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As Byung Joo Min, 52, reaches the summit of Mount Kumgang in North Korea, she lets out a scream. "Wow, it's more beautiful than I ever imagined," she says. But as she savors the panoramic view, she can't help but scan the countryside for her father, whom she last saw when she was 2, before he was captured by North Korean forces during the war between North Korea and South Korea 50 years ago.

"He's out there somewhere," she says. "I can just feel it."

For decades, North Korea refused to allow South Koreans to enter, even though many Koreans have family on both sides of the border. But recently, North Korea has taken several small steps toward openness, including allowing outsiders to visit Mount Kumgang, a place Koreans consider sacred. So far, about 150,000 South Koreans have visited, many rediscovering long-buried, bittersweet emotions when they reach the top.

Fifty years after the Korean War, which began June 25, 1950, tensions between North and South Korea remain high. The first armed conflict of the Cold War between Communism and capitalism, the Korean War pitted the Communist North, backed by China and the Soviet Union, against the capitalist South, backed by the United States. It ended in a draw. After 5 million people--including 34,000 U.S. soldiers--were killed and nearly every village leveled, neither side had gained or lost much territory.


But in the battle over ideology and economics, today the winner is clear. The South has developed into a democracy and one of the wealthiest nations of the world, while the repressive and isolated North is one of the poorest.

Despite a 1953 truce, the two sides never signed a peace treaty and technically remain at war. Only a few miles south of Mount Kumgang lies the 151-mile-wide demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula, one of the last frontiers of the Cold War. Hundreds of thousands of troops guard the border, which is lined with barbed-wire fences, concrete bunkers, hundreds of land mines, and--because no one ever goes there--lush vegetation. President Clinton has called it "the scariest place on earth."

On opposite sides of the border, life is so different you almost forget that for most of the last thousand years, Korea was one country. The split came at the end of World War II, when Korea was occupied by the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. The fates of the two nations today are linked to those of the superpowers that controlled them then. The South adopted a capitalist system of individual freedom and market economy, while the North developed a Communist economic system.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, North Korea's economy took a nosedive. Soviet aid dried up. And Kim Il Sung, the totalitarian ruler appointed by the Soviet Union, clung to a Soviet-style policy of economic self-reliance and heavy military spending. When he died in 1996, his son, Kim Jong Il, continued those policies and things only got worse.

By all accounts, North Korea today is in dire straits. Most factories are dormant, and in most regions there are virtually no paved roads or telephones, no public transportation, no central heating or electric power, and only sporadic running water. Inefficient agriculture and devastating floods have created severe food shortages. While the extent of the famine is hard for outsiders to measure, international relief agencies estimate that several hundred thousand North Koreans have starved to death in the past decade.

U.S. Representative Tony P. Hall (D-Ohio), who traveled unofficially to North Korea last year, says he saw children with patchy hair, protruding bones, open sores, and other signs of severe malnutrition. Many people rely on government-distributed "substitute food"--dried leaves and straw so coarse that even cattle will not eat it. "Many North Koreans go around constantly holding their stomachs because the substitute food is so difficult to digest," Hall says.


In the villages near Mount Kumgang, North Korea has installed high fences with barbed wire to prevent tourists from having contact with local residents. Stern North Korean soldiers carrying automatic rifles guard every street corner. Behind the fences are barren fields and dilapidated houses. The only vehicles on the road are tour buses. Village residents, wearing dark, drab clothing, walk or ride bicycles. "What a depressing place," says Woo Chung, a retired teacher from Seoul, South Korea's capital, peering from the tour-bus window. "It looks like South Korea did after the war."

In contrast, South Korea has become one of the world's most economically successful democracies. Fueled by foreign investment, open markets, advanced technology, and entrepreneurial spirit, South Korea's economy has grown dramatically. It has a highly educated workforce and world-class industries, including automobiles, electronics, and semiconductors bearing internationally known names like Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo, and LG. South Koreans enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Asia. Seoul is a modern, sophisticated city with gleaming skyscrapers, bustling boulevards and plazas, vast underground shopping malls, nightclubs, pubs, casinos, art galleries, and ancient palaces and temples.

Compared with North Koreans, South Korean teenagers lead privileged lives. "I can enjoy more freedom and I have more choices, like traveling to another country for student exchanges or field trips," says Kim Hyang Ah, 17, a Seoul high school student. Many teens wear the latest designer fashions, eat fast food at McDonald's and Burger King, listen to Minidisc players, watch music videos, and chat on cellular telephones, activities their North Korean counterparts do not know exist.


