Another version of Wagah border?

Published: February 25, 2014

A family looks at a military fence decorated with ribbons, on which people have written their hopes for peace and reunification of the divided Korean peninsula, near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju. PHOTO: REUTERS

Tourists look over the Bridge of Freedom which was destroyed during the Korean War, at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul. PHOTO: REUTERS A family looks at a military fence decorated with ribbons, on which people have written their hopes for peace and reunification of the divided Korean peninsula, near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju. PHOTO: REUTERS

I have always wanted to go to Imjingak, located near Seoul, in South Korea. Being a media professional, my wish was granted when I got to travel to the Freedom Bridge for a news feature I was doing for Madang Live.

Having woken up to rain, we made it to Imjingak where the Freedom Bridge lies. Photography was prohibited, except where we were given explicit permission. We were not allowed to point at anyone or anything. If a North Korean waved at us, we were not allowed to wave back.

Freedom Bridge, with its striking ribbons conveying the hope of millions for Korea’s reunification, added colour to the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The Korean DMZ splits up the Korean peninsula in two, setting out a buffer zone which cannot be inhabited.

Visitors are bussed every year to this most militarised, mine-laden border in the world.

Tourists walk on the Bridge of Freedom in front of the Imjingak Pavilion, near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, north of Seoul. Photo: Reuters

While standing at the freedom bridge in Paju, South Korea, my mind began racing and I was transported to the Wagah border (between India and Pakistan). The act of the bizarre ‘Beating Retreat ceremony’ flashed before me, where paramilitary border guards take part in an exaggerated military drill. Pakistani and Indian guards march, slamming their feet to the ground before the border gates are closed. For years, they have taunted each other with puffed up chests and raised fists.

At the border, we entered the universe of control, where our liberty was stripped away and even as a child, while watching the Beating Retreat ceremony, I couldn’t understand why the crowds on both sides of the border were cheering.

Should demarcations, borders, boundaries or defenders of the blurry end tell us who we are?

At the end of the day, even the freest of free societies are un-free.

Yes, I could relate to the Korean division.

The Wagha Border. Photo: AFP

I can never forget the day when I crossed the Wagah border by foot and took a picture while standing between the demarcations. In that instance, I was making fun of the coercive forces which are charged with administering separations of all kinds – especially when they are based on imaginary differences.

In 1945, it was agreed that USSR and USA would divide Korea between them. In half an hour, a map and a ruler were given to the US colonels on the 38th parallel. A decision was made that a line would cut across a thousand years of Korea’s history as a unified nation. Contrary to economic logic, the resulting halves were interdependent; the south was given over to agriculture whereas industry was concentrated in the north.

Most importantly, the division was against the wishes of the Korean population.

Tourists look at South Korean flags and reunification banners hung on a barbed wire fence, on Freedom Bridge at Imjingak pavilion near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas in Paju, north of Seoul. Photo: Reuters

Without doubt, historians should be able to agree that the artificial division of a country usually creates more problems than it solves. The twentieth century is full of examples: Ireland in 1921, Germany after each of the two world wars, the Partition of India in 1947, the creation of Israel in 1948 and the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to name a few.

The nation’s long history, economic situations, and public opinion were ignored while fostering the Korean divide in 1945. Polarisation of North and South under the Soviet and American occupation, in addition to the aggressive regimes supported by the superpowers, had ruled out peaceful reunification.

Koreans have always wanted to be reunited.

They want to be reunited with their families on both sides of the border.

(Video courtesy: Produced by Anam Gill for Madang Live. Copyrights to World Council of Churches (WCC) 10 Assembly)

Moving toward sunshine policy, toward reconciliation, will be a step forward to reduce human rights violations. It’s going to be a challenge; however, it is the only possible solution contradictory to undermining democracy and human rights.

While walking around, I noticed that the Korean DMZ  which is rich in agriculture and nature. Seeing a grey heron flying across the sodden rice fields, unaware of the worldly hurdles, made me mock the imaginary differences putting millions in misery.

Crossing a frontier transforms you, it is said, as it is a wake-up call. At the frontier, we have to face the truth. Insulating us against the bitter realities of the world, the comforting layers of the quotidian are stripped away there. Standing wide-eyed at the frontier, we see things as they are.

