Academic journal article North Korean Review

Life on the Edge of the DMZ

Academic journal article North Korean Review

Life on the Edge of the DMZ

Article excerpt

Life on the Edge of the DMZ Si-Woo, Lee. Translated by Myung-Hee Kim. Kent, UK: BRILL/Global Oriental, 2008. 330pp. Hardcover, $79.99, ISBN: 978-1-9052-4666-3

Lamentations over the "securitization" of North Korean studies notwithstanding, when it comes to writing about the DPRK in English, military matters appear still to be prime.1 In Washington, D.C., the word "Korea" itself is often paired with the term "threat," rapidly associated with images of missile tests, sunken ships, or artillery strikes. Even Korean geography denotes conflict; toponyms like Yeonpyeong Island and even Mount Kumgang become vested with meaning as nodes on a chain of hotspots recalling conflict or sites of killing. The need for voices who can acknowledge the magnetism of past violence, while aiding the reader in turning toward a peaceful future, ought to be a given.

Lee Si-Woo provides an alternative perspective in Life on the Edge of the DMZ, a text that looks like a linear travel narrative but is, in fact, a cyclical peace polemic. More than a decade after the Sunshine Policy reached its apex, Lee's meditations call to mind not simply the need to heal the peninsula's ecology, but the need to better understand North Korea. As Lee's text points out, when we go beyond North Korea's image as a military problem, we are brought into encounter with an arresting physical beauty, though one marred by conflict. We are also forced to retreat, as this text does, back in time to the pre-Korean War era. Lee seeks to relocate our understanding of the DPRK into the pre-war era, the liberation period (1945-1950).

Lee is a peace activist known for his photography, 150 poignant examples of which adorn the present text. He is also an opponent of the National Security Law, having been detained under its aegis in April 2007 for disclosing American military positions as part of his work with the Korean Campaign to Ban Landmines. In the present text, which was first published in Korean in 2003, Lee draws from an eclectic range of knowledge about Korean division, the frontier between the two states, the ruins of ecology and nation, and Korean traditional culture. Characterizing Lee's viewpoint on the U.S. military is not terribly complicated business; Lee sees the Americans crushing, polluting, despoiling and destroying anything they get their hands on, and bringing suffering to the Koreans who are unlucky enough to get in their way. As might be intimated from its title, the book's ostensible form is that of a series of trips to the border areas around the DMZ, where the author meets victims of landmines, victims of chemical weapons storage, victims of political conflict, and, most of all, human/ecological victims of the division of Korea itself.

For scholars who take a humanistic approach to Korean ecology, peace activists, opponents of U.S. military hegemony, and individuals more disposed to see North Korea as simply misunderstood, the book is indispensible reading. For other readers more prone to investigating military deterrence or the U.S.-ROK alliance, the text is a useful counterpoint, not just because of the author's perspective but because his book serves as a primer or survey of the border region as a whole.

The author's political leanings, and his abiding desire to demystify North Korea, become clear near the outset of the text, where Lee describes the joy that locals felt at Soviet liberation in 1945. The object of meditation here is the destroyed Workers' Party Headquarters in Chorwon, a crumbling and bombed-out edifice now on South Korean soil. Lee takes the building foremost as an aesthetic object whose interpretation tells us something about history. For readers already familiar with Charles Armstrong's work on the liberation period in North Korea, Lee's reportage from Chorwon provides a fascinating juxtaposition. Lee recounts his visit with Ryu Woon-hyung, a "long-term unconverted prisoner" in the South who, prior to the Korean War, had served as head of the communist youth league in the city. …

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