Demilitarized Zone is a misnomer, in that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere in your travels more militarized than the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), between North and South Korea. Guns are everywhere. Barbed wire fencing stretches next to highways and rivers, through woods and over mountains. Lookout towers abound, with young soldiers stationed to watch for signs of imminent attack. Truckloads of these soldiers go up and down the roadways all day and night. Bunkers are carved into the sides of hills, and several concrete road bridges that you drive under are set with dynamite to be blown up at a moment’s notice, to delay tanks coming down from the north in an invasion. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war, which began on June 25, 1950 and lasted through July 27, 1953, at which time a cease-fire was agreed upon dividing the peninsula along the 38th parallel.
After three hours of traveling, we pull off the main road and wind our way through a small farming town up to the residency. Once through the gate we pass through a large field that has many different kinds of sculptures in it. The grounds are fairly small, having a few small buildings set on what appears to be three acres or so. There is also a large military tent set up which acts as a studio filled with welding equipment. After arriving, we meet the founder of the International Peace Art Residency at the Demilitarized Zone Jong Hae Park who is also the Dean at Kyung Hee University College of Fine Arts. He and Chang Jang bring us into he main building where we all sit on the floor for their introductions and instructions. The first thing we learn is never to wander off the grounds. We are only two kilometers from the border, and there are as many as 1.2 million land mines that are littered throughout the area of the DMZ. We all take this instruction very seriously.
I had already been in Korea since early December, as part of a three-month art residency program at the Gyeonggi Creation Center, which is located on Daebudo in the Yellow Sea, about 50 kilometers southwest of Seoul. The residency program at the Gyeonggi Creation Center gives, per year, live/work studios and a monthly stipend to approximately 25 Korean artists and 15 international artists. The Korean artists spend from six months to one year at the residency, and the international artists come for a three-month period of time.
It was while at the center that I, along with the other artists in residency, was invited up to the DMZ International Peace Art Residency for a two-day stay. On Wednesday, January 5, about 30 of us left Daebudo by bus for the three hour journey north to the border with North Korea. We passed by Seoul about an hour later, and then after another hour or so, we were told to look out the left side of the bus and we would actually see North Korea on the other side of the frozen river.
This was not my first time seeing the DMZ or North Korea, having been there about a month before, but that was the standard “Seoul to the DMZ” tour that you could pick up in Insadong, Hongik, Itaewon or just about anywhere else in the city. Although very interesting, and I would recommend it to anyone coming to South Korea, it is not the same as getting a very private inside look at life along the DMZ.
The DMZ International Peace Art Residency (DMZ I.P.A.R.) is brand new, having just opened on December 25, 2011. The pilot program ran though March 24 of this year. Mr. Park tells me, “The Contemporary Art Research Institute of Kyung Hee University has opened the residency to help realize the keen necessity from the worsening reality (of North and South Korea) causing the wound of a worldwide dispute through the division of the Korean peninsula.” Much like the Gyeonggi Creation Center, the DMZ I.P.A.R. gives artists a place and time to create art, which they do, often in relationship to the subject matter at hand.
After walking around the grounds for an hour, an outdoor barbecue was begun over an open fire pit. Mind you, the temperature had dropped by this time to -20°C. It was cold and dark now, but we all stood around the fire and cooked traditional Korean barbecue, which consisted of pork, garlic, kimchi, sweet potatoes and even more kimchi. As a vegetarian, my meal was mushroom, tofu and yes, kimchi. The drinks were macgulery, which is a fermented rice wine, beer and soju. Afterwards, drinking games were played until late in the evening, and when they were over, and all the men slept on the floor in one building and the women on the floor in another.
The next day we got up early and headed up to the border. Our first stop was the monument to The Battle of White Horse Ridge, or Baengma-goji, which was the scene of a very intense battle in 1952 that lasted for 10 days and produced 10,000 casualties. On the hill now stands a very tall monument that resembles two large, white wings. There is a Buddhist temple bell at the top of the hill as well. South Korean soldiers are stationed at the monument and not only maintain it, as well as act as liaison’s for visitors, but also are a line of defense as the barbed wire fencing and the North Korean border can be clearly seen crossing the valley below from the top of the hill.
From there we went to the former Headquarters of the Labor Party, which was built by the North Koreans before the war. It is now a bombed out building that stills stands, but at the time served as a place where Korean patriots were tortured and murdered. It is a gloomy site, indeed. We then drove to the ROKA 5th Infantry Division Key Observation Post where we sat down for a lecture by an army official who explained the history of the DMZ and the hopes for the future. Afterwards, several military men accompanied us as we were the first group ever to be allowed to actually walk a length of the fence. We were lead by three servicemen in the front, and another three followed behind us. The fence is formidable, and it is actually two fences side by side. Each is wired with electricity and topped with massive amounts of barbed wire that run the entire length of it. The terrain is difficult and hard to maneuver through. North Korea can be seen clearly past the No Man’s Land that separates the two countries.