A week ago I witnessed something I never thought I would in my lifetime, North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un and South Korean President, Moon Jae-in hand in hand and then embracing after their meeting in Panmunjom.
It was something that would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.
My first reaction was to call my mother to share this historic moment. She and l are one of the millions of Koreans who bore witness to history unfolding as the leader of North Korea crossed the border into South Korea for the first time in more than 60 years.
The desire to see the two Koreas reunify was palpable among the Korean-American community in which I grew up. Every social event and gathering were filled with endless discussions about the reunification, and my family celebrated the talks between North and South Koreas as if they were Lunar New Year.
My mother would say, “I hope and prayed that one day, I would be able to see Baekdu Mountain.”, which, to her, was the highest and the most beautiful mountain in the world, as it represented the ideal of our lost homeland.
However, as the years went by and after witnessing numerous talks and discussions between the North and the South dissipate, hopes of the reunification grew dimmer.
1988 Olympics in South Korea seemed like a perfect opportunity to improve relations with the North. The communist regime in Soviet Union was weakening, and the rest of the world felt the thawing of the relations between the world’s superpowers.
Sadly, North Korea reacted to the demise of communism in their neighboring countries like a wild animal cornered into a trap. As Germany was anticipating reunification of the East and the West, North Korean agents planted a bomb on Korean Airlines Flight 858, killing all 115 on board, which only increased the animosity between the two Koreas. As the world watched the fall of the Berlin Wall, western governments designated North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism.
Since then, the narrative of the two Koreas has become tragically familiar. Every diplomatic effort that opens up a dialogue between North and South inevitably leads to Pyongyang’s attempt to sabotage it.
Furthermore, over the past decade, North Korea’s continued provocations and nuclear development program has discouraged any and all engagement-oriented policies and diplomatic efforts, and years of increasingly provocative nuclear and missile tests have only darkened South Korean perceptions of the North.
Pyongyang has insisted that it would never give up its nuclear arsenal, which it claims it needs to defend itself against aggression from the US.
As one my family members once told me, “We (North and South Koreas) are two small shrimps in a sea of big fishes. We are able to determine the fate of our countries as much as a small shrimp can determine the fate its life in the sea.”
Even before the Korean War, series of postwar international decisions were made without regard for the Korean people, and the partition and the occupation of the peninsula occurred long before North Korean troops invaded the South.
Korea has been a country of the wrong size in the wrong place, large and well located enough to be of substantial value to those around it and thus worth fighting and scheming over, yet too small to merit priority attention by more powerful nations on all but a few occasions. Korea’s fate was often to be an afterthought, subordinated to more immediate or compelling requirements of larger powers, rather than a subject of full consideration in its own right.
For this reason, Korean history has been largely shaped by the international strategies of all the major powers, namely the U.S., Russia and China, and the peninsula has been the site over the past 60 years, where the difference and the development in the international arena has been played out.
However, this time, the meeting between Kim Jung-un and President Moon seems different.
Its contrast from the past summits and agreements was highlighted when the North Korean leader stated that “The two leaders had agreed to work to prevent a repeat of the region’s ‘unfortunate history’ in which progress had ‘fizzled out’.”
It has been an emotional roller coaster ride for most Koreans, as only few months ago, South Korea as well as the U.S. territories in and bordering Pacific Ocean were anticipating an impending (nuclear) war with North Korea.
To my family, especially the elders, North Korea is not a foreign country. It is still part of Korea that we hope one day we will reunite with.
However, although it appears that last week’s meeting signifies the beginning of a real and substantive change between North and South Koreas’ relationship, we, my family and I have been down this road before.
Therefore, there was no jubilation or even a celebration of the event, only a quiet optimism and continued hope that we will, one day, be able to stand on Baekdu Mountain.