Connecting the disconnect: A return to the DMZ

by Kris Adam Santos

I've had the privilege to visit many places all over the world, but there is no place in my adult life that has compelled my curiosity as much as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Its main attraction is the Joint Security Area (JSA), which allows a person to step into a small portion of North Korea.

Last summer I was not able to do this when I visited.

After I was given the opportunity to finally step into North Korea this summer, I was stumped to transcribe my experience into words. The very idea of trying to write a story had not come to fruition since my visit. For the past month I spent weeks on end trying to approach the topic with a certain grace. By grace, I mean attempting to translate its history as coherently as possible.

Before visiting the JSA in the DMZ, I've read many travel stories about the experience: ride a bus throughout the countryside (no photographs permitted); enter the blue conference room and cross into North Korea for a good few seconds (no pointing); take pictures with the guards (no touching); and gaze at the propaganda village Kijong-dong (no going). Sure these things are the typical experience that one would expect at a tour of a place so contained that the pointing of one finger could start a confrontation.

But it wasn't until today that put the whole experience into perspective.

When I learned news that Flight MH17 was tragically shot down [with reasons that will soon be investigated upon despite numerous speculation], it made me think about how fickle and unfortunate some things both in past and contemporary history have come to be. Surely, the events of what had happened with the division of North and South are different to the events of what to Flight MH17, but both have a similar thread connecting each other: one idea of travel means that an individual is reconnecting with someone or someplace.

For Flight MH17, many of the people that lost their lives were probably traveling to see their families or friends at the other side of the gate.

For the division between North and South, many families are separated and travel to see one another on certain conditions despite the political reasons that constrain them.

While I consider the events that have happened today, I would want to shift my attention to the events of yesterday: the history of division between North and South, which, keeping in mind, is generalized by what I learned from the tour guide.

The history has made me think about the whole reality of the DMZ, JSA, North Korea and South Korea, and all of that stuff that the media tends to portray in certain reports. One of the few ways to understand the situation is to scratch at the surface of history.

Created in 1953, 3 years after the Korean War, the DMZ was created to prevent the reoccurrence of war. Despite its inception and name, it is still one of the most militarized zones in modern history. If one is able to visit Dora Observatory, another destination in the area, it is highly advised to use one of the mounted binoculars past the yellow photography line. Once you stare into the vast field that is North Korea, the eerie sense that you are being watched will more or less emerge.

Continuing on, the JSA, the main center of attraction, sits at the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Characterized as a neutral area after the war, due to the Korean Armistice Agreement through a ceasefire, the area was designated as an inter-military complex where some of the first war conferences between the North and the South were conducted. On the tour, no conferences were being conducted although I imagined how tense the energy must have been during the JSA's inception. The tour guide mentioned that sometimes deliberation would get to the point where no one get up to use the restroom.

Despite neutrality, an incident on August 18th, 1976 dubbed the “Axe Murder Incident” occurred, which may have escalated the brink of tension. In a nutshell, South Korean workers were attacked with axes by a couple of North Korean soldiers. Such an event reminds me that something as little as senseless violence could start a war.

The general history of the DMZ's creation and the establishment of the JSA goes beyond just what the tour has offered. It provides a peek at the tensions that existed during the Korean War and the postwar years to come, which I recommend to any person that wants to comprehend the complexity brought forth by the division between North and South.

Which leads to my next question: Where does reunification fit into the bigger picture?

The idea of reunification becomes an even bigger question mark while considering contemporary Korean society – an opinion I am limited to due to what little time I have spent in this country. Many remain skeptical to the idea of it due to the complexity of reunification: the unification of two different economic systems; the compromise of political power between a democratic South and totalitarian North; and the coexistence of the Northern and Southern population.

Those that abide to the hope of reunification might refer to the example of Eastern and Western Germany to justify the inevitable events. If history repeats itself, then the reunification between North and South could be the next fall of the Berlin Wall.

But as history progresses, the very fact remains – there are two sides of the story.

As the tour came to a close I observed the scene outside the window. For the past few hours I had been subjected to the lush countryside, where nature is the apparatus to human construction. Upon arriving towards the bridge that connected to the city, which revealed Seoul in its architectural magnificence, I wondered how far human construction had come since the days when all people had to rely on were the fruits of nature.

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