Indeed, that place transformed me; it made me realise that it’s time to build bridges, break the cycle of revenge and violence and embrace the power of empathy.

Anam Gill

Anam Gill

The author is currently working as a columnist for Education for Sustainability, a project of a UK based organisation. As a freelance journalist she has written articles on various issues related to human rights and social justice. She tweets as @GillAnam

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • oats

    There is a fundamental difference between the Paju Bridge and demilitarized zone of North and South Korea vs the Wagah border between India and Pakistan; that being that Pakistan and India are two separate countries with two separate histories, cultures, outlooks etc whereas North and South Korea are the same country with the same people, same culture etc. You could argue that there should be no border between KPK, Pakistan and Afghanistan at Torkham since it’s the same or that Pakistan should have no border at Baluchistan with Iran since Pakistan was part of Persian Khorasan Empire but you have to live in reality. It’s nice to live in a world without borders but the reality is that different countries need to police their own borders.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nicely written and nice pictures. Brings to mind John Lennon’s IMAGINE.
    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace.
    One of my all time favourite songs……pure genius.Recommend

  • Syed

    Ms Gill,

    I hold your views as an esteemed opinion that should be the course of both of ours country, sure breaking enmities and decades old hatred would be a good thing but don’t be so naive to call differences but ours and that of our neighbors as imaginary. Millions died to give us this country, i don’t think they did it for ‘imaginary differences’. That Beating retreat ceremony is symbolic to military and it boosts their morale, and i might add, it must act as a morale booster for Indian military as well.
    A soldier standing alert putting himself in inhuman conditions to watch over the border is not an easy job, and those who are doing it, need to be given a reason that what are they doing is worth it, they need to be told that their nation holds them in high regard for putting their country first instead of their families, kids, parents etc. I wouldnt expect you to understand it, but hey who is gonna defend some miserable soldier on either side of the border, trying to protect what they deem is worthy to protect.Recommend

  • IHateDisqus

    @Author: About that Sunshine Policy, nope, it didn’t work and it was South Korean President Kim Dae Jung who came up with it. All it did was to make the North Koreans more belligerent.

    India has been following its own Sunshine Policy for many years with not much result either.

    Also would urge you to find out that while both North and South Koreans consider Unified Korea to be a goal, in recent years many South Koreans are against re-unification due to the economic costs involved and assimilation of unskilled workers.

    Key mistake in your analogy is that in the case of Wagah, one country is India and the other Not India whereas both Koreas at one point believed that they belonged to the same country. However a good thing about Wagah is that it is not remotely as dangerous as the Korean DMZ.Recommend

  • Anoop

    The ceremony at Wagah is disgusting. I read a few years ago the Indian military is voluntarily stopping or toning down is side of the cremony.

    India is not an ideological country like Pakistan. It has to show no animosity towards it.Recommend

  • Naila

    Do you seriously have nothing better to do than bad-mouthing Pakistan? Whenever I read the comments of these articles and then see your name, 9/10 times- i can bet its against either Islam or Pakistan. Give your opinion, fine, nothing wrong with that and you are entitled to it. But please either come to Pakistan or make a few Pakistani/ Muslim friends before passing judgement on them. If I was to judge Indians based upon those few that comment on ET, I would have a very narrow mind and would be making many assumptions about Indians like you are about Pakistanis. I wouldn’t know if you love your country or not, because maybe if you did, you would consider the effects your comments have on people who love the country you seem to loathe.Recommend

  • Landhi wala

    Mr. Anoop, you are a perpetual negative when it comes to your
    comments. Where do you get the time to leave these comments?
    Are you getting paid to write these? Give it a break. Go see the Taj Mahal.
    Go to Chennai. Go see some Indian movies. They are good.Recommend

  • Peshawari

    In Europe, just about every country has these kind of ceremonies.
    Even some towns. Like, Changing of the Guards. They are a great tourist attraction. Just 30 or 40 minutes of great fun with the family.
    Full of pomp and parade. Very enjoyable.
    And Wagah is right there among the best.Recommend

  • Anoop

    Isn’t Pakistan an ideological state? Isn’t Pakistan based on the Two Nation Theory and the glory of Islam?

