Chinese workers cover up the sign of a Uniqlo clothing store in Beijing Photo Credits: European Pressphoto Agency
18 September 2012 Beijing, P.R. CHINA
The atmosphere in China’s capital city of Beijing is noticeably tense on this warm autumn day; the nearby 7-eleven and the Uniqlo clothing store down the street from my apartment are closed for business on this Tuesday afternoon. Toyota, Honda and Nissan brand cars fashion bumper stickers and slogans championing Chinese nationalism and decrying Japanese imperialism. All of this follows protests, demonstrations and riots which continue in the wake of tensions arising from the purchase by the Japanese Government of three of five islands which make up a disputed island chain – known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese and Senkaku Islands in Japanese – located off the coast of China and claimed by both countries.
This incident, minus the mass demonstrating and rioting, bears uncanny resemblance to the heated South Korean-Japanese dispute over the Dokdo islands, and is just one of the many unresolved conflicts originating from the handover of territory from Imperial Japan to the Allied powers following the end of World War II. During this process, one of the most significant events occurred when a line drawn on a map indefinitely divided the nation of Korea in half along the 38th parallel north.
As a second generation Korean-American, I have lived the majority of my life disconnected from my roots and apathetic to the pains and sorrows of my motherland. I visited South Korea for the first time four years ago and a year later came to China to study and attend graduate school, ready to take advantage of China’s rapid construction and development to fuel my career in architecture.
One day, however, my travels brought me to the far edge of one of China’s most outlying provinces where I was able to take one of my first glimpses into the reclusive North Korea. Standing on the banks of the Tumen River – just a stone’s throw from the adjacent North Korean soil – the impacts of a divided nation became conscious to me for the first time. As those realizations began to sink into my mind, I shifted my attention away from the all-too-familiar headlines of nuclear weapons and refugees, to focus on the deeper issue: a divided people.
I joined the Ministry of Unification’s internship program not as a method for bolstering my marketable competiveness, but rather to foster an ongoing academic and personal research in which I was already consumed. The MOU internship was not your typical office internship, which suited me because I was not your typical International Relations or Politics major intern; and while at first glance (and probably second and third) issues in architecture and Korean Unification seem incompatible, the last year of my studies have been devoted to exploring and uncovering such issues. And while I’m still digesting and internalizing all that I have learned and experienced through MOU’s internship program this summer, one noticeable difference in my attitude is clear:
A few years ago I would have apathetically disregarded such incidents like the Dokdo and Diaoyu islands dispute as trivial bickering between nations. However, I now see them in a different perspective, tracing them back to the roots from which they originate and understanding them as conflicts embedded in much deeper intense historical issues, and realizing that they, like Korean unification, will take more than simple political negotiations and discussions to resolve.
 The 7-Eleven convenience store chain is Japanese-owned in China, see: Johnson, Ian, and Thom Shanker. “More Protests in China Over Japan and Islands.”http://www.nytimes.com. The New York Times, 18 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/world/asia/china-warns-japan-over-island-dispute.html>.