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70 Years Along the Zone Where the Korean War Never Ended

Photographer Chang W. Lee made multiple trips to and along the Korean Demilitarized Zone to photograph this story.

Seen from the sky, the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, looks like a gigantic geographical wound across the Korean Peninsula, the continuous wire fences snaking up the hills and down the valleys from coast to coast.

It was created 70 years ago on Thursday, when an armistice was signed by the American-led United Nations Command and the North Korean and Chinese militaries at the “truce village” of Panmunjom, putting an end to the fighting, but not the Korean War itself.

The DMZ was meant to be a temporary buffer zone, dividing a warring nation. Instead, it has hardened into the world’s most heavily armed frontier, embodying not only an unfinished military confrontation but also what little hope remains for peace and reunification between the two Koreas.

Along this 155-mile stretch, soldiers stand ready to engage on either side. Families cope with decades of separation. Tourists come to witness living history. And dreams of reconciliation have slowly faded into the distance.

Over the last seven decades, there have been attempts to breach the divide created by the DMZ, re-linking roads and railways across the border, allowing cross-border trade and investment and organizing reunions of separated families.

Such efforts have all eventually failed to create lasting peace, crumbling in the face of an unresolved conflict.

Despite its name, the DMZ and its vicinity are armed to the teeth.

An estimated two million land mines are strewn inside the 2.5-mile-wide zone. Its northern and southern perimeters are sealed by layers of razor-wire fences​ reinforced with booby traps or electronic sensors. Armed guards monitor the fences at every 100 to 200 yards.

Every 10 yards along the South Korean fences​ are Claymore anti-personnel mines​. All roads leading out of the DMZ are guarded by anti-tank obstacles. Behind them, two million troops stand ready for battle.

Soon after the armistice was signed, POWs were exchanged at Panmunjom. But the border has since been sealed tight, with the military standoff between North and South Korea reaching ominous new heights in recent years.

If fighting were to recommence on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea said in June, it would “rapidly expand into a world war and a thermonuclear war unprecedented in the world.”

For Yoon Cheong-ja, 80, the fighting never ended.

Her son, Senior Chief Petty Officer Min Pyeong-gi, was among the 46 sailors killed when the South Korean navy ship Cheonan ​exploded in what the South said was an unprovoked North Korean torpedo attack in 2010.

“When my son died, my heart was torn into a thousand pieces,” said Ms. Yoon, who recently visited the western border waters where her son died. “No mother should lose her son like I did.”

War-separated families make annual pilgrimages near the DMZ, the closest they can come to their long-lost homeland.

During major holidays, they perform Confucian family rituals, placing rice, fruit and dried fish on an altar and bowing toward their ​ancestors’ graves in the North.

“When I die in the South, my children will lose the ties to their roots in the North,” said Hwang Bong-suk, 87, as she gazed at migrating birds flying over the DMZ on a recent afternoon.

Her widowed mother took her North Korean family to the South in 1948, three years after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule and divided into the pro-Soviet North and the pro-American South.

The family traveled in two groups to avoid suspicion. Ms. Hwang was 12 years old at the time. Her two older sisters stayed in the North.

They never made it to the South.

Their mother saved gifts for them, hoping to one day be reunited.

During a recent boat ride to western border waters from which he could see North Korea through an afternoon haze, Choi Jong-dae, 87, remembered his homeland. “The older I get, the more I miss my hometown and my siblings in the North,” he said.

“I have been to Russia, Mongolia, New York and South Africa​,” added Mr. Choi, his voice shaking​. “But I can’t visit my hometown, even though it’s so close it feels as if I ​could stretch my arm to touch it.”

On the other side of the border, families in the North have had to cope with more recent separations.

Over the postwar decades, a score of North Koreans, mostly soldiers, have defected to the South through the DMZ, often leaving their families behind.

One of them, Ahn Chan-il, slipped through a North Korean fence while its high-voltage electricity was turned off. “Because of what I did, my family ​in the North ​was sent to a prison camp and is presumed dead,” said Mr. Ahn, who arrived in the South in 1979. “As long as I live, I won’t be able to forget them.”

Kim Gang-yu​, 27, another North Korean soldier, fled through the DMZ in 2016.

At night, while their country fell into darkness for lack of electricity, North Korean border guards marveled at the blazing electric lights that lit up the South Korean border fences, Mr. Kim​ said.

“I realized I had ​finally ​made it to the South when its soldiers let me take a shower,” ​he said. “It was my first hot-water shower in years.”

Though the DMZ is known as a desolate, unforgiving place, hardy people have settled nearby — or even inside — the zone.

They cultivate land under the watchful eyes of border guards despite the potential for land mines. When fishing season comes, fishermen venture into dangerous waters near the border​ to catch croakers, blue crabs and octopus​ while warships provide protection.

​In recent years, northern counties of South Korea have become unlikely tourist destinations, attracting people drawn to the history of the DMZ.

In a coastal campsite just outside the eastern DMZ, families pitch tents​ only yards away from wire fences and military signs ask campers to report “suspicious persons, objects and vessels.”

A ​DMZ-themed ​motel on the campsite ​has rooms decorated with barbed wire on the wall. Visitors can enjoy museums and tours along the border.

“If anything, I can now claim to have spent a night at the farthest north campsite in South Korea,” said Kim Pil-soo, 42, a recent visitor. Near his tent was a warning against “stray land mines.”

Park Jin-woo, 42, took his son, Min-jae, 8, to the DMZ Museum after watching news about the war in Ukraine. “I wanted to show him that we Koreans also had difficult times and how terrible war can be,” he said.

On a recent hot afternoon, 80 people gathered at a pier near the western sea border along the DMZ. They watched an artist dance with a flag that featured a unified Korean Peninsula.

They later sailed out to waters near the border while a South Korean Coast Guard ship trailed them from a distance.

“We pray for unification!” they chanted, holding their hands together. “We pray for peace!”

After nearly eight decades of living separated across the tightly sealed border​, many South Koreans see reunification as a distant dream. Affinity toward North Koreans has grown weaker among younger generations who were born decades after the war and have no memory of what it was like to live in an undivided Korea.

The youth are more preoccupied with domestic concerns, like dwindling job opportunities and the rising cost of living.

Kim Sang-geun, 69, a retired auto mechanic from Seoul, took his two grandchildren to the DMZ to teach them “the pain of the national division,” he said. One of his children, Cha-min, 11, said his school friends didn’t want reunification with North Korea “because it would only make us poor.”

Such attitudes make Korean War refugees feel like a dying breed.

“I once believed that Korea would be reunited by the time I was 50,” said Ahn Kyong-choon, 88, a war refugee from the North who was visiting a border island observatory from which North Korea is visible.

“I now have no such hope left in me.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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