    What did I say here?

    Are you ashamed of TNT?Recommend

  • Anoop

    I am asking India to tone down its part of the ceremony, which is basically a display of hatred towards another country and you are accusing me of hate?

    I’ve heard a lot of absurd things in my life, but this one is right up there.

    You have a certain opinion of me and even though I asked for a hate-filled ceremony to be toned down, you see hate.

    Even though I said what is fact : Pakistan is an ideological state(Remember Two Nation Theory?), you see lies.

    Your prejudices are your problem. I base my opinions on reasons and facts.Recommend

  • نائلہ

    Yes, Pakistan is based on the two nation theory and the glory of Islam. And why shouldnt it be? Jinnah wanted a country for Muslims where they wouldnt be treated like 2nd class citizens and would not be discriminated against like they did/still do (in some parts) in India. Not saying that it currently doesnt happen in Pakistan, ofcourse it does. I am an Ahmadi and we happen do be on the receiving end of such discrimination. But that does not make a state ideological! A country is made by its people- normal everyday people, not politicians or fundamentalists, whether Muslims or not.

    And before you blame Islam for for this so called “ideology” and the state of this country, let me tell you that the Holy Quran states: “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (2:256). One of the fundamental truths established by the Quran is that no one can be compelled to accept Islam or follow its doctrines. So your “ideological” remark is incorrect.

    Anyways, the reason I replied to your comment was because I was getting sick of seeing your negative comments all over ET regarding Pak and Islam, not necessarily on this article. And just wanted to tell you to relax and think about those 180 million who actually live in this country and clearly know it better than you do.

    And wth has tnt- a parcel delivery system got to do with anything?


    ET please publish.Recommend

  • Landhi wala

    Mr. Anoopi, would not grace your diatribe with a comment.
    However, seeing you struggle with your erratic composition,
    it is very obvious, you are not comfortable with English. And
    are at pains to assemble your thoughts in a decent manner.
    So, just read again, extra carefully. Maybe you will see the
    light. Heard India is a very scenic country. Take a vacation.
    Go see your country. And hopefully you will relax enough to
    enjoy it.Recommend

  • Anoop

    As long as you don’t dispute the facts I’ve quoted and the opinions I espouse based on such facts, I am not flustered.

    I don’t think much of people who pride themselves of learning well a foreign language. But, I guess Pakistanis are used to learning Urdu at the cost of their Regional languages and have a clear gora complex(one of the reasons why ‘kaala’ Bengalis asked you to go somewhere).

    So, yeah thanks for not ripping the facts I’ve presented on ET to shreds and for not proving my inferences wrong.

    I owe you!Recommend

  • Anoop

    Buddy do you know the meaning of an ideological state?

    You say TNT is rock solid and admit thats the basis of Pakistan, yet you say Pakistan is not an ideological state.

    By your definition, no country on this Earth is an ideological state or no organisation is an ideological organisation.

    Please quote your Quran to the actual people who know it and are using it to justify violence. I don’t care what it says, just what its followers do.

    Nobody like to criticise their own Religion. But, why should the non-Muslim world not look at Islam objectively?Recommend

  • stevenson

    The fact that you are so obsessed with posting anti Pakistan nonsense on Pakistani papers just tells me you need to get a life. Pakistan and India are different nations – accept it and move on. I have nothing against Indians but they are not the same as my culture just like Burmese, Sri Lankans or Brazilians for that matter. I don’t watch Indian movies or listen to their songs either since I prefer Pashtu music. Please stop telling me I am different by ideology only – I am different because as a part Pashtun my race and culture is different from Indians. For some people Pakistan is an ideological state but for native Pakistanis like me, it’s home and part of a different civilization than India.Recommend

  • Naila

    We could sit here and argue all day on the actual definition of an ideological state and clearly neither of us will get the view point of the other. So I wont bother as I have better things to do with my life.

    I want to take you back to the fact that I only commented on your first comment as you were (once again) criticizing Pakistan (not necessarily on this article- but trust me I’ve seen MANY of your negative comments and frankly I was tired of it). I wasnt trying to change ur opinion on whatever Pakistan is based upon (think whatever you want, i and most Pakistanis dont care as your opinion doesnt change anything), you just brought tnt and what not into this convo.


