By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It’s a weird ritual. In the deserted zone that surrounds the border between North and South Korea, a nightly encounter takes place between the military of the two nations.
“Every night, troops go up (through) the barbed wire and face off against each other,” said Dr. Joe Manzo, professor of geography at Concord University. “Then every morning, about dawn, they withdraw to their own side.”
Manzo has many stories about the Korean peninsula, having visited South Korea on three occasions as part of a student-exchange program between Concord and Kangwon National University.
On a field trip with students to the South Korean area of the “Demilitarized Zone,” they viewed the barbed wire stretching across a “no-man’s land” on the border.
As they arrived in the area, they were warned that still cameras and video recorders were not to be used.
“There was barbed wire in front of what looked like a guest house at first glance. Of course, it wasn’t,” he said.
He has seen where North Korea reportedly tried to dig three tunnels into the south.
“The North Koreans were tunneling under a mountain,” Manzo said. “They (South Korean authorities) detected them when they saw smoke coming up from the ground.”
To view the tunnels, he said, “We took a train car into a cave, that ended at this wall. They had cemented it up.”
Manzo said he is not an expert on the Koreas, but had observations based on having been in South Korea and having talked with people in universities there.
“They really like us,” he said about relations with the United States. “The South Koreans like us.”
“They know their life is good,” he said. The capital of South Korea, Seoul, “is such a thriving, upbeat kind of place.”
Their economy almost completely escaped the deep recession that battered economies in America and most of the world beginning in 2008, he said.
“It’s a highly competitive economy,” he said. “They’ve kind of taken the theory of our (economic) system and turned it into reality.”
However, he said, there are reminders of the deprived, hungry, poor times that the nation endured years ago.
“There are still a lot of elderly who remember the hard times,” Manzo said. “Many of them are stooped over ... because of the diets they didn’t have. That generation is passing.”
He said that while in South Korea he talked to a college student from China who was granted permission to study in South Korea only after competing for the assignment with “what might be several hundred students.”
“We don’t think of South Korea as the ‘in’ place,” Manzo said, but to many in China, that nation’s prosperity is envied. “Economically, the Koreans are right where (they) want to be,” he said.
He was told that since North Koreans cannot simply move south to live, some go north into China in an effort to make their way to a better life. That usually does not work out well.
“They want to get out (of North Korea) if they can,” Manzo said. “They can end up being human trafficking victims,” he said. “Sometimes it’s like indentured servitude ... and it takes a long time to work your way out of that.”
The reclusive government of North Korea is now, at least officially, controlled by Kim Jong Un, the third generation of his family to hold power there.
“In order to keep it going in the family, they had to be particularly subservient to the military,” Manzo said. “It’s those military guys who kind of point the direction.”
He said that although South Korea has armed forces, “We’re their military. ... I think they don’t see themselves as being able to stave off an attack by North Korea.” The military of North Korea, he said, “is huge — and so is the amount of resources” they devote to it.
Despite the danger brought about by tensions between the two Korean governments, there are many American students abroad who look at South Korea, and Japan, as an opportunity to teach English abroad.
Even a 14-day summer exchange program like that in which Concord participates can open doors and create bonds.
Manzo said, “They go to class every day. They study economics, Korean history, Korean language. They find out about Korean music, Korean cooking.” They also tutored English studies with local students.
He said, “Our students go to class with Russian, Chinese and Thai students. That was great for them. They found they had similar interests. They played cards together in the dorms. They ate together, they traveled together ... .”
He said once the exchange program ends, “Then technology kicks in.” Students continue to communicate via Facebook and other social media.
Concord students earn three more hours of credit by taking a class on Asia after their return to campus, he said. South Korean students have attended Concord as well.
In December 2009, Manzo and a Concord business professor from South Korea, Dr. He-Boong Kwon, traveled across the Pacific to lay the groundwork for the outreach with Kangwon National University. Kwon is no longer at Concord.
— Contact Tom Bone at