An essay about the DMZ dividing the two Koreas, and its role in the theatrical display of aggression and reconciliation between the two countries. Triple Canopy Magazine, Issue 8.
ON A TRIP TO KOREA’S DEMILITARIZED ZONE in 2001, I stood with my aunt and uncle on the balcony of the Odu Mountain Unification Observatory. A row of telescopic viewfinders lined the edge, trained on the northern bank of the Imjin River. My aunt handed me a five-hundred-won coin and urged, “Go look at North Korea!” I dropped the coin into the slot and pressed my eyes against the viewfinder. The lens snapped into focus, and I panned the shore until a cluster of buildings slid into sight, all standing parallel to the waterfront. The North Koreans call this settlement Unification Village, while the South has labeled it Propaganda Village—a deserted, meticulously maintained set. I scanned the beige facades of the buildings, which are neither Soviet bunkers nor Korean hanok, but wood-paneled Western constructions, with flat facades, peaked roofs, and front porches—an eerie facsimile of small-town America.
While peering at the buildings from the observatory, one of several guard posts that double as tourist information centers, I spotted someone walking down the path. I was too surprised to say anything, but I could hear the visitors next to me exclaiming, “A North Korean!” People rushed to share the lens and drop more coins into unoccupied viewfinders. Taking turns with my relatives, I examined the man moving down the path. In contrast to my expectations, he did not look particularly stern or gaunt. As he disappeared into one of the buildings, the viewfinder clicked and the lens was shuttered. Straightening up, I peered again at the blurry riverbank. I had seen North Korea; more important, I had seen a North Korean. I stepped off the platform and away from the din of competing broadcasts, and the strident cadences of the Christian sermon bellowing out of the southern speakers melded with the Communist lecture blasting out of the speakers on the northern bank.
Read more at Triple Canopy.