Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What does the DMZ symbolize?

A tank-trap near the DMZ.

At four kilometres wide and a few hundred kilometres long and with almost no human presence, the DMZ might reasonably be considered a haven for wildlife.  It is the reverse of a scar, a band of natural, healthy green between developed and over-developed land where even the farms cover the ground in black plastic wrap.

Some wildlife does thrive there, with many reports of deer (saber-toothed deer, cool!), boar and giant pheasants. Still, as GI Korea notes, this is a bit much (quoting from another source):
It is a refuge for Asiatic black bears, leopards, rare Korean tigers, and birds such as the red-crowned crane, which has long used the area as a wintering grounds.
Yes, the crane are there, but no bear, leopards or tigers have been seen (sorry, some bad quoting - GI Korea reports that no bear or the like have been seen - he quoted a journalist as above).   The four kilometres in width is too narrow: if a bear or tiger had been there, it would have been seen by now...and probably seen limping along on three legs.

Yes, there is nature aplenty in the DMZ and, aside from possibly-leaking explosive mines, very little pollution.  Depending on where this water actually comes from in the DMZ, it likely is very pure (the link is to another GI Korea post, more recent, but behind the times as the water has been around for a while now).

So, is the DMZ a wildlife sanctuary?   As I've described, it is more and less than that.

Can it be a symbol of peace?

"The DMZ has created a natural reserve for endangered species at the cost of the tragic war," said Lee O-young, professor emeritus of Ehwa Woman's University and an advisory member for the group.
"We have to make the DMZ a symbol for the so-called Natural Capitalism, a new trend that avoids over-production and over-consumption."
Gyeonggi Governor Kim Mun-soo asked for the group's efforts in order to preserve the area's cultural and historical meanings.
The group plans an orchestra performance themed on world peace next year near the Peace Dam on the Bukhan River, which was built in 2005 to prevent possible flooding of North Korea's Imnam Dam.
The 2010 DMZ Peace Forum is also scheduled in August next year, the group said.

I guess it can be, but it seems to require some serious double-think.  The DMZ, a boundary between two heavily armed nations and where no one goes to preserve a delicate armistice, one that is broken every few years, is also a symbol of natural beauty and home to animals too light to trigger the land-mines.  Because it is so natural and wild, it seems peaceful if you don't look too closely (to see those mines) or too widely (to see the huge military presence on either side).  Because it seems peaceful, it is a symbol of peace.

Okay, got it.

Oh, this Natural Capitalism thing ("a new trend that avoids over-production and over-consumption") sounds a lot like the slow cities of Jeolla Province.  In both cases, the end product was never intended.  Here, the land is not over-developed because it is a war-zone! The slow cities are slow because the young people are flocking to the big cities.  The cities can well be described as dying, and the DMZ, well, are Natural Capitalists planning on starting wars, then signing armistices to create more?

Now, symbol of peace or not, it is one thing that Korea is famous for.  No, my parents did not know about kimchi when I first came here, but we all knew about the DMZ.  It is Korea's most famous landmark and a tourist attraction.

As a tourist attraction it is a popular one:
According to the provincial government, about 27.06 million tourists visited the province during the first half of the year, up about 1 percent from 26.78 million on-year. The number of foreign tourists rose by 175,000....
The number of tourists to the Cheolwon area, where tours of the demilitarized zone are being promoted, grew by a hefty 180,000. 
These numbers seem hincky - half the population of Korea visited Gangwondo?  There were really 175,000 more foreign tourists visiting Gangwon Province in half a year?  Perhaps I am being racist in not believing this number -foreign does not mean white after all.  I likely would not recognize most foreign tourists as foreign.

Anyway, it is a tourist site and I strongly recommend visiting panmunjeom.  This place lives up to it's reputation and I felt simultaneously scared and fascinated.  From the Korea Times:

...the DMZ was once said to be the ``scariest place on Earth’’ by former President Bill Clinton. 

According to Time, that should not serve as an excuse not to visit. 
Inside the bright-blue-hued conference rooms that sit atop the tense border in Panmunjeom, visitors are able to cross a few timid feet into North Korea. 
Outside the buildings, a look across the border will be met with icy glares from a North Korean soldier with binoculars. 

Some see this as a problem, however (same article):

Time magazine listed the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as one of the top experiences one can have in Asia in its latest issue, but South Korean officials and marketing consultants question whether it spoils the country’s image. 

From South Korea's perspective, the DMZ magnifies its negative association with communist North Korea, which policymakers are seeking to avoid. 
The country’s image has been damaged and clouded by the actions of the Stalinist state. Whenever Korea is mentioned in any corner of the world, many ordinary people often conjure up negative images of nuclear weapons or dictator Kim Jong-il.
This badly damages the positive image of South Korea, which is an OECD member, the ninth-largest exporting country in the world and a tech-savvy nation. 
Michael Breen, a Korea Times columnist and a PR consultant in Seoul said, ``Many Korean officials consider the DMZ to have a negative impact on tourism and would prefer that it is not promoted.''

Again, it is a symbol of peace or war?  Can a land where humans literally fear to tread due to land-mines ever be accepted as a positive?

The DMZ has given South Korea fifty years of prosperity and stability; at the same time it has kept the North Korean people out-of-sight and recently (without Russian aid) suffering greatly. The DMZ has given us four kilometres of distance and curtaining so we can't see what is happening, but we are getting reports that beyond the DMZ is a hell-hole and Kim Jong-il is probably thrilled that we are looking at the DMZ and thinking about the DMZ and not beyond it.

The DMZ is a pretty bandaid hiding a hideous wound and we are admiring the bandaid.

The DMZ is a beautiful place and you should go and see it.  I wish it were as endangered as the animals it protects.  See it, but look around and see more than it.  It is a symbol of deliberate, selective blindness.
Added later: More of the same at the Herald:
 Well, perhaps not quite the same.  In one article they discuss making the DMZ an ecological park and dividing the DMZ into regions for industry and development.

The government plans to develop border areas with North Korea into a center for inter-Korean cooperation, international peace and ecological protection.
The Ministry of Public Administration and Security yesterday announced the plan during the meeting of the Presidential Committee on Regional Development attended by President Lee Myung-bak.
The ministry will designate the Demilitarized Zone as an ecological preservation zone to protect rare wildlife and the natural environment.
More than 3,000 rare species of animals and plants are found in the 907-square-kilometer heavily fortified border.

"Supra-regional belts represent new territorial growth axes of the nation combining industries, culture, tourism and infrastructure," said Lee Yong-woo, a senior researcher of the state-run Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements.
The strategy seeks to make the best use of the nation's geoeconomic advantage, as it is located in the center of Northeast Asia and positioned to serve as the gateway both to the Pacific Rim and Eurasia, he said.
The government plans to finalize comprehensive plans for each of the supra-regional belts including financing, infrastructure and industrial development in the first half of next year, the committee said.

Actually, these regions may encompass area outside the DMZ, but seem to include it.

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