Korean DMZ: reflecting on my times there
9/15/2017
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As our nation and state warily watch rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, and consider our homeland security preparations, I thought I would share my column that has appeared in media outlets.

Watch that line: inside the Korean Demilitarized Zone

By Rep. Duane D. Milne, Ph.D.
Captain, U.S. Army Reserve


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 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 later, to witness dynamics inside the DMZ is to experience one of the most surreal places on earth.

Inside the Joint Security Area (JSA), generally referred to as “Panmunjom,” that serves as the official point of contact between South and North, I am still struck 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 line is the South, a nation democratic, capitalist, and staunch ally of the United States; on the other, the North, a country totalitarian, communist, and sworn enemy of America.

The Panmunjom I encountered proved quite different from what I had expected my first foray there. Before hitting the ground, I had envisioned a quadrant completely divided South and North by a high, impenetrable concrete hall with barbed wire galore 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 at the ready, in formation waiting to charge, like the North versus South battles of the American Civil War.

Although many strings of barb wire hang throughout the whole DMZ (not to mention plenty of anti-personnel “deterrents”), 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 standing at times only a few hundred feet from North Korean soldiers. 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 movement on the southern side of the line.

The close proximity, interestingly though, does not create the atmosphere of battle about to break out. The standoff is not a constant state of each side with weapons drawn and directly pointed at each other all day. Considerable time around Panmunjom is wiled 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 the fragility of the Korean Armistice, which, with no peace treaty ever signed, has frozen 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 incessant 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.
                                     
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