Standing in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), surrounded by fenced-in landmine fields juxtaposed by sundry tourist booths, I was shocked as I considered the countless human rights violations occurring only a few miles away in North Korea.
I had the opportunity to step foot in North Korea this summer through the Benton Scholars Program. Along with 15 other Colgate students, I took Core: Korea with Professor John Palmer in the spring, and at the end of May, we traveled to South and North Korea. We traversed Korea’s diverse landscape, from the city of Seoul to the rural expanses and seaside.
On a day trip to the DMZ, we spent exactly five minutes in a United Nations building on the military demarcation line that serves as a negotiation spot for the two countries.
The building was surrounded by tourists lining up to buy souvenirs like shot glasses, jewelry, and snacks from the shops. I was unnerved that the DMZ has been made into a spectacle that distracts more than it educates visitors about North Korea. My disbelief grew as we were taken to three movie theaters where we watched films about the biodiversity and history of the region and military strategies. With all of the distractions, there was very little attention given to the human rights abuses happening nearby that we had learned about through readings and in class.
We then met with Hwang Seunghee, of the South Korean Ministry of Unification, who supplemented conversations that we’d had in class. At Colgate, we had discussed the realities facing North Korean refugees and the possibility and potential outcomes of a unification between the two Koreas.
We had also learned about the drastically different lifestyles in the two countries, which have been divided for 64 years. Although the North Korean people are essentially shut off from international society, our class learned about their situation from information gathered by the United Nations, refugees, satellite images, and occasionally approved international entries into the country.
The majority of North Koreans are starving and are denied adequate health care, due process, freedom of expression, and the freedom to move within and outside of the country. Their government places people in work camps, where they are abused, tortured, and often worked to death, for arbitrary reasons.
Many South Koreans in Seoul — who live only 40 miles from Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital — know little about the situation in North Korea.
The lack of awareness in South Korea made me re-examine my own awareness about the social-justice issues in New York state and, more broadly, in the United States. I’ve also realized how my own background has placed me in a privileged position, enabling me to be a Benton Scholar, to have the resources to take Core: Korea, and to travel to Korea.
Those five minutes in the DMZ are a small but significant portion of my so-far unforgettable experience in the Benton Scholars program, which is designed to infuse leadership, community, and global themes into the Colgate experience.
In just the first year, the program’s small community has helped to shape how I understand my surroundings — as well as how I want to explore methods of building awareness and action.