Watch that Line: the Korean Demilitarized Zone
8/18/2017
Heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, and the ever-possible prospect of United States military action, triggers thoughts of times I have been inside the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Stretching 160 miles in length, and 2.5 miles in width, across the entire mid-point of the Korean peninsula, the DMZ’s enduring existence is a ready reminder of a standoff that stems from the North’s sparking the 1950-53 Korean War via a surprise attack in the early morning hours of June 25. Nearly 65 years after cessation of active combat, to witness dynamics inside the DMZ is to experience one of the most surreal places on Earth.

Inside the Joint Security Area (JSA), commonly referred to as “Panmunjom,” that serves as the official point of contact between South and North, I am struck each visit by the power – both real and symbolic – of a simple line. In this case, a thin painted line on the ground. In a strange sort of way, the line snakes through the JSA, the center of gravity for the entire DMZ. Then as now, on one side of the couple-inch line is the South, a nation democratic, capitalist, and a staunch ally of the United States; on the other, the North, a country totalitarian, communist, and a sworn enemy of America.

Panmunjom is quite different from what I had expected on my first foray there. Before hitting the ground, I had envisioned a quadrant completely dividing South and North by a high, impenetrable concrete hall with barbed wire atop. Something akin to the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, and neither side able to see the other. I suppose I also had images of two opposing armies, arms drawn, and in formation to charge, like the North versus South battles of the American Civil War.

Although plenty of barbed wire is strung across the larger DMZ, inside the Panmunjom sector all that substantially separates South and North is the aforementioned line marked on the ground. Not only is there no “Korean Wall,” but also movement and the whole JSA in general is surprisingly open. Within the bounds of carefully choreographed protocols, one is even permitted at times to point cameras across the line to North Korea and snap pictures, even of its soldiers, much to my amazement.

“Eerie” best describes the emotion of walking only a few hundred feet from North Korean soldiers on occasion. One does wonder about their thoughts as North soldiers’ hardened stares lock on opposing South soldiers, American military members and visiting civilians alike. The North Korean faces remain rigid and exceptionally expressionless as they meticulously monitor every step on the southern side of the line.

The close proximity, interestingly though, does not generally perpetuate an atmosphere of battle about to break out. Weapons are not drawn and pointed at the other on a constant and continuous basis. Tremendous amounts of time around Panmunjom are whittled away, it turns out, with each side simply staring at the other across a line on the ground.

At the same time, though, that same thin painted line strikingly symbolizes the delicate and dangerous state of relations between South and North. The line leads all thoughts back to the reality of a fragile Korean Armistice, which, with no peace treaty ever signed, has sustained a certain state of suspended animation since July 27, 1953.

The seemingly permanent power of what was envisioned a “temporary” line is precisely because of the seriousness accorded it. As the line weaves through the JSA, it even cuts (literally) in to and through the small, austere buildings where South-North contact officially occurs. Inside, the line continues across the floor from outside, even running across a conference table whose space the line divides evenly between South and North.

The larger meaning of course is that the persistent tension is not about a painted line per se. As both practical and symbolic import, the line reflects actual and potential conflict between two systems, two ways of life that are, in the end, mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, despite the gravity of highly complex and volatile facts on the ground, it remains remarkable that in so many respects a simple painted line on the ground holds the two Koreas on their halves of the peninsula, and has thus far refrained them (and the United States) from a renewed hot war.

The writer holds a Ph.D. in political science,and has lived and worked in South Korea.