I traveled the DMZ for one week this summer with five hundred middle school, high school, and college students. We were on a March for Peace and Unification. I think the title can be a bit misleading, so I will clarify.
The “march” was actually more like a tour. We walked, but only for short durations—partway up a mountain, say, or partway down a defunct North Korean infiltration tunnel. I was relieved to discover that we would neither be in step nor carry signs, and that we wouldn’t have to try to knock on doors or anything to persuade people to support unification. I didn’t think that would work.
The march was run by the Institute for Unification Education, with the goal of getting young people to think about unification issues (and, ideally, to support eventual unification), and we were the target audience.
See, typically in South Korea, older demographics are the ones in favor of unification, as they feel a much deeper tie to their once-unified country. For the younger generation, North Korea has always been a separate country, so they feel little compulsion to shoulder its poverty and social problems for the sake of unification.
This march was a form of targeted experiential marketing, you might say, to reverse that demographic trend. It was free for everyone who went, and quite a few of the students I talked with participated first for the pecuniary lightness. We also got quite a bit of swag; when we met at the beginning we were given free matching vests, hats, backpacks, large name-tags, even snack bags every day in addition to the meals and lodging. And there was a concert in there by some of Korea’s biggest music stars (during which I was able to watch boom cam operators—ever the true stars of any televised event—in action, instantly bumping the whole experience up a notch or three), which didn’t hurt.
Of course, not everything free is actually free. We were accompanied by a full coach bus of student and professional reporters armed with video cameras, DSLRs, and tape recorders, and boy were they serious about reporting. Everything we did was meant to be captured and turned into media. And it seemed that they spent nearly every minute of every day seeking me out and making sure that I was photographed, videoed, and audio-recorded so that my experience would not be forgotten.
If they talk to me again some day, I will assure them that it was unforgettable. I had to slosh through heavy rain and muddy puddles on a military base at night, when everyone else was dry in their beds, because I had been asked to stay late after our nightly unification-domino-building to give an audio interview. We were returning from our interview location, and I had the only umbrella, so I had to shelter the reporter with me on our way back to the barracks.
That night, I wished her and all of her equipment would get soaked.
But it didn’t. I am too generous with an umbrella; my right shoulder got soaked instead; and the interviews continued.
They asked how I felt about unification, how my feelings had changed today, and what my feelings were when I viewed this or that monument. I had no good answers, I am not an interviewgenic subject. My poor answers were the same every day. I grew tired. I am sure the reporters grew tired too.
At least they made me think about it.
But, for all the personal frustration with this modern pressure to record and share as many segments of life as possible, it was a good march. I do sincerely like to hope that everyone who went on that march will become an advocate for unification, and that their passion will sweep through to their friends and galvanize a push led by interested young people for a united peninsula. And, if that happens, it’s possible that the march was the point in their lives that marked the turn toward that quest. I am unlikely to obtain proof if that is the case, so maybe it is okay just to hope.
I don’t know why I’m so deeply in favor of unification, since I don’t have much at stake personally. But it seems so critically, vitally, urgently important to individual Koreans I’ve met that I cannot view it dispassionately. If you could ever meet them yourself, I think you would feel similarly.
So, even though you are likely to be interviewed near to death, I’d like to recommend the 2012 South Korean March for Peace and Unification. You might meet some passionate people, and then you might really understand what this whole unification thing is about.
And, anyway, it’s free!