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Reflections on the DMZ: A scarred land

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2009 - One of the first images that confronted me upon arriving in Korea came at the Demilitarized Zone. It was a sculpture comprised of a group of Koreans of various ages trying (unsuccessfully) to push together two large halves of a divided globe.

Embossed on the inside of each cleft was a map of South and North Korea respectively. That image represents an accurate and disturbing vision of the world that has been bifurcated since the Korean War, and which is very much in the news today. This world was begotten by the so-called "Forgotten War," a war many younger people in the west were unaware of until quite recently as Kim Jong Il began his recent missile testing program.

I am here for a conference entitled " 'The End of the World as We Know It': War, Representation, and Memory," organized by Washington University's Center for the Humanities and its director, Gerald Early, and the Yonsei University of Seoul, South Korea.

There was considerable speculation, in view of the North's recent nuclear tests, whether we would go to the DMZ or indulge in a less potentially dangerous "Spa Day." The decision to go to the DMZ was made just hours before our arrival in Seoul and was apparently made on the basis of the conference participants from Washington U. I am very pleased it turned out as it did. Our visit to the DMZ was terribly illuminating about this all-too-disturbing problem of a crazed, megalomaniac dictator brandishing real and not (as with Saddam Hussein) imaginary nuclear weapons.

We visited four things: the Imjingang Park, the Infiltration Tunnel, the Watching Tower and the train station. Doesn't sound that stimulating, does it? But it was.

The visit is like watching two decades collide: the 1950s and the 2000s. At the park, which is almost like a DMZ theme park, replete with garishly colorful letters spelling out D-M-Z topped with a larger-than-life helmet and yellow barbed wire, we watched a South Korean propaganda film on North Korea that felt like a jingoistic World War II newsreel updated with glitzy, state-of-the-art production values.

Everything here is extremely sophisticated technologically: For example, the lights go on and off in our hotel rooms by motion sensors, and the desk lamp by which I am writing this is operated by touch. There is no button to press or turn.

At the Infiltration Tower, we took a long ride deep into the earth in what resembled the cars at Disney Land or an old fashioned Tunnel of Love. But this was no amusement park: It was the third of four discovered tunnels dug by North Korean prisoners, by hand, as a means of infiltrating the South.

These secret tunnels were discovered in 1974, '75, '78, and '90, and no one knows how many more there are -- some estimate another 20 or so! The tunnels were fashioned to allow the infiltration and eventual invasion of the South.

I elected to walk back up with some of the members of our group. And after about 250 meters, I realized it was a mistake. The walk was nearly vertical, and I was exhausted at the end. We all wore hard hats during our stay in the tunnel to protect our heads, and the South Korean student who accompanied us asked if I kept banging my head against the top of the tunnel simply to make her laugh. I assured her that was not the case.

The DMZ itself is on the 38th Parallel. It is 2.5 miles wide and 155 miles long. Curiously, since there are no inhabitants there, it has developed its own ecosystem with elk, goats, Chinese geese and something called black-faced spoonbill. These species are only found at the DMZ. Who knew that the last remnant of the Cold War would prove ecologically friendly?

At the Watching Tower we were able to see past the barbed wire fences into North Korea. A short ways off is a factory that is completely subsidized by the South Koreans, and a "Ghost Village" that is completely empty, but filled with the sounds of radios persuading North Koreans that life in the North is sheer bliss.

After the Watchtower, we visited the train station, perhaps the most bizarre site on the entire trip. You think visiting a train station is dull business, right? But no, this is fascinating because the Dorasan Train Station (begun in 2000, completed in 2002) has never been and probably never will be used.

It was built in a brief, idealistic moment of thawed relations between the South and North, during the time of the so-called Sunshine Policy. The station has this inscription in large letters overhead:

"Not the last station from the South,
But the first station for the North."

However, what it, in fact, represents is a monument to reunification of the two Koreas which seems more distant now than ever, and, as one colleague on our tour noted, there is only one set of tracks in the accompanying image, not two. At Dorasan Station, there are windows for train schedules and information, departure lounges, platforms, ticket counters, none of which is actually used. The station is a monument, like much else, to an idealistic fantasy land. And as Kim Il Jong's saber rattling continues and he names his young successor, Dorasan is likely to be more theme park than train station for the foreseeable future.

Henry I. Schvey is professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis.