Sixty Years After War Broke Out, Korean Peninsula Still in Limbo

Near the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea — The tourists were bunched together on an observation deck, their faces pressed against binoculars to get a glimpse of North Korea.

A few days earlier, the regime of Kim Jong-il had said it would unleash “a merciless strike” that could turn Seoul into a “sea of flames” if South Korea turned on propaganda speakers not far from where the sightseers were pointing and giggling.

It made for a strange contrast — an afternoon jaunt to the Demilitarized Zone, where souvenir stands sell DMZ T-shirts and pen sets, with the prospect of annihilation in the air.

As the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War comes on June 25, the Korean Peninsula remains in limbo. To the south of the DMZ is a modern, democratic state, while to the north is a totalitarian regime that let as many as 2 million people die of famine in the 1990s rather than open itself to the world.

The conflict that began in 1950 with the North invading the South, and soon included the Cold War militaries of the U.S. and China pushing battle lines back and forth, ended in 1953 not far from where it had begun, with millions dead or wounded and no real resolution.

Because a formal peace treaty was never signed, the war has never officially ended, and some 28,500 U.S. troops are still stationed in South Korea.

There’s little to suggest that the standoff will end soon. The regime of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, who favors a bouffant hairdo and is considered mentally unstable by many, has made it clear that it won’t surrender its power for any reason. For its part, the South enjoys a level of prosperity that could be shaken by a reunification that almost certainly would send hordes of Northerners over its borders.

So Pyongyang continues to condemn its people to gulags and occasionally threatens to destroy the South, and the economy in Seoul blossoms with shoppers milling around Cartier and Tiffany boutiques. While Kim was overseeing two nuclear tests in the past five years, men in tailored suits were sipping cappuccinos and striking deals in Seoul’s luxury hotels.

After decades of news of menace and tragedy from the North, many people in Seoul simply have moved on with their lives; accepting that the situation is as intractable as it is bizarre, and that it’s best not to provoke their neighbors.

“It’s like your brother from whom you never want to hear anymore — your brother is a criminal or he’s in a mental clinic somewhere,” said Hong Seong-Phil, a law professor in Seoul who’s worked extensively on the issue of North Korean defectors. “It’s an unnerving issue . . . so people say let’s make money, economic development is the key.”

When 46 South Korean sailors died in March in what the South charges was a North Korean torpedo attack on the Cheonan, a naval warship, people in Seoul mourned, but there weren’t huge demonstrations across the country, much less panic. After South Korea said it would seek United Nations sanctions, and Pyongyang swore retribution, analysts called it one of the lowest points in Korean relations since the war.

Many South Koreans just shook their heads.

“It’s not something I take seriously,” said Choi Song-gu, a 65-year-old real estate agent who was visiting the observation platform on the DMZ with friends.

Choi said he wasn’t worried that the DMZ, a ribbon of heavily mined land that cleaves the nation with thousands of soldiers on either side, is less than 30 miles from Seoul. While there are no exact figures for the North Korean arsenal of missiles and artillery, the country has more than enough firepower to wipe the Southern capital off the face of the Earth.

“I don’t believe that North Korea is a threat,” he said. “I read the articles in the newspapers, but I don’t buy it.”

In fact, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak appears to have suffered politically for pushing the Cheonan issue and taking a hard line toward the North. During elections earlier this month, Lee’s conservative Grand National Party won only six of 16 local races that were widely considered a referendum on his handling of the Cheonan sinking. Voter turnout reportedly was the highest for local elections in 15 years.

South Koreans born after the war seem uninterested in confronting the North.

“Most of the younger generation has a similar opinion, that North Korea is a political issue, not a security issue,” said Lee Kyung-sung, a 33-year-old office worker sitting at Starbucks in an upscale Seoul shopping mall.

And the Cheonan? “They just want to use the North Korea issue for political purposes,” Lee said, as he sipped on a frozen strawberry drink.

A few steps away, sitting on a bench near a Gap store, 21-year-old college student Lee Yong-ju clutched a pink cell phone and said she doesn’t spend time thinking about the North.

“I just feel sorry for those people living there,” she said.

Even the issue of reunification, which strikes a deep chord of Korean national yearning, is met with some apathy.

“Sometimes I don’t want it, it’s too dangerous there — they aren’t intelligent anymore, they’re so crazy now,” said Elisa Kim, a corporate trainer. She paused and then added, “But we pray that one day it will come.”

Kim was standing outside an exhibit near the DMZ that featured a film showing the nation burning during the 1950-53 war. Tourists posed for pictures with wide grins.

Hong, the professor in Seoul, said that South Koreans often have similar initial reactions to the horror stories told by defectors from the North: “We don’t want to hear that.”

After admitting to themselves that at least some of the tales of torture and political prisons are true, Hong said, many South Koreans say there’s little point in worrying about something they can’t change.

Still, he said, the defectors are a reminder: “There is North Korea; this is real.”

Near the DMZ, Seo Yeoun-sung, 70, stood in the back office of a grocery-souvenir shop he manages. He’s watched Koreans and other tourists breeze through for years, apparently unconcerned about the threat from the North.

“I worry about the younger generation because they don’t think North Korea has done anything wrong . . . they don’t know about the war,” he said. “My generation really knows it, and expects that the war could be possible again.”