The DMZ at 70

Matthew Longo reflects on the surreal experience of the DMZ, where borders create both division and unity.

The DMZ at 70

IT IS SUMMER 2023 and I am on a tour of the DMZ—the Demilitarized Zone, which separates North from South Korea—organized by the South Korean government. The name is misleading: the DMZ is one of the most militarized places on earth. And yet, upon arrival I am confronted not with soldiers and tanks but with carnivalesque merriment, a circumstance at once unsettling and strange.


At Imjingak Park, located at the edge of the restricted zone, we spill out into a tourist marketplace overflowing with #DMZ souvenirs and Instagrammable border oddities. The Freedom Bridge, once used to exchange prisoners but now a stump, is framed by cartoon cutouts of border authorities. A bit further in, a pasture of pinwheels spells out DMZ in blue, yellow, and red.


An amusement park features a ride called the Super Viking, which careens on its axis to great fanfare. This, it seems to me, is a perfect metaphor for the DMZ: a festive battleship, swinging garishly in place.


The Korean War ended on July 27, 1953—this past year marked its 70th anniversary. The DMZ was established as a ceasefire line drawn on the 38th parallel; it was intended to be temporary.


Later in the tour, we reach an observatory with state-of-the-art stadium seating from which you can see a giant North Korean flag soaring just a bit higher than its South Korean counterpart. Also visible is an imitation North Korean village and a radio-jamming tower. It is a “cold war,” but a noisy one, as the parties blast propaganda at one another. Like sparring siblings, the two sides speak in codes difficult for outsiders to decipher, arguing loudly enough so everyone can hear.


On the roof deck, our guide quips that photos of North Korea come out best if taken from a Samsung.


As a foreigner—even one who has spent years studying borders—I find the DMZ hard to parse. How do we explain this tension between form and function? And what politics does such a dividing line engender or conceal? It is an odd, exceptional place. And yet, there is something relatable about it too. Even from that first trip to the border, I had the sense that somewhere behind this clamorous, kitsch façade was a clue to some broader political truth—about the contradictions inherent to all dividing lines, perhaps; a rule, which but for the exception, we might fail to recognize or comprehend.


In my effort to make sense of the DMZ, I have turned to South Korean poetry, where themes of boundaries and separation predominate. This is true in works by Korean American poets written in English, including Don Mee Choi’s National Book Award–winning DMZ Colony (2020), as well as translated ones such as Han Kang’s The White Book (English tr. Deborah Smith, 2017) and recent National Book Critics Circle Award–winner Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death (English tr. Don Mee Choi, 2018). These works portray a painful but revealing history—not just about the DMZ, but about our own boundaries too.


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All borders are political constructs, usually forged through war and built up by dispassionate, distant hands. But rarely is this so clearly on display as at the DMZ, where the artifice of division is unavoidable. Choi’s DMZ Colony starts with an image: a sketch of the border and nothing else—an abstraction of politics down to the essential dividing line, which she calls “the waist of a nation.” This moniker is polemical: Korea is one nation, it suggests, partitioned in the middle. Themes of borders and coloniality structure the book: first, Korea was divided by imperial powers—the Japanese, then the United States and Soviet Union—and now, she intimates, the Korean people are colonized by the DMZ.


Choi’s project in DMZ Colony is to use interviews and translation work to articulate the cost of this division. To get to the core, as one of her interlocutors puts it, of “a country that’s not a country, a divided country.”


In a poem called “The Orphans,” Choi imagines the voices of girls left without families after the war. Orphans—model citizens of a country-less country, of a place colonized by its boundary. Orphan Kim Gyeong-nam (age 16) revisits the burning of bodies in mass graves, a vision of war that haunts her: “I couldn’t put out the flames / Father sizzled and cracked […] In a dream I chew and chew Mother’s hair.” Orphan Kim Seong-rye (age 15): “I saw countless charred bodies. I saw rows and rows of corpses. / A year later on a rainy summer day I heard cries from the pit. Oblong oblong. / I saw ghosts floating about in the forest. They circled and circled me.”


Dreams and ghosts. The scars of violence past. Orphaning is a brutal artifact of war—all war—but as Choi shows us, this is especially true of those that end in division. In this case, the orphaning happens twice: first the severing of the living from the dead, then the separation of one people from another.