  • Naila

    And if you actually READ what I write and not just straight up go and start throwing out things that you either read, research whatever you do, you might learn something. You need to understand that for a statement to be valid, it needs not be based upon stereotypes but rather on fact.- I am alluding to your comment above: “But, I guess Pakistanis are used to learning Urdu at the cost of their Regional languages”- PAKISTANIS- ~190 MILLION People, give me a break!!!


  • Naila

    After reading ~10? ET articles on this topic, you are concluding this…. Yes I agree that regional languages are suffering, but Pakistanis are used to it? IF they were used to it, you wouldnt be seeing these articles against it and to clarify, we are not used to it. Who gave you the right to decide that they are? I, a Pakistani, am telling you that we are not used to it. Get to know some Pakistanis man! OR maybe you dont want to, as then most of the things you say about us will be proven incorrect!


  • Naila

    —-“and have a clear gora complex(one of the reasons why Bengalis asked you to go somewhere).”- Yep you are clearly one of those people who are always ready for an argument with their boxing gloves on and a list of topics in your back pocket. The person did not even mention skin colour. I bet you will bring up another topic replying to my comment, without even reading this essay that I wrote.

    And since you “don’t care what it (The Holy Quran) says, just what its followers do.” I am not going to use it to clear any doubt of neither racism nor rejection based upon skin colour. However, if non-Muslims can “look at Islam objectively” then please let me know where your attitude regarding Pakistan and Islam came from, cos I would like to trace it back and hopefully correct it.Recommend

  • Anoop

    In the 4 sets of comments I didn’t see any proof of my smudging facts, which is the only thing I care about. This is the Internet, for God sakes!

    When I pointed out Pakistan is based on the ideology of TNT, which is the veritable truth, you go on the offensive about my past comments.

    But, since my argument was strong and Pakistan is indeed based on a regressive, communal ideology, you resorted to obfuscating the issue, when any standup being would simply say, “Yes, I am wrong, you are right. Pakistan is indeed an ideological country and based on the basis of Religion of Islam”.

    By your own words, no commentator should comment on any topic related to any country, because there are so many people and he simply doesn’t know all of them. Please… How absurd.

    I have a right to air my opinion and people who ask me to stop only accentuate my desire to prove them wrong, like I’ve done with the ideology of Pakistan just here.

    All I care about is : I state the correct facts(nobody till date has disputed my facts, my quotes or my inferences). Like you, others try to tell me I am wrong or I should not comment, but never have the ability to tell me where am I wrong!

    I ask you one last time : Why is Pakistan not an ideological state, when its founders propagated and based in on the TNT? My early comment too was simply an inference from the fact that India was not based on such Politico-Religious theories, but Pakistan was.

    When you make grandiose claims, please learn to back them up.Recommend

  • نائلہ

    Tauba! Iss banday nay meray comments ka aik ilfaaz bhi nahi padrha. Do and believe whatever makes you happy. Btw you also did not refute any of my claims regarding your comments about urdu and skin colour. I rest my case and need not to further argue with you :)Recommend

  • Anoop

    Considering Bengalis left because of the imposition of Urdu(one of the many reasons), isn’t it a historical fact that the Pakistani state has a policy of imposing an alien language over its populace?

    What is there to refute? Urdu, a dialect of Hindi, is an Indian language, which at the time of partition was spoken by 8% of the population. I can even point you to some articles by NFP of Dawn, who talks about this phenomena.

    Is the “Gora Complex” imaginary? Is it uncommon and unheard of that English is considered to be the language of the educated and upper strata of society? I studied in a good English school, but I’d never ridicule someone’s English. That is done by, IMO, by people with Gora Complex. I call it that, if you want it to name it something else, your choice.

    I quote the person you were trying to defend.

    “seeing you struggle with your erratic composition, it is very obvious, you are not comfortable with English. And are at pains to assemble your thoughts in a decent manner.”

    ET has several write ups about this complex, I can point to some if you need.

    So, I am not wrong about Urdu being imposed or the Gora Complex.Recommend