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University of Dayton Magazine
Kate Strittmatter is from Monticello, Iowa. She graduated with a history degree from the University of Dayton in May 2012. She teaches English at an elementary school n Hwacheon, South Korea.

9 miles to the DMZ

7:55 AM  Apr 18th, 2013
by Kate Strittmatter ’12

Have you ever been late for work because you have been stuck behind a slow-moving tank? I have. A couple of times.

Eight months ago, I moved to the quiet, military town of Hwacheon in the Gangwon-do Province of South Korea to teach English in a local elementary school. This small town of 6,000 people has been thrust to the front line of an international crisis as the North Korean rhetoric continually threatens the South. We are only 9 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, from which soldiers from the opposing countries have stared menacingly at each other for 60 years.

The military presence in Hwacheon has clearly increased. On a walk from my apartment to the grocery store, soldiers are ever-present with machine guns strapped around their shoulders. Tanks move freely about the town, which makes the already congested streets more difficult to maneuver. Even my school has adapted, delaying the start of class when a school bus is stuck behind a column of slow-moving tanks.

Although I awake daily to emails from uneasy family and friends, the South Koreans are unintimidated by the North Korean nuclear threats. Farmers continue to tend their crops, shops stay open until dark and children still practice taekwondo after school. They appear desensitized to the North’s frequent provocations and merely accept them as the price of sharing the same peninsula with a fanatical North Korean dictatorship.

On April 9, North Korea advised that all 1.4 million foreigners living in South Korea should evacuate. The U.S. State Department issued a release stating that those living or traveling in South Korea need not take these special precautions. On April 10, Pentagon officials stated their belief that North Korea is planning to launch one or more ballistic missiles from its east coast. So here I remain, fighting my own battles with my students over learning nouns, verbs and adjectives, in English, of course.

Despite the state of affairs, South Koreans are extremely optimistic for the future. Many hope for unification of the two countries. One co-worker told me that “North Korea has more fear than South Korea. Maybe in the future North Korea and South Korea can unite, but not now.” I hope he’s right.

Crowd gathers to listen to street musicians in Hwacheon, South KoreaA solider stands at a post in Hwacheon, South Korea.

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