With the Koreas, there is the added indignity that the line was drawn by outside powers. Playing on the Korean translation of the United States as “miguk” or “beautiful country” and Vietnam War–era slang that Asians are “gooks,” Choi summarizes the power asymmetry in an equation: “(America) (=) (Beauty) (=) (Me=Gook).” She can never be anything but the colonized subject, she tells us. Or as she puts it: orphan. “We are all orphans, orphans who aren’t orphans,” she writes. “Angels who aren’t angels.”


These idioms—the orphan and the angel—are apposite for a community ravaged by war and division. They are at once beings and nonbeings, substance and absence: “In reality, we were all angels from DMZ. We too mingled, laughed, and played under the skies of Panmunjom.”


When she was a child, Choi’s father showed her a photograph of North and South Korean journalists gathered together at the diplomatic site of Panmunjom, located deep within the Demilitarized Zone. Once, such a communion was possible, despite the partition line. But now this is gone. All that remains are neocolonial forces: the DMZ, the boundary that colonizes them.


Choi renders the DMZ as a dreamscape, a haunting. These themes recur in Han Kang’s The White Book, which chronicles Kang’s experience living in an unnamed European city, where she finds herself confronted with the ghosts of Korea’s violent history.


In an early passage, Kang takes a walk and becomes overcome by reminiscence: “Why do old memories constantly drift to the surface, here in this unfamiliar city? […] The more vivid these unlooked-for fragments, the more oppressive their weight.” This place, too, has a complicated World War II past—it was 95 percent obliterated (she reports). In the poem “White City,” she remarks that all the things she observes had once been dead, now rebuilt from the broken bones of war: “Where a pillar or perhaps the lower part of a wall happens to have survived, it has been incorporated into the new structure. The boundaries which separate old from new, the seams bearing witness to destruction, lie conspicuously exposed.”


Rather than be repelled by the brutality of these devasted structures, Kang finds herself drawn to them. In “Spirit,” she wonders whether “the souls of this city sometimes drift to the wall where they were once gunned down.” Such is the magnetism of histories of violence. Kang certainly feels it—the pull of the past, the drift. Standing there in this foreign city, walking about, she discovers her own country’s legacy of violence affixed to her—an architecture of ruins buried beneath live flesh. She describes her spirit in much the same terms as the destroyed-then-rebuilt city. It is “like the remaining section of a ruined brick wall, which the bombing had not managed to destroy completely, since moved and incorporated into another structure.”


For Kang, like Choi, the remnants of the past remain nestled into the bodies of the present. The DMZ—a memory, a scar; the ruin of a wall, built upon rather than cleared away. Something that lies dormant in the backlands of the psyche, but which is always, somehow, there.


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Borders—all borders—structure the worldviews of their subjects: the dividing line is what gives the nation its shape. But at the DMZ, the circumstance is more complicated: the boundary line cleaves along an axis not of difference but of sameness. North and South Koreans are not two discrete peoples but a single people (with a shared language and culture) divided by a border forged by occupying powers. This is part of the reason matters of identity cut so deep on the peninsula. It also explains, I think, why the #DMZ experience is so showy: it is an effort to cleave difference from the cloth of similarity, to convince people of a reality that doesn’t naturally obtain.


And so, while in some ways the DMZ is a border like any other, it’s also something else entirely: it doesn’t just enforce division but also creates, performs, and maintains it.


Questions of identity—how self and otherhood are shaped by separation—are central to Kim Hyesoon’s Autobiography of Death, which narrates a woman’s death through 49 poems. In Korean tradition (as in Buddhism, broadly) this is the number of days the soul roams free before it is reincarnated. Kim was born in 1955, right after the Korean War, into a world inhabited by ghosts.


Like Choi, Kim homes in on the figure of the orphan. Kim’s domain is mainly spiritual—death is the orphaning of the soul from the body—but political undertones are everywhere present. The Korean War caused a separation between former kin. These are people who became each other’s “other,” even as they once comprised a common self. In her poem “Name: Day Forty-Two,” Kim describes kindred souls—lovers—meeting one another again in death: “Your dead lover wants to meet you […] for a brief moment. Just wants to see your face.”


Geopolitics is not mentioned by name in this reunion of former intimates, but an image of the two Cold War titans—the United States and Soviet Union—easily manifests when she describes warring whales: “You walk beneath the sea and see your lover […] several meters beneath the sea two whales are having a bloody fight.” The poem closes with a note of impossibility: one can neither separate from one’s former lover nor reunite with them.


