DMZ: The zone where the 1950-1953 Korean War never ended

Scrutinizing North Korea through binculars at the Dora observatory

Scrutinizing North Korea through binculars at the Dora observatory at the DMZ

By Habib Toumi

SEOUL: As she was looking into North Korea from the Dora Observatory at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Khadija was enveloped by an eerie feeling that mixed dramatic history with people’s tragedies without any regard for peace or compassion.

She has never been so close to a highly fortified border with wire fences snaking up the hills and down the valleys that has kept the past alive and uncompromisingly allowed it to determine the present, 75 years after the bloodshed ended with the division of the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel.

The four-kilometer-wide buffer zone set up in 1953 as a temporary buffer zone, dividing a warring nation, to stop hostile military actions defines where Koreans live in 2024 – South Koreans to the south of the 250-kilometer DMZ and North Koreans to the north.

The temporary has become permanent.

The closer people think they are to full peace, the further away it is. So cruel.

Like many intellectuals appreciating history to better understand the events unfolding across the globe and impacting political developments, Khadija has heard and read about DMZ.

However, walking in the DMZ alongside tourists who came to witness living history, and standing on a platform to have a more focused look through binoculars at North Korea, she had a special sensation that connected her on a deeper level with events that occurred several decades ago and left their tragic marks on the present.

Here, the facts in the bucolic scene defeat often echoed claims of imminent peace and shared good will.

The peculiar silence in the world’s most heavily militarized border speaks louder than the painful decades of ominous standoff and fatal confrontations. It intensifies deep emotions and powerless frustrations.

Yet, away from the border slicing the peninsula, the world seems to have lapsed into the complacent notion that the DMZ is a surface wound that bleeds a little, a bit dangerously at times, but it is not an ominous threat to other countries.

In other regions across the globe, people living near borders feel they have been privileged and tend to display elated contentment and intense joie de vivre as they can make the best of two countries, cultures, languages …

But not near DMZ, an area of 907 square kilometers, deeply marked by 75 years of heavily loaded history, and cheerful attitudes are a remote option, an elusive dream.

DMZ seems to be ironically named since it is one of the most heavily militarized in the world, severely guarded and strewn with around 2 million land mines, reinforced by layers of razor-wire fences, booby traps and electronic sensors.

Thousands of colorful messages of hope, dreams and wishes of reunion that included contact details to get in touch with loved relatives are plastered on walls or glued to fences by Koreans who have been separated by the war.

Some distance away, colored ribbons with messages calling for peace and reunification for the sake of the people in either side of the peninsula are hanging on fences.

They are all painfully striking reminders of how brutal and distressing separation is and how families, against all odds, cling to the hope that they will reunite with their relatives one day.

They are potent testimonies of how the Koreans whose hearts were torn into pieces felt about their divided countries, separated families, lost ones – A brutal eye-opener on the overwhelming reality between the two Koreas.

The rusted wagon of a train on the rail line that had linked the two countries, the train station to nowhere, the anti-tank obstacles, the bunkers, the tunnels dug by North Korea deep under the ground into South Korea and running for long distances past the borders testify to how the one country has been sliced …

The DMZ has been a unique feature in Korea since July 27, 1953 when the armistice was signed following 765 sessions of talks that involved the US, North Korea and China.

The situation may last much longer since the road toward peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula remains particularly rocky.

At the observatory, soft-spoken young Koreans, share their hope to put the Korean War to rest in history books instead of keeping it a bitter reality marking their daily lives.

However, while the older Koreans seem focused, even obsessed with the Korea reunification issue, the young generation, with no memory of living in an undivided Korea or recollection of the tragedies of the war, shows less enthusiasm.

The imperative towards reunification is not strong and the present with its demands, prospects and opportunities matters much more.

“We understand that our parents and older family members pay so much attention to the issue as it is a strong component of their lives and identity, but to us, it is not so crucial,” one young Korean says.

“Of course, we would like to be a reunited country with greater potential and better possibilities, but we are faring well. We have a strong economy and a happy way of life. We are successful and we look forward to greater achievements with confidence since we know we can do it. We are concerned that focusing on North Korea would slow us down or confine our dreams. We can assist and help them, but we cannot afford to miss good chances if we keep waiting for them.”

Another young girl says that South Korea was a peaceful country that wanted peace to prevail everywhere.

“You can see that even at the DMZ, an area often cited as among the most dangerous in the world, we have a message of peace and we show it ostensibly. There is even a fair that proves that it is so peaceful and safe that people can enjoy themselves while learning about history,” she says.

Young people say they are not as bitter as their fathers and grandfathers who lived through the war and its tragic aftermath that saw the Peninsula divided into two countries.

However, they believe that their lives would be better fulfilled once their wounded pride as citizens of the Peninsula is assuaged.

According to the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank funded by the South Korean government, “the public will for inter-Korean integration has been on a constant decline.”

A survey conducted in 2017 found that 57.8 per cent of South Koreans believed that reunification was necessary. The figure is down from 62.1 per cent in 2016 and 69.3 per cent in 2014.

The number of those who said that unification was not necessary if the two Koreas could peacefully coexist without a war was 46 per cent, a 2.9 per cent increase over 2016.

Only 36% of respondents agreed that “our society should pursue unification at the sacrifice of many aspects of our lives”, a decrease by 8.3 per cent from 2016.

According to the study, “the continued crisis phase on the Korean Peninsula since North Korea’s nuclear test in January 2016 seemed to have contributed to a significant increase of a group in favor of the divided state.”

However, the study found that 68.8 per cent of South Koreans believed that the reunification would be beneficial to their country, a 12.9 per cent increase from 2016.

Standing with a Korean family as they visit DMZ. I loved their optimism, especially when they shared the Korean finger heart formed by slightly overlapping the thumb and index finger into a heart shape.

Standing with a Korean family as they visit the DMZ. I loved their optimism, especially when they shared the Korean finger heart formed by slightly overlapping the thumb and index finger into a heart shape.

The older generation shares tales of atrocities and talk about divided families, missing people and mutilated memories of dark events throughout more than seven decades.

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