A reproduction of an 1894 map hangs in my bedroom, depicting the seahorse-shaped sweep of land known simply as Korea. On it, there is no bold red line cleaving the peninsula in two. My maternal grandparents remember living in this whole country, but at 89 and 91 years old they belong to a dwindling population of those who can recall “before”—a time that, for the rest of us, may as well now be lore.
“The Real DMZ: Artistic Encounters Through Korea’s Demilitarized Zone” is a vivid correspondence; an imagined dialogue, pried open by eight South Korean artists, as a way to engage with an otherwise inaccessible place. Nuance in this conversation arrives in unexpected ways.
Through the ongoing embroidery project “Needling Whisper, Needle Country / SMS Series in Camouflage,” Kyungah Ham has initiated an otherwise impossible collaboration. On display are four four-foot-square canvases from her series, each a kind of rainbowed, psychedelic handmade textile concealing phrases from pop culture. Her method is a complicated process, smuggling patterns through China to North Korea via intermediaries, who then run the contraband works back to Ham in South Korea. By employing the traditional craft of Korean embroidery, Ham has provided North Koreans the opportunity to participate in conceptual art—a prohibited practice under the Kim regime. Materials listed alongside the works highlight the complex journey: “…silk threads on cotton, middleman, bribe, anxiety, censorship, ideology, wooden frame.”
From afar, Ham’s pieces look like playful print collages, or the blurred vestiges of a painter’s palate. Closer, the phrases slowly reveal themselves: imagine; Big Smile; Money never sleeps. One intricate design resembles a more tasteful take on a magic eye poster, containing seismographs of kaleidoscopic color, making the moment of revelation ever more jarring when a stark question emerges: are you lonely too? The most striking message appears upon even closer inspection. In eyeing the painstaking craftsmanship, each stitch becomes a set of hands, a person, a mind, alive and at work in a place so often rendered with sweeping one-dimensionality.
Guiltily, I have long considered North Korea with a Westerner’s inquisitiveness. My parents hail from Seoul, but I was born and raised in California. Korea took shape in my mind like a half-eclipsed moon, the upper hemisphere engulfed in an unknowable darkness, the other illumined, yet still remote. The border lurked imperceptibly between in this imagining, even though I understood a bleaker reality prevailed in the form of a heavily mined strip of land, stretching 155 miles across the 38th parallel, 2.5 miles thick and full of electric fencing, surveillance cameras, and snarls of concertina wire.
My family didn’t talk about the North. Maybe because assimilation enforces a particular kind of attrition, wherein some part of your old self must be eroded to make room for the new. Or perhaps it may have been easier to detach from that history entirely, as a means to move on. North Korea’s existence came up in conversations indirectly, though, the obvious result of the Korean War in which my grandfather had served as an artillery colonel. He recounted many stories from that time, holding court around the dinner table, soju shot glass in hand.My uncles and mother would cackle at his adventures, all exclusively light-hearted tales, like the time he and a fellow soldier stole kegs from an abandoned beer factory; how, in their army jeep, they guzzled the ice-cold brew— spoils, I realize now, made possible by the town’s desolation, occasioned by evacuation, or annihilation.
The American in me had honed a perfunctory portrait of North Korea over the years. A villainous totalitarian dynasty, yes, but with particular emphasis on the leaders’ ludicrous tastes: Kim Jong-il’s penchant for otter fur hats, his obsessive preference for Hennessy cognac, the rumors of magical unicorn lairs, and an otherworldly birth story heralded by a double rainbow. But in equal measure, it disturbed me how these stories seemed to focus solely on caricaturing North Korea’s leaders, the farce obscuring from public view the rest of North Korea—people who looked like my grandfather, my mother, me.
Lifting that veil is perhaps what “The Real DMZ” co-curators Sunjung Kim and Keum Hyun Han hope to achieve. The exhibition belongs to a larger humanities endeavor called “The Real DMZ Project,” which began in 2012 as a site-specific production of artworks held both in and around the Citizen Control Zone of Cheorwon County, an area extending 10 miles south of the border, accessible only to residents, soldiers, and select sightseeing groups.
The project has since expanded into symposiums, lectures, group exhibitions, and even an artist residency sponsored in Yangji-ri, a former South Korean propaganda village built within view of the North. The Nottingham show is the project’s second international exhibition, which holds a specific focus: to demystify popular misconceptions about the DMZ and North Korea often circulated in Western media.