In “Lunar Eclipse: Day Twelve,” the once-familiar remanifests as fear: “You heard a familiar voice […] You were afraid that an unknown face might appear in the toilet water, in the mirror. You wondered whether terror comes before sorrow.”


Once a border is drawn, and otherness is cut from the fabric of sameness, what can there be but tangled emotions? One of Kim’s favored metaphors is a frontier that demarcates a past to which one cannot return. Freedom, she seems to say—drawing on familiar mythological tropes—is only possible by letting go of what came before. This theme reemerges in “Underworld: Day Forty-Five”: “The dead running toward the path to the underworld // turn into stone pillars when they look back and their eyes meet their past.”


Such a history, which draws you backwards, is reminiscent of Kang’s description of how souls feel a pull to the wall where they were gunned down. But is escape from the past—freedom, as per Kim—even possible? How can one flee something woven into the fabric of the self? Kim is writing about Korea and its violent division, but on this point she might as well have been describing any border—any institution that structures the identity of its subjects. Which is to say, politics itself.


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On a second trip to the DMZ, I visit the east coast of the country—far from the well-touristed stretches by Seoul. The security rigmarole here is similar, but the feeling is different: there are fewer circus elements; the message has changed too. It feels conciliatory.


Our first stop is the Goseong Unification Observation Tower. Its name is revealing: the thing being observed, it suggests, is not division but (re)unification. A sign above a community note board reads: “[The DMZ] runs completely across the peninsula! Write down a hopeful message to heal the wounds of division.” In one room, there is a game for children: cardboard cutouts of the Korean peninsula, with a movable DMZ placed on top. You can take away the barbed wire and performatively reunite the peninsula (or, of course, relocate it somewhere else).


Near the observatory is a museum, replete with a slab of the Berlin Wall. A video installation narrates Germany’s division after World War II through reunification in 1990, suggesting something similar might be possible with the Koreas. Above one display are the words “DMZ is dreaming again.”


At first blush, these two experiences at the DMZ are hard to reconcile: in the tourist crush outside Seoul, the message is one of antagonism; out east, it is of unity. But on another level, the duality makes perfect sense. The DMZ has two countervailing mandates: to convince people that the dividing line is natural and necessary, while at the same time leaving open the possibility that it may one day be erased. The noisy militarism, the touristic excess—these features spin out from this essential tension. As the South Korean poets made manifest, the politics of identity on the peninsula is byzantine. It takes a lot of political acrobatics to make it seem otherwise.


But the DMZ is interesting for another reason as well. In being so extreme—so spectacular—it illuminates aspects of our own borders that we might not otherwise notice, contradictions that inhere in our politics too. In the contemporary United States, we fall quickly into the language of borders-as-separation as though this is the natural way of things—that we exist on this side of a line, and they exist on the other. But of course, languages and cultures and peoples don’t work this way. Borders are never actually “natural.” They all, in some way, perform a difference shaped by politics.


This is certainly how it is on the US-Mexico border. In our public discourse, the language of division predominates. “Let’s build a wall!” Trump hectored. “And make Mexico pay for it!” The rhetoric is familiar: us/them, in/out, friend/enemy. But at the border itself, one encounters something different: the constant intermixing of families and trade, twin cities with matching names—Laredo and Nuevo Laredo; Sonora and Sonora. In fact, all of the American Southwest was Mexico once. And many Mexican families in the United States have existed unmoved and unchanged for generations. “We didn’t cross the border,” they often say. “The border crossed us.”


So maybe the DMZ isn’t so exceptional after all. Maybe all borders exist in this realm of staging and performance, the complex interweaving of sameness and difference. This, I take it, is what the South Korean poets were trying to tell us. Borders colonize us. They cleave selfhood from otherness, at once familiar and terrifying. They become part of us, even as we try to be free of them. They pull us in.


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Featured image: Kim Hong-do. Songhamaenghodo (“Tiger under the pine tree”), ca. 18th century. CC0, Ho-Am Art Museum. Accessed June 29, 2024. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Matthew Longo is assistant professor of political science at Leiden University. He is the author of two books: The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain (W. W. Norton, 2023), which won the 2024 Orwell Prize for Political Writing, and The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security, and the Citizen After 9/11 (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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