Yet their idea of freedom is a far cry from the leisurely lives American teenagers take for granted. South Korean students face tremendous pressure to succeed. Hyang Ah, for instance, goes to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., when she comes home to study. For most Koreans, childhood means years of tutoring and evening classes, which culminate in a day-long national exam, an eight-hour test that will determine what school they get in to, and consequently, what kind of career they'll be able to have. Economists say South Korea's emphasis on education has helped drive the country's rapid economic growth, but it has also created a generation of stressed-out, alienated, and rebellious teenagers.

Recently, the two countries have made moves toward reconciliation. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has launched a new policy that eliminates bans on travel, trade, and aid to North Korea. And North Korea has tried to improve its relations with the South, as well as the United States, Japan, and other countries that it once considered enemies. (See "Olive Branch," below.)

Ordinary Koreans on both sides of the border hope their governments will continue to break the Cold War ice. Byung Joo Min, for one, hopes North Korea will open its borders beyond the mountain so that she and other Koreans can finally be reunited with their loved ones. "Since I was a small girl, I've always wanted to see my father," she says. "Now, I believe there's a chance that will come true."


When the first U.S. troops arrived in Korea in July 1950, thousands of North Korean soldiers had just poured into South Korea, scattering millions of refugees before them. On a bridge near the town of No Gun Ri, U.S. troops set up a line of defense. Their orders: no civilians were to cross the line for fear that North Korean troops had disguised themselves among them.

Fifty years later, what happened at the bridge at No Gun Ri remains disputed. But in interviews last fall with the Associated Press, surviving U.S. veterans said their units fired machine guns into a crowd of unarmed refugees huddled under the bridge. As many as 400 people, many of them women and children, may have been killed.

"We just annihilated them," said one former machine gunner, Norman Tinkler of Glasco, Kansas.

Almost unreported when it happened, the case is being investigated by the Pentagon and could join My Lai in the Vietnam War, where 500 civilians died, as one of two documented massacres of civilians by American troops during the 20th century.

Whatever the final truth about the incident, it is only one of many tales of horror produced by the Korean War, one of the bloodiest in history. In its blurring of the line between soldier and civilian-an estimated 3.5 million noncombatants were killed-the conflict foreshadowed the tragedy of Vietnam. Yet because the war was almost entirely forgotten as soon as it was over, few lessons were taken from it.

The Korean War had its roots in the end of World War II, in 1945, when Korea was divided roughly in half, with the Soviet Union controlling North Korea and the U.S. dominating the South.

Five years later, North Korea, believing that the U.S. would not defend the South, invaded. Within the first week, North Korea had captured a huge portion of the South, including the capital, Seoul. President Harry Truman ordered troops to Korea and persuaded the United Nations to condemn the invasion. Eventually, the U.S. contributed 500,000 soldiers to a UN force, which had small contingents from 15 other countries.

General Douglas MacArthur, the military commander, pushed the North Koreans back to their borders. But when MacArthur drove deep into North Korean territory, China, North Korea's Communist ally, sent 300,000 troops to aid the North Koreans. The Communist forces then marched back into South Korea and retook Seoul. Eventually, the Communists were driven back to the 38th parallel-the original dividing line.

The war ended on July 27,1953, in a truce which still holds uneasily today. More than 5 million people, including 34,000 Americans, had died.

--Peter Vilbig


Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea has been one of the most hostile, isolated nations on earth--and a sworn enemy of the U.S. So what was a notable North Korean diplomat doing in New York City this spring, opening the highest-level negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea in 50 years?

The answer may be that both countries now see advantages in seeking better relations. North Korea wants the U.S. to remove it from a list of nations that support terrorism--and hopes for plenty of U.S. financial aid to help boost its economy, one of the world's poorest. The U.S. hopes to get North Korea to drop any future tests of its developing ballistic-missile program. In 1998, a North Korean test missile flew over Japan, before plunging into a deserted stretch of ocean, raising fears that the country could mount a nuclear attack against Japan, or even, with slightly more powerful missiles, Hawaii or Alaska.

Skeptics question North Korea's motives. They say that North Korea only wants to improve relations long enough to keep its missile program out of the debate in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. "1 can't imagine North Korea trading away its program of weapons of mass destruction," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

But other observers say that North Korea's recent famines have driven home the need to develop its economy--something it can't do without aid. Says Park Young Ho of the Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul: "North Korea seems to have realized that it needs to have more relations with other countries in order to improve its own situation."

--Peter Vilbig

CALVIN SIMS is a Tokyo correspondent for The New York Times
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Author:Sims, Calvin
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:9NORT
Date:Apr 24, 2000
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