The timing is compelling. Two weeks after the show opened, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics commenced in South Korea. Unprecedented displays promoting reunification proliferated throughout the games. At a party for the opening ceremonies, South Korean President Moon Jae-in served his dozen VIP guests a dessert called “A Plate of Hope.” On it, a barbed helix of dark chocolate, meant to represent the Demilitarized Zone, lay across a blue, candied Korean peninsula. Under a torrent of hot white chocolate poured across it, the barbed wire dissolved, in an elaborate, gastronomic narrative.
Soon after, North and South Korean athletes marched together in the Parade of Nations beneath a united Korean flag, and later competed side-by-side in a first-ever joint Korean women’s hockey team. On the heels of a months-long panic over North Korean nuclear escalation, these gestures appeared to propose an immediate, frictionless future, free of the unpleasant realities inherent to a reconciliation of this magnitude.
And yet, in the ramp up to the Olympics, South Koreans shared mixed sentiments, if not outright skepticism, about the prospect of reunification. According to a survey conducted in 2017 by the Korea Institute for National Reunification in Seoul, support had dropped to 57.8 percent, down from 69.3 four years prior. Of South Korea’s younger generation, specifically those in their twenties, 71.2 percent were opposed, the fear of inheriting crippling national debt at the root of their concerns.
While some South Koreans considered the Pyeongchang reunification display empty political theatrics, I interpreted it all as a historic, if extremely rosy-eyed, step forward. North and South Korea never signed a peace treaty, which means the Korean War has technically never ended. While both sides acceded to an armistice agreement in 1953 (which led to the DMZ’s creation), the uncertainty of the peninsula’s geopolitics led me to assume that, one day, a resolution would eventually be reached. Diplomatic efforts extended since the Olympics, like the scheduled April inter-Korean summit, North Korea’s agreement to freeze nuclear weapons and missiles testing, and President Trump’s impending meeting with Kim Jong-un in May, suggest more concrete progress. But if anything, my visit to Nottingham revealed the flaws of this line of thinking—that when it comes to the North, there is no clear consensus with which to properly reorient myself. Instead, “The Real DMZ” offers an unsparing glance into the complexities and paradoxes inherent to Korea’s divided existence, challenging the ways in which we choose to perceive the North’s hermetic kingdom and its place in our world.
Whether cognizant of the impact or not, living in a divided nation has shaped the cultural, and national, identities of South Koreans for generations. Many of the exhibition’s contributing artists grew up post-war, under the South Korean military dictatorship. Government-sanctioned, anti-North Korean propaganda had been elemental to their education curriculums, along with mandatory two-year military conscription for young men (which remains in place today).
Seungwoo Back examines this uniquely South Korean perspective in Utopia, a digital image series of composited archive photographs, excerpted at the gallery. Back, like several of his fellow contributing artists, had been taught to believe North Koreans were brainwashed and bore devilish horns. But on a visit to Pyongyang as an adult in 2001, Back described a more abstract disillusionment, seeing the North’s capital city as a grand, Truman Show-type charade, in which his own biases did not permit him to see the country or its people lucidly. Fearing he too had been “brainwashed” by the South, he came to realize he could not objectively decide on what the true version of North Korea might be.
“Photos always try to make you decide or feel a certain way,” Back explained at the gallery. “When I went [to Pyongyang], I could see that they were not so different from me… what I was thinking and seeing were illusions, and an unreal reality made by myself.”
For Utopia, Back obtained DPRK-approved photos of North Korean buildings originally circulated between the 1970s and 1980s. He then manipulated these simple, grey structures into towering and austere buildings, borrowing inspiration from both the Bauhaus movement and Russian Constructivist architecture. Bright splashes of salmon pink and canary yellow consume the background, in shades reminiscent of Chinese propaganda posters. For Back, the process is a kind of excavation, a reassemblage to uncover new meaning. And the result should stir a viewer to engage and question the biases implicit to both photographer and subject.
I wondered if Back’s photos implied that in every utopia exists a dystopia, and vice versa. He suggested I might be missing the point, that assigning the label of utopia or dystopia is irrelevant, that perhaps the circumstance itself defies singular definition.
If anything, artists of this exhibition are exploring that exact conceit, representing the DMZ as a land of contradictions. It is the site of both brutality and beauty; pocked with hidden landmines, but also a place for renewal and life, sanctuary to endangered migratory birds like the red-crowned crane, which has thrived in the absence of humans.
Sections of the DMZ accessible to the public also present powerful ironies, which Yeondoo Jung explores in his photographs, shot at Cheorwon Peace Observatory, a tourist hub within the Demilitarized Zone. The observatory affords panoramic views of pastoral Cheorwon, the DMZ itself, and parts of North Korea. The official Korea tourism website touts, with near zoological allure, that visitors can spot through binoculars the faces of North Korean soldiers.
