International Writers Magazine: 38th Parallel
- LIVE AND DIRECT FROM THE 38th PARALLEL
Aidan O Donoghue
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
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
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
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
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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