• Dispatch #2 •
The Demilitarized Zone, the final frontier of the Cold War that divides the two Koreas, is a multifaceted case of politics, history, art, and rich biodiversity.
We weren’t even there yet but we could already see North Korea through the bus windows on the highway.
From our distance, it didn’t look any different from the countryside of South Korea. We were on our way to visit the Demilitarized Zone, a military buffer in the middle of the Korean peninsula that divided it into two nations. It was formed as a result of the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, which ended the Korean War.
It was exciting to go to the DMZ, and then I felt weird to feel excited. Why rejoice at seeing a symbol of two countries’ division? Should one “enjoy” being in the DMZ? I felt odd in the same way I do when I see foreigners in my native Philippines wanting to look at extreme poverty because it was something they had never seen. (Apples and oranges, I know, yet sensitive issues nonetheless.)
When I was living in Seoul, there was a time when the threats of North Korea attacking the South became world news once again. My mother panicked and wanted me to withdraw from my art residency and go home, but then all my Korean friends told me to ignore it—as they have been for years. Indeed, no one seemed to be perturbed at the possibility of the North unleashing oceans of terror and destruction, and life went on in busy Seoul as usual.
Early in my stay in Korea, I went on several movie marathons of local cinema to fill me in on what I had gotten myself into this time. It was my fourth country to live in, but the one whose history and culture was the most mysterious. There was much to learn. When I ran out of movies by Kim Ki Duk and Park Chan-wook and others, eventually I found myself watching documentaries about North Korea, including those that featured Americans who had defected to the North, and North Koreans who had defected to the South. I attended talks of North Korean defectors, astounded at what they had suffered and that they managed to be in front of me.
And now I was finally here, feeling funny that a place that former US President Clinton once labeled as the “scariest place on earth” is now a popular tourist destination. Our bus guide was quite optimistic about Korean reunification, after warning us not to take photographs of certain spots.
Reaching our destination, the first thing I saw were the big DMZ letters that served not just as a label, but as a place for photographs. Where does one have a photo taken in a military border, and is it even polite to do so? With my friends, I sat at the diagonal of the letter Z, and promptly hit my head on the letter’s upper horizontal line. It served me right, I suppose.
Like most public places in Korea, the DMZ was lush with greenery. Near a pavilion where people could sit were Korean totem poles (jangseung), which provided an atmosphere of normality. I even saw some staff taking a lunch break, with their recognizable neon green bottles of makgeolli.
The fence that enclosed us was difficult to ignore. Meters of rusty barbed wire angrily entangled itself at the top. It was quite a symbol. The whole of the DMZ itself was only 4 km wide and extends all the way across Korea for a distance of about 250 km. If I stuck my hand through the fence, would I be touching forbidden air? I didn’t dare try. Every fifteen feet or so were small red signs that warned of landmines. We were not allowed to take photos at a certain point, and indeed, there were soldiers who would politely but firmly ask rule breakers to delete images.
Outside, the DMZ is a study in greens. From the brightly verdant bushes to the dark green military fatigues, to the emerald roof of one building that said “End of separation, beginning of unification”, these shades gave an air of solemnity to what could be mistaken as a theme park. There was a point when it really hit me that I was looking at North Korea through a fence.
The highlight of our immersive experience was when we rode what looked like a rollercoaster car down to the Third Infiltration Tunnel. It was the climax of the trip, and we had to wear helmets. Years ago, the South Korean government discovered four tunnels that were dug from North Korea that, had their construction continued, would have led to Seoul. There were possibly more. This part would let us experience what it would be like to be down there. I had been living there long enough to know that Korea is all about having a memorable experience. Indeed, most of my artist talks henceforth often talked about how a lot of my views about experience design were formed during my Korean residency. This ride ensured I was never going to forget this place.
The ride went on a downward slope through the tunnel. When it stopped, we got off and continued the journey on foot. It was chilly and damp, and some tourists with impractical shoes occasionally slipped. Imagine being a North Korean soldier digging the tunnel in this darkness. At the far end, there was a barricade where we could no longer go on, and instead we were treated to an opening several feet away. A trick of the light and one could imagine that there was a person on the other end. It was a relief to get out of there.
Looking at North Korea through a telescope
Outside, I gulped several breaths of fresh air and walked to the observation deck. For a few coins, I could use a telescope to look at Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Above us was a sign that told us what we could see. I had to take their word for it; the clouds obstructed our view and the city was just too far. Even with the telescopes it was difficult to distinguish what was supposed to be Kim Il Sung Square, though I could see certain mountains. I wondered if somewhere on the other side, there were people who also had their telescopes pointed at us? I wondered what they were thinking, if they thought our part of the world was just as strange and dangerous as we thought theirs was.
A piece of the fence
A gift shop sold interesting, sometimes tacky items, such as a piece of the DMZ fence for 32,000 won (about $29 USD), framed and ready for display. There were bottles of alcohol, including Kaesong Koryo Insam Wine. I had initially heard about the Kaesong Industrial Region, jointly run by the two Koreas, through a visiting artist who did a project where he had clothing manufactured there and had a fashion show afterwards. Near the bathrooms, a FIFA soccer ball was prominently displayed. These objects of “normality” added to the strangeness of it all.
Our final stop was Dorasan train station, which if finished, would have connected the Korean Peninsula with the Trans Siberian Railway. How easy shipping would be if Europe, Russia, and East Asia were connected.
Tourists can apply to ride this station; every few minutes, there were lots of them that came out. A sign for a potential outbound train for Pyongyang, further emphasized just how near we were to North Korea.
About a stone’s throw on my left was the Freedom Bridge, where South Korean and Allied POWs were traded. I was standing near a rusty bullet-ridden old train, whose operations stopped during the war and is now a Registered Cultural Heritage. There was a part of the fence that was held hundreds of colorful ribbons filled with messages of peace. It lent an air of hope in the otherwise sad place. There are many regular exhibitions, concerts, and creative endeavors that aspire for peaceful reunification of Korea.
The most interesting facet of the DMZ for me is the fact that that because it is for the most part free from human interference, this strip of land has become a refuge for rich wildlife. What is the “scariest place on earth” is also home to biodiversity that’s been untouched in 60 years. While I only saw a piece of it, there is a plethora of ecosystems that exist there, such as forests, mountains, rivers, coasts, and wetlands. How extraordinary to see birds flying out of trees, butterflies fluttering near landmine warnings, or anything that moved inside such forbidden territory and are now on the conservationists’ agenda. A video we watched in the DMZ auditorium said that there were cranes, wild boar, and other animals that reside there. I wonder about the palette that these animals could form if we were able to see them, and I wish that this oasis would be preserved if the two countries did reunite. One species’ military border became the home of a multitude of others. Don’t mind if we do.