Comfortable Wall, Uncomfortable Peace
The Armistice Line, drawn near the 38th parallel by the end of the Korean War in 1953, created a demilitarised zone (DMZ) that remains today as one of the most militarised zones in the world. Did this line bring peace to the peninsula? For those who regard divorce as an ideal condition for resolving conflicts, yes, the DMZ might have achieved its aim to some extent. But for those who want to reach peace by rebuilding their broken relationship, no, it failed to do so. Instead, the defensive architecture – expressed through the DMZ’s fences and buffer zone – has led to a gradual construction of a collective “us versus them” narrative, deeply engraved into the public perception.
Unification had been an unquestioned wish for Korean people, taking pride in their nation’s ethnic homogeneity, han-minjok (“one Korean race”). The sense of Korean unity dates back to the seventh century with the rise of the first consolidated kingdom called Unified Silla. The geographical boundaries fluctuated but the peninsula came to symbolise the continuity of the Korean homeland. The repeated foreign invasions, the Japanese occupation in the early twentieth century in particular, only reinforced the Korean identity. It is therefore not surprising that after the partition the idea of reunification was widely endorsed and the unity of the Korean nation promoted through folklore, school activities, social events, media, and elite narratives.
From sameness to otherness
However, more than half a century after the construction of the DMZ the rationale behind reunification – “we are one people” – seems to be fading away. Moulded by economic and cultural globalisation, shielded by US military protection, and against the general background of antagonistic American foreign policy guidelines towards North Korea, South Korean youth today increasingly project a sense of otherness onto the North. Deprived for decades from daily interactions and direct communication with those they once considered as fundamentally the “same” they have come to construe them as alien.
When it comes to the North, it is more difficult to grasp how the current generation behind the wall perceives the South, given the strict censorship. Recent research* has uncovered that there are various underground channels through which information gradually flows in and out of North Korean society. According to the increasing number of North Korean defectors, North Koreans are more and more exposed to variety shows, Korean dramas, K-pop music, movies or books, widely circulated via black markets. This provides them with narratives on the South other than the one delivered by the government-monopolised TV channel in the North featuring South Korea as a militarily oppressed colony of the United States.
The peace house meeting
It is under this “two states and quasi two nations” atmosphere that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met at the Peace House, located inside the DMZ, to sign the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula in April 2018. Rarely have political analysts imagined that we would witness, during our lifetime, such a moment in which the two leaders step over the demarcation line hand in hand. Sports diplomacy and the creation of a unified Korean team for the Winter Olympics earlier this year certainly contributed to this momentum. Nonetheless, the unified team was poorly received by public opinion in the South. But the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Committee has welcomed the idea of a unified team, which will provide another opportunity to test public perception on the matter. Only the future will tell whether the ongoing process of détente is going to go down in history as the gateway to peace or war.
As symbolic as it may be, the Moon-Kim crossing-the-border meeting attracted the world attention back to one of the last vestiges of the Cold War, the DMZ. According to data from the (South) Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), the amount of tourists visiting the DMZ increased by 30% since the inter-Korean summit.
With the support of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, KTO announced a new project, “DMZ Peace Tourism”, to celebrate the Korean peace declaration, epitomising a political commitment to turn the unnatural state of armistice into a peace treaty. Music festivals, museum exhibitions and fashion shows were held, inviting international artists to share their vision on DMZ and peace. Some universities expressed their regret for having abolished the department of North Korean studies as a consequence of decreasing student enrolment. This sudden rise of interest in the DMZ ironically reveals the extent to which a public mood of indifference has prevailed over time. “I feel ashamed. Both North and South Korean youth are now faced with new information, new stories and a new reality that will reshape their visions of the DMZ and how to transcend it To be honest, I never felt it to be real. Until today, words such as unification or North Korea belonged to a different world far from me”, confessed a South Korean youth in a famous television programme featuring a cast members’ visit to DMZ for the first time in Korean broadcasting history.** While watching Moon’s third summit with Kim on live TV in front of Seoul City Hall in September 2018, a 17-year-old girl said, “It is unbelievable to see the two leaders’ meeting as I have only learned about the North from books. It looks like the reunification may really happen.”***
The 65-year-old demilitarised zone has provided us with a comfort zone. As long as it stays, there is no burning need to deeply think of “what if the moment comes?” But both North and South Korean youth are now faced with new information, new stories and a new reality that will reshape their visions of the DMZ and how to transcend it. Working for peace is uncomfortable. It requires us to constantly stay inside the world of discord, not to run away from it but to continue searching for answers even when the situation seems forlorn. Making the wall uncomfortable and peace comfortable depends on whether we are willing to commit to the laborious process of constructing peace and overcoming past divisions. The Korean wall therefore is profoundly paradoxical as it both constitutes a daunting obstacle to peace but also a tangible remnant encouraging us to take our individual role for peace seriously.
Fact Sheet: The Korean DMZ
Origin: in the Armistice Agreement of 27 July 1953, the DMZ was created as each side agreed to move their troops 2,000 m (2,200 yards) back from the front line, creating a 4-km-wide (2.5-mi-wide) buffer zone.
Size: the DMZ is 250 km long and about 4 km wide.
Cost: not known.