DMZ Diary: Surviving the Future Past Tense


Having spent my youth visiting local battlefields of the American Revolution and Civil War (“… the snow was red with blood,” goes one folk song), I’m not a fan of war zone tourism, much less hanging out near active hostilities. Thus, I never had any intention to visit Korea’s DMZ.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that on a recent visit to South Korea my hosts were taking me to Paju City in Gyeonggi-do, location of major south-side tourist sites of the DMZ. (“We’re going to THE DMZ? THE DMZ?) I was at a loss for words. They might as well have said we’re going to Auschwitz, Ground Zero Hiroshima or New York or even Falujah. What’s more, we’re going to scope out the site for a peace festival in the fall of 2005.

How does one casually “visit” such an area as a tourist? Should I be afraid of potential for armed attack? Is there a protocol of safe, reverential behavior? Isn’t it more a place of pilgrimage? I had 50 kilometers in Seoul traffic to think about it.

Koreans in the South are anything but bashful about their “side” of the DMZ, a strip of earth some 248 kilometers long and between 4 and 14 kilometers in wide. Brochures linking government-sanctioned tours to places of note, including Imjingak, Panmunjom, the Third Tunnel and Dora Observatory, roost next to those for the Kimchi Museum at every hotel and tourism office.

DMZ-bound from Seoul, our car turned onto Tongillo, “Unification Road,” the highway paralleling the coast that eventually picks up along the southern side of the Imjin River. The further we traveled, the more frequently we passed solitary armed soldiers on duty walking along dry rice fields or in a sentry box more like a beach “lifeguard” stand. Ribbons of rusty barbed and shiny new razor wires atop chain-link fencing along the road grew increasingly denser, as we neared our destination. Metal and concrete overpasses spaced a few kilometers apart began to straddle the highway. I thought they facilitated safe crossing of the road by pedestrians (none in sight) like those in the city, but I was informed they were built there by the Army to stop tanks from coming down from the North. “It’s that close,” I remember thinking. My emotions recoiled into silence.

By all accounts, the land within the DMZ is every man’s “no-man’s land,” a UN truce-born hell of holes filled with landmines. According to one friend, there are supposed to be maps and people still alive on both sides who “know” where they are. After 50 years, however, soil erosion and other earth-shifting factors are said to have taken them off point. The space is hallowed ground.

In addition, the DMZ has attracted great international interest for its self-generating biodiversity, born of profound neglect by humans for over 50 years. (See “Healing a Divided land,” KJ #53). According to the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation, wild habitats are transforming barren earth. “Fallow land has returned to thick prairie and shrubbery land in the western sector. Rich green forests adorn the magnificent landscape of the eastern mountain ranges, attracting endangered and rare plants and animal species, including Asiatic black bear, leopard, Eurasian lynx, Goral sheep and perhaps Amur tigers, not to mention a large diverse number of endangered migratory birds.”

The 38th parallel not only exists in two dimensions on a map, it expands to bisect everything in its path, as author Lee Ho-Chul’s description of the Panmunjom of the future past illustrates, the DMZ cuts through the hearts of one in seven families severed as in the process of its creation, as well as challenging the minds of everyone who would hope to live in peace.

My own thoughts and experiences as a fourth-generation American Jew born in 1947 began to flood my mind. The barbed wires along the perimeter of our travel stung my attention: the rusty metal invoking the European Jewish Holocaust, the shiny razor version the modern struggles of the peace-less Middle East. Together, they provided a perfect frame of reference for the path of the Korean peoples for a century.

We stopped en route twice – Paju’s “Book City” and Heri Art Valley, each once abandoned and now reclaimed from the past for new industry, culture, commerce and community. Both locations exemplified Korea’s foothold, if not leadership, in the international avant-garde art world, being sites of high-concept contemporary architecture. Sentimentality was nowhere to be seen.

The car finally turned off the highway and was parked in a large dirt lot in Paju City’s Imjingak national historic landmark. Looking northward across the Imjin River, we saw denuded coastal hills rising in the fading gray winter sunlight. We had arrived at the border of the DMZ. Its claim to fame as the most heavily-armed patch of land on the planet did not seem to be fitting.

To paraphrase the American expat writer Gertrude Stein, there didn’t seem to be any “there” there. In truth the DMZ’s southern border revealed no lack of peace. No heavily-armed anyone. There was a bizarre emptiness about it, as if the intensity of the phantom conflict was so complete that both sides cancelled each other out to all but those who clung to the literal past.


