The rogue aesthetic practice of crossing the DMZ

Gim Jong-gil on the seditious seed that is the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea

Seok-hyun Han
Seok-hyun Han, Tree of Peace, 2012, constructed with the youth of the area, discarded wood, live trees growing from mother tree. Project by Gyeonggi MoMA to stimulate discussions on the ecosystem of the DMZ on the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire agreement

The phrase “yonder space is a Demilitarized Zone, yonder space alone is a Demilitarized Zone” is such an absurd statement. The sorrowful melancholy fact is that this piece of land is the only place devoid of military presence on the Korean peninsula. The entirety of this peninsula, or even the whole world, should be demilitarised, but as if this dream is still too far out on the horizon, I wish I could reverse the situation, and assign military presence to that limited plot we currently call the DMZ instead of having it the other way around.

Upon reflection, when pyŏngkch'o Myŏng-hŭi Hong, author of Im Kkŏk-chŏng, took off to Pyongyang for the North-South Joint Meeting in 1948 to discuss the establishment of a unified government and failed to return; when poet Hwa Im was sentenced to death and executed for acting as an American spy by North Korea’s military chamber along with other key figures of the South Korea Labor Party in August of 1953; when Yŏsŏng Li, an artist and a scholar of Chosŏn art history, defected to North Korea while serving as the political director under Un-hyŏng Yŏ; when Yong-jun Kim, a prominent oriental painting and Chosŏn art history scholar defected to North Korea; when artist Chong-yŏ Chŏng, sculptor Guk-chŏn Li, and K’wae-dae Yi from the Kŏje Prison Camp defected to North Korea, DMZ had already become a seditious seed of taboo.

Koo Jeong A, Consciousness Dilatation, 2013, rock installation. Courtesy the artist

Two nations, and the in-between

In the age which we now inhabit the memories and traces of war have been buried under the breathless pace of modernisation and compacted development. What remains are nationalist ceremonies that attempt to reinstate the authority of Sŭng-man Yi and Chŏng-hŭi Pak; the system averts its gaze from the Cold War legacies of the Korean War, or the Division as the resultant reality. Korean society appears to have embraced the post-Berlin Wall world order since the Wall’s fall in 1989, settling into peace. At a glance, the Cold War is only a tattered memory. However, this attitude tries to push away the reality we encounter into the realm of the unreal or surreal; there is the intermittent hint of vertigo arising from the unconscious, which attempts to force out the sporadic cognition of division in the face of reality, and it becomes further ambiguous as we try to stare into the visceral reality.

In August 1945, before even the horrifying memories of colonisation and the rapture of liberalisation had time to settle in, the Korean peninsula was torn between Soviet socialism (communism) and American democracy (capitalism). The two clashing ideologies led to the establishment of two divided governments – the People’s Democratic Republic of Chosŏn (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The two countries engaged in the atrocities of war. The Korean War was a dystopia of empty ecstasy with the darkened ashes of bodies strewn about on the seeds of blood catalysed by two disparate visions of utopia: an utter chaos. The survivors, shocked at the barren site, wept their hearts out. People had to learn how to hold their tongues and exuberate outwards. The anti-communist patriotism upheld by the government enforced silence upon the surveilled society and demanded that its people love its governance.

Seventy years have gone by since the division that had set in with liberation. The citizens of the Korean Republic believe that the division began with the truce on 27 July 1953, but the point of origin must in fact be attributed to the 3.8 Line, which came about with the liberation in August, 1945, demarcating Soviet and American occupation. In order to understand the reality of the DMZ, there is a need to stare into the cold reality of the power conflict inscribed into the Cold War system, the clashing ideologies, and the colonial presence of the occupying forces. And even if we struggle to push away the Cold War system from our range of perception we cannot deny the fact that we still live amidst its structure, for the Cold War persists and is alive in our own society.

Suyeon Yun, Real DMZ Project
Suyeon Yun, Real DMZ Project, 2013, Borderline at DMZ Peace & Cultural Square, Cheorwon, installaiton view. Photo: Jim Jin-hee


Excerpt from ‘The Rogue Aesthetic Practice of Crossing the DMZ’ from DMZ – Stories of Today and Tomorrow, a conference with the DMZ Peace Project convened by Art Sonje in 2014. Reprinted by kind permission of Art Sonje.

Gim Jong-gil is Head of Education at Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation, a prolific writer and curator and the lead editor of Korean Contemporary Art Scene, The Open Books, Paju 2012.