My Life on Both Sides of the DMZ

14 January 2016

Alek Sigley, AKF Scholar 2015

My life spent on both sides of the DMZ has been at times exciting, at times surreal, and at times plaintive. Just a week after gazing at South Korea from the balcony of Panmun Pavilion, on the North Korean side of Panmunjom Peace Village through which the North-South border runs, I am barely an hour’s drive away in the air-conditioned comfort of my Goshitel (a kind of budget accommodation for students with very small but well-equipped rooms) room in Seoul. Yet to get there I had to drive for two hours back to Pyongyang, fly to Beijing, take another flight to Incheon Airport, then take an hour-long train journey back into Seoul. Even as Australia tries to carve out its place in the Asian Century, the neon jungle of Seoul is in many ways a world away from the somewhat sedate streets of Sydney or Melbourne. Pyongyang, however, with its grandiose monuments and ubiquitous propaganda, is another universe away. Yet on my travels across both sides of the Korean peninsula, I have found that the North and South still have much in common. But first: how I ended up in between the two Koreas.

While I was an exchange student in China, I made friends with fellow students from both North and South Korea. This piqued my interest in the peninsula, and I started studying the Korean language alongside my contextual major in Asian Studies at the Australian National University. I eventually founded Tongil Tours, the first tour operator in Australia specialising in academic and cultural tours to North Korea. To me the meaning of the word ‘Korea’ has never stopped just south of the DMZ. Its meaning has been enriched over the years by visits to friends in Seoul, experience in leading travel programmes all over North Korea, and now, advanced Korean language study in Seoul as an Australia-Korea Foundation scholar.

Children smiling at the camera
One of our Tongil Tours tour groups posing with North Korean high school students at the botanical gardens in Pyongyang (author featured on the far left)

One thing I have found is that all Koreans, in both the North and South, love a bit of singing. I still vividly remember being dragged into a circle of tipsy ajumma (middle-aged woman, literally ‘auntie’) on a beach in Nampo (Pyongyang’s port), and encouraged to dance with them as they sang. This is a typical Korean way to let off steam – outdoors, with friends and family, cooking samgyopsal (pork belly) on portable cookers and drinking soju, all rounded off with a healthy dose of song and dance. I have not met a single North Korean who couldn’t sing well, and as participants in our travel programmes often remark, they put us Australians and our off-tone renditions of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to complete shame. Meanwhile in the South, drinking nights inevitably end up at karoake (noraebang, which are also starting to pop up in the North), and I am similarly impressed by my South Koreans friends’ uniformedly high singing ability. Lyrical content does differ somewhat, with love songs popular in the South and the North preferring odes to their leaders and ruling party or to national construction and reunification. But despite these differences, I’ve come to experience how all Koreans on both sides of the divide use song as an emotional outlet. Those curious about North Korean music can see my blog, The Nkpop Blog, the world’s only English-language blog dedicated to North Korean popular music.

Food is another thing that continues to bind together the Korean people. In particular, kimchi is still commonly eaten across the peninsula. I once bought North Korean kimchi for some South Korean friends, who couldn't get enough of it! There’s even a North Korean romantic comedy film – Our Fragrance – whose Hugh Grant equivalent is a kimchi enthusiast developing a kimchi antiseptic. Over in the South, the official tourist website “Visit Korea” has a page dedicated exclusively to kimchi, explaining its history, recipe, and nutritional properties. Just like in the North, kimchi is offered in restaurants as a banchan (side-dish) to almost everything.

Then there are cold noodles (see the North Korean cold noodle song). Originally a Pyongyang specialty, they became common in the South after northerners migrated downwards during the chaos of the Korean war. Near my home in Seoul is a Pyongyang cold noodle restaurant called Ulmildae. There is a always a long line of people waiting to have a bowl of this slightly sour and refreshingly clean-tasting delicacy. But I often wonder if these people are aware of where Ulmildae gets its name from. Ulmildae is a Yi dynasty pavilion in central Pyongyang's Moran Hill Park. Last time I visited the Ulmildae pavilion with a tour group, I told our Korean guide, a good friend of mine, about the Seoul Ulmildae near my house. She was especially shocked when I told her that the sign had ‘Pyongyang cold noodles’ written on it. But I think she was at the same time reassured to hear that her compatriots in Seoul were so beholden to this dish from her hometown – Pyongyang.

line of people waiting outside building
Ulmildae in Seoul- with always a long line outside

What also leaves a deep impression on me when I travel to both North and South Korea is the enormous amount of pride Koreans take in their country. While that country may have a different name depending on where you go, the DPRK or the ROK, Choson or Hanguk, it is united by a common history stretching back to ancient times. Koreans, from both the North and South, place great importance in this legacy, whether it be Hangul (Korean letters, known as Chosongul in the North), Admiral Yi Sun Shin’s turtle boats, or painters such as Kim Hong Do. After decades of Japanese colonisation in the early 20th century, there’s also great pride taken in what Koreans have been able to achieve on their own since then. Lastly, despite the vicissitudes of inter-Korean relations, there’s hope that one day Koreans on both sides will be able to put away their differences and work together to build a common future as one nation again. This will be by no means easy, but bearing in mind the aforementioned commonalities, perhaps reconciliation can one day be achieved on the Korean peninsula.

North-South relations have recently been at a nadir. South Korea is one of Australia's major trading partners and strategic partners in the Pacific, but our engagement with North Korea is minimal. Korea is often forgotten in between China and Japan, but thanks to the Hallyu (Korean Wave; a term used to describe the increasing popularity of South Korean popular culture abroad, mainly in Korea’s East Asian neighbors and Southeast Asia but elsewhere too) and the continual outflow of South Korean students, businesspeople and migrants, Australians are slowly becoming more acquainted with South Korea. North Korea borders two of our most important trading partners (China and South Korea) and is located at the heart of one of the world’s most rapidly developing regions – a region with which our government seeks to deepen its engagement. However, if most Australians know only little about South Korea, then they know next to nothing about North Korea. Perhaps it’s time this changed.




Last Updated: 14 January 2016