The first “attraction” I saw was a children’s amusement park. “Peace Land,” the sign said in Hangul. One of the “rides,” a small-scale steam locomotive trailing a few open cars, sat waiting to take passengers on a short, pleasant loop around the family-style fun zone. Nearby, rusting dead on its tracks, its “parent,” a full-scale locomotive of the truncated Gyeongui Railway that used to traverse the river, sported a sign, “The train that wants to run.” It used to be a busy thoroughfare for people traveling throughout the greater peninsula, but no more. Another area provided a final resting place for two ranks of War vintage tanks, a whirly-bird helicopter and period-sleek fighter plane, all repainted with bright camo pattern, gifts of the US Army to the people of Korea.

The site holds a place for life but doesn’t seem to have any vitality of its own. Even the dead are held hostage in the Korean conflict. During Chuseok (Thanksgiving), because they cannot visit their ancestor’s graves, Confucian ancestor rites are staged at the Mangbaedan, a large granite and marble altar established by the government for this purpose.

Nearby, every New Year refugees gather at the Imjingak Pavilion for a ceremony that is full of unrequited grief over the events in their lives. There is also a run-down museum showing artifacts of life in even more run-down North Korea.

As we walked to the last possible edge of “free” land, a sentimental tune drooled out of small speakers near a ramshackle souvenir stand. My friends said the song was popular with the refugee generation; the lyrics evoked longing for home and reunification. The little booth sold crackers and bottles of favorite drinks, as well as playing cards, key chains and a few other commemorative gifts emblazoned with the Joint Security Area logo; gifts for the veterans and others in their 60s and 70s who took those popular tours. What attracted my attention most were T-shirts and golf hats sporting a cute cartoon of two smiling child-like “action hero” soldiers. Already the past and present had “split the difference” rather than solved the fundamental problem.

BLUEHAT 48 (Ken Rodgers's conflicted copy 2014-05-02)


The DMZ is a great place to learn the Korean term for “over there,” as in “not here” and “not just there” but “there” as deep distance. Whatever seemed to have formerly spanned the river — a train track, a bridge — no longer exists. The walkway toward the remnant expanse of the concrete Freedom Bridge, now more a pier, passed over a small park, in the center of which was an empty pond in the shape of the unified Korean peninsula. On the southern side, the bridge’s roadway was amputated short of mid-river, the end abruptly capped by a chain link fence crowned by barbed wire. The phantom limb extended to the north shore only in the mind’s eye by hopping and hoping from one remaining concrete piling to another. The scene was more reminiscent of inner city auto body repair yards than a shield against nuclear war. Tied into the metal netting were dozens of yellow ribbons and even T-shirts with peace messages handwritten in many languages. A posted sign warned that passage beyond was off limits. Another sign sought help in locating a missing relative, with an e-mail address to contact. Maybe the advancement of technology can carry old but good news.

The impulse to conserve the past and going beyond it, the latter seemingly a defiant act, is a basic impulse of linear-minded humankind living on a space-bound planet. I return to my Jewish heritage to better understand Korea’s DMZ, the land and its use, the form and function of memory and, perhaps, a way through to the “other side.”

In the 21st century religious Jews, like their predecessors for millennia, still offer prayers daily and weekly in appreciation of deliverance from the hands of numerous oppressors, the list of which continues to grow. The modern “holidays” of Yom Ha Shoah (Day of the Holocaust) and Yom Ha Atzmaot (Day of the founding of the modern nation state of Israel) attract secularists. Memorials and museums to the fallen are still being built throughout Europe at the sites of former shtetls, (small villages), concentration camps and battlefields, and in the center of modern cities with a sizeable – if only a remnant of its former self – Jewish community. Some are elegant and stately. Others are poignantly plain, housing simple personal and community keepsakes, artistic renderings of the details and emotions that the events evoke. Tours to these sites, like the DMZ, also are well-promoted and attended.

The Koreans’ hope for reunification of the peninsula and the hope for peace in the Middle East have their parallels as well; although, armed conflict in the latter continues seemingly daily. On tour in Israel in the 1970s, I saw rusting tanks stopped dead in their sandy tracks left as monuments to the fallen soldiers. An Israeli friend tells me that they are still there, 30 years later, moved a few yards to accommodate widening of the road. In addition to archeological sites, tourists may see a scale model of Solomon’s ancient temple, an attraction of the Holyland Hotel as well as visit the actual remaining “Western” Wall. Hebrew-lettered Coca Cola bottles filled with Jordan River water, holy to some, were once appreciated souvenirs.

It’s not just the tangible remnants that require care, it is also the emotions that need conservation. After working for nearly two decades on Holocaust projects, I began to need to keep my mind full of hope … to bridge the chasm between the past and present … for the sake of the future. To this end, I forged a distinction between the words “Remember!” and “Never Forget!”

