Corporal Casiano pointing out the Bridge of No Return and the site of the 1976 axe murder incident, in which two US Army Officers where killed by DPRK troops.
The Joint Security Area(JSA) on the site of the former village of Panmunjom in the DMZ. The buildings straddle the demarcation line and this is where the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement was signed by General Nam Il and Lt. General William K. Harrison. The North Korean building Panmungak is in the background. The short concrete threshold delineates the border.
I confess to a certain fascination with the DMZ. Not only because this is the closest I can get to a tragically bizarre, nuclear-armed, anachronistic relic of the Cold War. But also because it so perfectly epitomizes the fuzzy boundaries between militaristic imperial might, happy smiley faced tourism (the last stop on the US base is a gift shop!), and an untouched nature preserve (except for all the minefields and whatnot). This is one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world and also one of the loneliest. The military motto at the DMZ is “in front of them all,” but there’s no longer anyone standing behind them. Forgotten between the great decisive wars of the United States, this is neither victory nor defeat, just an uneasy, quickly forgotten ceasefire. Something to be shunned not celebrated. Disregarded by popular US history, and willfully forgotten by a new generation of Koreans who are forbidden access. After awhile it was less awkward to just stop mentioning to Seoulites that we were going to the DMZ after they either dismissed the place as frivolous – “that’s just a tourist area for foreigners” – or they saw it as an embarrassing, painful reminder of just what the country has spent 60 years trying to get away from – “that’s not the real Korea.” This was more than just a 90 minute bus ride from Seoul, this was a world away from that glittering metropolis to the South. Trenches, bunkers and minefields still manned and maintained for fielding a conventional army in a world where that no longer exists, rendered obsolete by nuclear-tipped missiles and aircraft. Going through the motions because any alternative is too difficult to comprehend.
I grew up along another arbitrary border, and wanted to see if there were any lessons from the nomadic, aterritorial space that I’d experienced as a kid that could be applied to the DMZ. But that one is porous, barring physical access but allowing an open trade in culture and economic goods. Sure, the DMZ was fun and touristy, with campy videos and we all took photos with the ROK guards, and everyone rode around in a big bus, but it’s still a real thing. Clinton wasn’t lying when he called it “the scariest place on earth.” And that contradiction is what I can’t understand because it’s not my country, I don’t feel the danger, but it’s there. Two years of military service is mandatory for Korean males. One of our last nights, drinking late into the night, we were interrupted by loud singing of patriotic songs and practice military drilling. There were two young guys, one was starting his service the next day, the other was seeing him off. Scared, trying to be brave, drunk as hell they wandered off into the night. I imagined him up there at the JSA, clenched-fist, standing stoic behind mirrored glasses, one eye on the crowds with cameras, and the other on the men with guns across the line.