In Jung’s Theater of Victory, the observatory appears as a set piece. Large-paneled windows are haloed by slate-grey, scalloped stage curtains; rows of maroon auditorium seating hem the foreground, and, in the distance, a stunning expanse is crimped with mountain ranges—a scene within a scene, as if snapped from the first act of a grander satire.
Seeing Jung’s work transported me back to 2012, when I’d toured the DMZ. Before I’d left, my grandfather fretted over my decision to go, and had referred to the destination not as the DMZ but Panmunjom, a village once located on both north and south sides of the border, where the armistice agreement had been signed. The anachronism seemed telling of some larger rift.
In actuality, even though Panmunjom no longer exists, it is often used as a metonym for the Joint Security Area—the only section of the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face-to-face. Many tours do not include the JSA as part of the deal, but mine did. I’d lived in several metropolitan cities by then, but my grandfather worried about me commuting anyway, citing my inability to speak Korean. This may have been a way of deflecting his actual fear: though over 100,000 tourists frequent the JSA each year, there is no guarantee of safety. War could erupt at any moment. I considered this worst-case scenario after signing my warning waiver, and distracted myself by eyeing a sun-faded USO poster of Gary Sinise and the Lieutenant Dan Band that hung in the sightseeing company’s waiting room.
During the tour, I spent most of my time in awe of my American compatriots’ unbearable behavior, as if we’d purchased tickets to Disneyland rather than a historical site of national trauma. People blithely snapped pictures in photography-prohibited zones, which required the bus driver to pull over so our military escorts could delete the files. In the UN conference room, a place that permitted us to tread on the North Korean side of the border, I watched men and women mockingly pose like hokey gladiators beside real, on-duty Korean soldiers. Then I wept at Mount Dora’s observation deck, which overlooked Kijong dong, an uninhabited propaganda “peace village” in North Korea, whose tiny houses and enormous flagpole comprised some doleful diorama, an unconvincing proof of life. Tourists ogled, as if placed before a replica of the Fantasyland ride, “It’s a Small World.” The rubbernecking and puerility and big-top spectacle of it all blurred what I sensed existed behind the scrim: utter frailty at the brink of, or still in repair from, ruin. I left more bewildered than when I’d arrived. The white, clean subway whispered me back to my grandfather, and we said nothing more.
Now I wonder how he feels during monsoon season. At a panel discussion the day after “The Real DMZ” opening party, multimedia artist Onejoon Che recounted a story about a violent thunderstorm that struck Seoul one summer. Thunder clapped so furiously, he believed war had broken out. The next day, he’d heard on the news that Korean elderly people often experience similar anxieties during torrential weather. The imminence of war hovers in their periphery. “For us, it’s everyday life,” Che said. When pressed to expound further, he added, “If you ask me, personally—If war happens, you die. You run or die. And we just live on.”
I detected this ambivalence on a recent trip to Seoul. My grandparents kept the TV news blaring all day. Coverage of the impending Olympic Games and Korea’s unified team filled every hour, peppered with US presidential tweets and general speculation over the geopolitical quandary that is the Korean Peninsula. My grandfather, mouth creased in his usual frown, listened and nodded. A version of his younger self, framed beside an award of great military distinction, hovered on a wall nearby.
Back at the Nottingham panel, conversation had drifted away from stormy weather. I felt compelled to inquire about the Berlin Wall, which had cropped up a few times already, as a point of contention. A city split in half may be incomparable to a divided nation, but I wanted to know if anything could still be gleaned from that past.
Installation artist Soyoung Chung had spent a few months last year in Berlin, and had noted the lingering tensions between the East and West, the palpability of a wall without the wall. “Talking to Berliners from the West,” she said, “I considered them as future South Koreans. They said, ‘Oh do you really want reunification? Look how Berlin is.’ They’re still aware of the border that is gone.”
The truth is, no one can know what will happen with Korea. And like the Berlin Wall, the DMZ will probably never fully disappear. But South Korean artists are creating a vital and parallel living dialogue that indexes our history along the way. As co-curator Keum Hyun Han believes, borders exist in different capacities everywhere, for us all. Which is perhaps why anyone, in Nottingham, or someone like me from the States, is drawn to the DMZ. “People outside Korea, they’re looking at the DMZ one way, but when they come to participate and see these exhibitions, they believe something different,” she told me. “The DMZ is not just political. It’s like any other issue—identity, or private and collective feelings, between social and individual relationships. Maybe the DMZ is not only a problem between South and North. DMZ is in your mind. In your lives. In your societies.” And in the end, we just live on.