The latter stood as a monolithic challenge to my birthright of the next life-sustaining breath. “Never Forget” stops chi, vital energy, and causes, in terms of Traditional Oriental Medicine, blockage and then pain. “Never Forget” institutionalizes depression.

“Remember”, on the other hand, is more generous, more gracious, allowing for life to go on, reflective, reverent and full of possibility for renewal. It is sustainable because it allows in each generation a personal relevancy

I believe that Han, the signature Korean emotional construct, operates in similar fashion. Much of 20th century Korean literature is thick with this profound broken-heartedness, bitterness, grief, and the abyss of anguish, anger and resentment. Han can implode or explode negatively promoting suicide or murder in revenge. It can also unravel positively to become a creative and constructive energy for positive change and even transformation.

So what to do with this cache of raw energy? The eighth century Buddhist “poem” Sandôkai (Ch. Can tong qi), the name translated variously as “The Agreement of Difference and Unity,” and “Identity of Relative and Absolute,” offers some directions. The name alone hints at its utility to help us come to terms with impulses that threaten to shatter peaceful coexistence. Composed by the 35th Chinese Buddhist Patriarch Sekito Kisen (Ch. Shitou Xiqian), the Sandôkai reads in many English translations like a treasure map to the priceless emptiness alluded to in the Heart Sutra.

Looking northward across the river from the “safe” side, I couldn’t help think of the Sandôkai’s early lines:

“There is no Northern or Southern ancestor. Here born, we clutch at things and then compound delusion later on by following ideals.”

“No more war memorials!” it seems to admonish. Looking around at the attempts to ensure that Koreans and the world would “Never Forget” what happened in that place 50 years ago and is still burning strongly, I switched my mind into “Remember” mode. Then it began to transform into possibility.

“Each sense gate and its object all together enter thus in mutual relations and yet stand apart in a uniqueness of their own.”

The Imjingak area will soon support a permanent new “ecozone” making its debut as the site of the peace festival August 1 – September 11 this year (2005). The land will be reclaimed in the name of nonviolence, giving youth from cultures and regions in conflict as well as prosperity a place to see for themselves the possibilities inherent in “Remembering” and learning from the mistakes of the past.

As the Sandôkai seeks to enlighten, so will the peace festival. In this place where even a tiny flashlight beam reflecting in the river can trigger armed – potentially nuclear – response, what can be more provocative than fireworks?

“Light and darkness are a pair.
Like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.”

The world-renowned pyrotechnical artist Pierre Alain Hubert will turn the scene into a canvas of brilliant light presented in silence as if to purify the darkness of the past and reveal everything that will encompass the future. Unlike usual thunderous heaven-bound fireworks, Mr. Hubert’s palette will include the shades of “silence and illumination”. “I paint on darkness,” he says. Working on the DMZ is not a literal challenge for the medium, he explains, “because I work with light as energy; light in a kind of religious sense.”

The sudden illumination and return to emptiness, whether fireworks or Sandôkai, on this “side” or the other, it can change in a flash.

“As you walk on, distinctions between near and far are lost.
And should you lost become, there will arise obstructing mountains and great rivers.”

When the smoke clears (literally) at the end of the festival and the sun rises over Keumgangsan peak in the “north” the next day, the ecozone “peace park” will remain for people to begin to see how the past can offer positive growth to the future. But will the DMZ be then ready to live up to its name? Perhaps the last war memorial will be the 38th Parallel itself, a virtual border housed in a glass building big enough for only two chairs squarely facing each other on the north-south axis, across a table upon which is painted through its middle a simple black line.

“This I offer to the seeker of great Truth: Do not waste time!”


1 Cho, Kay, ‘A Korean Theology of Victims,’ the Practice of Ministry in Canada (Toronto: Council on Theological Education in Canada, Vol. 9, No. 4, P. 30-39) from the Internet via The First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa, 1999.

2 Soto Shu Shumucho, Tokyo, 1982

Lauren W. Deutsch, a long-standing KJ contributing editor and chajin, is based in Los Angeles. See “Icing on the Cake: A Day in the Life of a Tibetan Sand Mandala” in KJ Selections (KJ #50 – Transience), also “Kim Keum-hwa’s Everyday Shamanism,” KJ #45; “New Roads to the Old Spirits: Dr. Zo Zayong’s ‘Old Village’ Movement” in KJ #36; “Searching for Sanshin,” KJ #25 (Sacred Mountains of Asia) – and numerous reviews including, for example, “Rabbi Wanted, No Exp. Nec.” in KJ #45.

For information about the DMZ Peace Festival, see
Pierre-Alain Hubert’s website is