DMZ: Drawing the Line

DMZ: Drawing the Line[1]

[text by Jan Mun - Spring 2010]

My earliest memory takes place when I was three years old, in Seoul, Korea, going to buy candy, crossing a construction site and getting cut on the barbwire fence. The sharp wire tore through the green dress I loved to wear and left a two and a half inch scar on the right side of my chest. I know this is my own memory and not one reconstructed from stories told to me, like so many of my other memories, because I was alone. I can still see the concrete blocks of the new building going up next to my house and recall the child’s logic of going straight through the barbwire fence rather than walking around like my mother did; that way was twice the distance.

Shortly after the scaring incident, my family moved to the United States. This memory keeps me connected to the country I was born in but do not really know. It keeps me returning to this foreign country, where faces that resemble my own greet me at the airport with hugs and tears. Meanwhile, the scar, which marked my body through puberty as my breasts grew, and was still there later as an adult, has faded. I try to locate it but I can no longer see it. My body has healed, as the skin cells grew to correct the scar after so many years, without me noticing.

Like the scar on my body, Korea has a scar on its landscape, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the gap between the two Koreas, one of the last artifacts of the Cold War. The DMZ is a manmade border, 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, of diverse terrain delineated by the Korean War. In 1953, an agreement stopped the fighting but did not end the War. Since then, the DMZ has been the most heavily militarized area in the world—some two million soldiers guard both sides. It is also the most well preserved natural habitat in the world. Endangered species—including, some say, the rare Korean tiger—have found refuge here. Nature has reclaimed the land ironically afforded by the human intervention, war. The greatest risk to its survival is peace.

Korea’s land and culture has been consumed by progress. 20th-century Korea has served as a Petri dish for our contemporary globalized world, demonstrating the results of war, advanced technology, mass consumption, and a breakdown of traditional customs. Starting the century with 35 years of Japanese occupation, the country initiated the division at the end of World War II, into the Korean War, and it is still ongoing. South Korea has become the space to start over, modeled after the Western ideals of prosperity, knowledge and freedom.[2] It is now one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.

My own connections to Korea are limited, but its history is my family’s history, and thus it personifies me. My late father rarely spoke about growing up during the Korean War except to mention crossing the mountains to meet up with his family in towns where there was less danger. While he spoke of his fear of tigers during those trips, he never spoke of fearing the weapons or battles resulting in the many dead bodies he encountered. Imagining the possibility of coming across a tiger along his journey kept him up during the cold nights in the open mountain air. I don’t know if he was alone or if he ever did see a tiger. I always forgot to ask, as my own imagination set off into another world, where I see my father as a small child wandering through the wilderness. How exciting and exotic it all sounded to me, knowing only the confines of the material safety he purchased for me in America. For me Korea became the land of tigers and war, of mass construction and barbwire, of people I don’t know who look like me.

Over the years I have returned to Korea, hoping to find myself and to heal the loss of belonging brought on by immigration. When I go there, I search through my relatives’ photo albums, collecting images to reconstruct my history through their past. I feel my own invisibility within the pages, and I’m often surprised to come across an image of my own parents at a wedding or a birthday, singing, dancing, and laughing. I had never seen this side of my parents: they became strangers in these photographs. I don’t remember them sharing the details of how much they enjoyed their visits to Korea. I never realized how often they were there for important events and how much happiness it brought them to be reconnected to their family, who were strangers to me.

Last summer I went to Korea with my mother; we had planned it all year. I had just been there the year before and was excited to experience it again with her in our first trip together as just the two of us. During this trip, I immediately felt shocked and betrayed by my mother’s smooth transformation into her Korean role. I never knew her other than as my mother, isolated in America without an extended family. In Korea, she became a stranger to me. She knew how to decode the mysteries of Korean society. She accepted her role as a mother, sister, aunt, woman, elder and now foreigner. She was being herself, and she was Korean. I was jealous and upset that she was home, and I felt distant from her when I recognized that we didn’t share the same home. I experienced my usual feelings while in Korea. I was awkward, clumsy, and refused to be categorized. These were skills I mastered in America, as an American. I had thought it would be different for me when we were together, like when we left Korea together after my scaring memory. I had thought that with her guidance I would be able to navigate better, but instead she adapted while I didn’t know how.

Despite my efforts to become familiar with Korea, I always return from there feeling a desire to reclaim my image of a place that no longer exists. It has been transformed in my absence into another place—one that is vaguely starting to resemble my home in America. The more familiar Korea becomes, the more foreign it is from what I need it to be. The image of the past is fading with each visit.

During these visits back to Korea, I get shuffled around the country to tourist areas like the DMZ viewing stations. From here I can look over into the façade of my own loss: the separation of being able to see but not enter. It is my restricted access to a place that I feel entitled to be a part of but am not. Here in the space rebuilt by war and a place uninhibited by man, I can only guess at what it looks like up close. I look over the border into North Korea using the binoculars arranged along the concrete terrace where you can purchase refreshments during your outing. I cannot see the details of the space within the DMZ: it is too close to see with binoculars and yet to far to see with my naked eye. What I can see is the top of the dense growth of trees. Maybe I was looking in the wrong direction, not knowing where to look. So I imagine what is there.

In order to help me reconstruct this imaginary space, my own version of the DMZ, I return thousands of miles back home and turn to the Internet to search for details of its terrain, plants, animals, climate and history. I can know more about the place by going where I have access to more information than I can get by being there. In this way, the DMZ becomes real to me here, as I imagine the shape of the lines, sights, smells and sounds of this biosphere I have never entered. In my mind I can recreate the streams, mountains, the endangered red-crown crane flying overhead into the thousands of plant species that have been identified here, where the Korean tigers and Asiatic bears dodge the landmines that are scattered along the covered paths as if they are immune to the explosives that were targeted only for human destruction. Within this restricted space, a line that divides a culture, as time has passed the changes made on both sides no longer resemble each other. I find a Korea that might not exist except in my imagination. Through this scar brought on by the War and captured by nature, I feel a connection to my own body and self.



[1] Borrowed from Richard Whelan, Drawing the Line: the Korean War, 1950-1953 (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1990).

[2] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: an Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005. p. 10.

© Copyright Jan Mun