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North and south

Sunday, June 6th, 2010
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Our hosts from the May 18 Memorial Foundation in Korea had planned a tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The group of editors and publishers from Pakistan, Palestine, India, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia were looking forward to taking a peek at the North from the South.

However, word came that the trip to Panmunjeom was cancelled because the Korean military, which guards the border with the help of the US Army, said Nepali and Palestinian citizens were not among those allowed to visit the DMZ. We did not find a mention of this in any of the many brochures for DMZ tours that promised ‘A Close-up of the Border Where the Cold War Never Ended’. Nor is the purported list of ‘banned’ countries (Algeria, Cuba also blacklisted) on any Korean government website.

The May 18 Memorial Foundation is named after that date in 1980 when the town of Gwangju erupted in a Jana Andolan. It was a student-led rebellion against the military strongman Chun Doo-Hwan. It ushered in an era of democracy, but it came at a heavy price: more than 200 people were killed and 1,000 went missing. At the sombre cemetery on the outskirts of Gwangju last month, parents of some of the students killed by the military were grieving over the graves. Thirty years later, one father was hitting the tombstone of his son with a walking stick, tears streaming down his face: “Why did you go, why did you have to leave us?”

This year the thirtieth anniversary of the 5-18 Uprising, as it is also called, coincided with campaigning for local elections and tensions with the north over the torpedo attack on the corvette, Cheonan, hardening the stance of the ruling party. The polity appears to be swinging to the right, and many saw the absence of President Lee Myung-bak at the official anniversary commemoration as an insult to the memory of the uprising (his excuse: meeting visiting Bangladesh president Sheikh Hasina). Relatives of the victims shouted slogans while the official ceremony went on inside the cemetery.

Hyankoreh editors at the newspaper's lobby where the names of 60,000 shareholders are engraved on the wall.

Hyankoreh editors at the newspaper’s lobby where the names of 60,000 shareholders are engraved on the wall.

Since we could not go to the DMZ, our hosts took us instead to see the Hyankoreh Shinmun newspaper office in Seoul. The paper was a direct offshoot of the Gwangju Uprising. Koreans fed up with rightwing military dictatorships and their brutal crackdowns on the free press decided to set up their own newspaper that would be independent of both the state and commercial pressures. Money to start the newspaper was raised from 60,000 shareholders who gave up to $2,000 each because they believed in press freedom and democracy. All 60,000 names are engraved on copper plates and are on display at Hyankoreh’s reception area. This is probably the only newspaper in the world where the president and editor are elected by staff. All the journalists know of Nepal’s struggle for democracy, especially because this year’s winner of the Gwangju Asian Human Rights Award was our own Sushil Pyakurel.

Journalism student Seulki Lee, who spent five months as a volunteer teacher in Lamjung in 2005, poses with a copy of Nepali Times outside the fortress-like office of Hyankoreh Shinmun in Seoul.

Journalism student Seulki Lee, who spent five months as a volunteer teacher in Lamjung in 2005, poses with a copy of Nepali Times outside the fortress-like office of Hyankoreh Shinmun in Seoul.

Hyankoreh means ‘united’ and represents the aspirations of the Gwangju pro-democracy movement for a united, democratic Korea, a line espoused by one of the leaders of the uprising, Kim Dae-Jung, who was finally elected president in 1998 after trying four times. Despite Korea’s tremendous economic achievements and its transition to democracy, the journalists at Hyankoreh say the struggle for press freedom is not over. Since the paper takes a critical left-of-centre stance on issues, it is often accused of being pro-North Korean and its patriotism is regularly questioned. Last year, Samsung pulled out ads after an investigative report. Big businesses and politicians have also repeatedly sued the paper.

Having been destroyed twice (by the Japanese during the Pacific War and then during the Korean War), South Korea is a remarkable story of a nation that has risen from the ashes. Walking along the bustling Myeongdong Market in Seoul on Buddha’s birthday weekend alongside carefree Koreans, it is hard to imagine that just 60 km away is the 38th Parallel and the proximity of the biggest uncertainty of it all: the catastrophic collapse of the North.

The most surprising thing about Korea is that there are still two of them: one a terrifying Stalinist state with a nutty philosophy and the other a dynamic world economic power that is still so insecure that it does not allow Nepalis to visit the DMZ.

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9 Responses to “North and south”

  1. surprised on Says:

    It is indeed surprising news that the writer was denied access to the DMZ visit, as a Nepali who has been there and back and knows of several Nepalis who till a few months ago went for the trip without any problems. Perhaps it is the new North-South Korea tension that has led to this new law, which doesn’t seem to make much sense.


  2. moktan on Says:

    This comment has been removed by the moderator.


  3. Subodh on Says:

    Perhaps after a short while only North Korea will allow entry to Nepali hand-written passports? Then one can enter DMZ from the North!


  4. Sgt. Bal B. Gurung, Royal Gurkhas on Says:

    How hypocritical of South Korean government to prohibit Nepalese journalist to enter DMZ? First of all, you would have mentioned that under British Army, British Gurkha Regiment have been stationed in DMZ since the very beginning of DMZ. If the sons of Nepal called Gurkhas are respected and honored to serve there, then the sons of same Nepal as journalists must be given permission to visit DMZ without any restriction. Yes, the present Nepali politics may have shaken hands with communist North Korea, but the diplomatic relation with either Korea should not become such a big issue. You must write South Korean government and embassy in Kathmandu. This hypocritical incidence is an insult to Nepal and Nepalese.


  5. thousandinfrared on Says:

    This comment has been removed by the moderator.


  6. jange on Says:

    There are still parts of Nepal where Nepalis are not permitted to go- prevented by threats of violence by the Maoists.

    And how much space do you give to that?


  7. jange on Says:

    Sgt. Gurung- It is not the Koreans who are hypocritical, it is the Nepalis.

    As long as there are places in Nepal where Nepalis annot go freely without fear of being murdered or maimed we are not in a position to say that another country should allow foreigner unrestricted acess to their country.

    Look first at your own hypocrisy.


  8. Sgt.Gurung, RGR on Says:

    Jange ji, you have to learn how to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, because the fear of murder due to lawlessness and prohibition due to political or diplomatic conflict are two entirely different things. In Nepal it is the question of safety and right of freedom to its own citizens, and in Korea it is not the question of a (freign) Nepali Journalist’s safety or fear. In Nepal, it is our internal security problem, but in this situation of prohibition in Korea it is the lack of respect to our own existing bilateral diplomatic relationship. So, next time learn how to compare fairly and appropriately and don’t get mixed up.


  9. CLee on Says:

    I am very sorry that happened to you, KundaG! Perhaps this is one of the many repercussion of having Lee Myung-bak as president. Such restrictions should have at least been made public. How very disappointing!


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