The 38th Parallel could be the name of a book, or a band and its album…or perhaps even a hole-in-the-wall restaurant offering cuisine falling above and below this line of demarcation (Pyongyang Nangmyeon is highly recommended Korean sources say). What it is though is the name given to the border separating North and South Korea. The 38th Parallel splits a country that was once ONE, into two, leaving a clear division between its people and its politics. Its single commonality? Hangul: the alphabet forming the Korean language. Despite their ability to converse in a shared language (that is slowly diverging based on their separation), diplomatic dialogue has ceased to occur and their interactions in the past year are rooted in the use of military arms: the Cheonan’s sinking and the recent exchange of gunfire do not instill confidence in either country’s efforts towards civility.
On an opportunity to visit the DMZ, I took what photos I could that would best portray the most guarded, militarized border in the world. During the day long trip to a portion of the 1.3km stretch and the JSA (Joint Security Area), I had a very brief glimpse into the restricted lifestyle of my neighbors next door. By no means did it measure against what North Koreans are actually experiencing, but the trip’s impact was obvious as a silence fell on my ears as I returned to Seoul. What can one say after visiting Panmujeon, an area where cross-Korean dialogue occurs between leaders of both nations, knowing what’s occurring mere miles away? Despite our tour representing a space where opinions and freedom of expression could easily flow, I felt the pull of my liberties being tested. Visitors are not allowed to point, display hand gestures, cross specified boundaries, and photographs are only permitted in designated areas. My limited movements represented a fragment of the tactics North Korea uses to controls its people – if border life is like this, what’s it like beyond the line of demarcation and for the two or three villages living in close proximity to the area just to the south? Besides their 9pm curfew and the routine household check performed by the military, ensuring resident’s are appropriately accounted for, one wonders what life is truly like when nothing is ever reported. The saying,”No news is good news” would not apply under the watchful eye of Kim Jong Il.
During the tour I sort of understood the request for a foreigners restricted movement, but now, safely away from the border and where fears of being removed from the tour are extinguished, I question the tour and the two Korea’s division. Why would two countries allow this tour to occur? Who would allow this silent animosity to persist? Some may argue that it’s solely North Korea upholding this barrier, supporting a divided Korea; others may suggest that it’s not two countries, but one. And if that’s the belief some follow, then what do we do about it? Visiting the Freedom Bridge and seeing North Korea’s enormous flag fly just miles away left a big-brother feeling alongside the guides commands restraining typical tourist actions. The Inter-Korean Transit Office was also a haunting reminder of a relationship that is hardly amicable. If the behaviors of those on the border are restricted, then what can we expect for the Koreans living north of the DMZ? As Aung San Suu Kyi expressed regarding a free Burma, we should use our freedoms to help them achieve theirs.
This photo series looks at the DMZ as a place where one has no identity – the edge of a country where the understanding between human and rights remains blurred and in my eyes, a place where a culture lives dormant and its people are discouraged to act on their hope for a better, united future. I hope these images engage you to stop and look, and lead you to inquire what lays beyond this place where faces, much like the country’s culture, is left imperceptible.