The International Writers Magazine: 38th Parallel

Aidan O’ Donoghue

The great allure of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is the fact that it offers visitors a rare taste of the forbidden. Four kilometres wide and running the two-hundred and forty eight kilometres from coast to coast, it epitomises the huge gulf that separates a once united nation. Tours of the area are informative and insightful with respect to the tragic history of these estranged countries, yet what really captures the imagination is the sense that it is a place where all aspects of life are determined by what is not permitted.

Stepping into this world the visitor is afforded many glimpses, but the curiosity that these awaken is never truly satisfied. Day-trippers are prohibited from taking photographs outside of strictly defined 'designated areas'. They cannot interact with the many soldiers they encounter and hand gestures of any kind are actively discouraged. The soldiers themselves, who engage in a daily standoff at the 'truce village' of Panmunjeom (located within the U.N Joint Security Area) face the prospect of being court marshalled should they be discovered conversing with the enemy.

The only civilians to be seen within the zone are the inhabitants of Daeseong-dong, a traditional village with a population of between two and three hundred. Their housing is subsidized and they are exempt from both consription and taxation. The price they pay in return is that they accept the abnormality of their environment and are in their homes with the doors locked by 11p.m. Arable land is plentiful around here but much of it is off-limits to the villagers because of landmines.

The highlight of the tour is of course North Korea itself. Where the southern side of the DMZ ends four kilometers of no-mans-land begin. It is the exclusive domain of many rare species of plants and animals, thriving in the absence of human interference. Beyond this stretch lies North Korea.

In the middle of a vast open expanse, there flies in the distance a North Korean flag weighing 270 kilogrammes atop a pole measuring 157.5 metres - the tallest of its kind in the world. Situated at the centre of what appears to be a village, it serves as a testament to the fact that the North Korean leadership can be quite adept when it comes to announcing themselves.

And yet the settlement itself serves no purpose other than being there purely for show. It does not have a population and the buildings don't even have windows. The lights are turned on at night but there is nobody home nonetheless. It came to be when the North decided that if the South Koreans were entitled to have a village within the DMZ, well then they were too.

The first real traces of inhabited North Korea lie farther back, its third largest city Kaesong nestled at the foot of a rugged and imposing mountain range. One is inclined to wonder about how life is led there and what kind of atmosphere pervades. And yet it cannot be known, for it lies within the forbidden zone that is the northern half of Korea. Kaesong must remain an enigma for now, its magnetic power only increased by virtue of its inability to reveal itself to us.

The symbolic nature of the DMZ is manifold, dividing as it does territories, people, militaries and ideologies. All of the elements which contribute to the enmity between the two countries can be located here - fear, distrust, loss, arrogance, defiance, stubbornness, isolation. The strictest regulations prevail in a place where suspicion abounds, impulse can be fatal, and taboo is the hidden hand imposing order on all things.

Outside of the demilitarized zone things change as rapidly as ever; from threats, to sanctions, to tentative talks and the possibility of six-party negotiations. The South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun's position becomes more uncertain by the day. A new Prime Minister takes office in Japan. And in the United States, the political climate begins to shift while the government's foreign policy strategy becomes increasingly muddled.

We remain in the dark when it comes to conditions - political or otherwise - in North Korea. No doubt they will continue to keep others guessing, periodically alluding to their military might and demanding the respect that they crave so badly.

The unpredictable nature of this political situation safeguards the legitimacy of the DMZ as a buffer zone for the foreseeable future. It shall remain a constant in the Korean penninsula, devoid of outward emotion and unswerving in its inscrutability. While the soldiers go on with their routines and the people of Daeseong-dong till their ancestral lands, the tour buses keep rolling in past the checkpoints, their passengers enthralled by the prospect of flirting with the forbidden.
© Aidan O' Donoghue December 2006

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