The DMZ: A Thin Wilderness

South Korea is a mountainous and crowded country. High hills and low mountains are in view no matter where you go, but there are also fifty million people on the peninsula. So, wherever there is flat land, there is a city. The cities, towns, and farms spread over the low-lying areas like water, and nearly all the undeveloped areas are in the heart of mountains.

The DMZ is an exception. Whether it crosses mountains or lowlands, it is wilderness: it stretches blank and empty like a thin belt across the waist of Korea, uncaring of topography. You can track it on a satellite map by the narrow band of darker green marking it out from the towns and farmlands to the southern side. It very roughly traces the 38th parallel of north latitude, extending two kilometers to either side. It is heavily fenced, mined, and guarded, but attracts some visitors, of whom I was one this summer.

Map of the DMZ (image credit smithsonianmag.com)

Map of the DMZ (image credit smithsonianmag.com)

My memories of the DMZ are shrouded in dark clouds, rain, thunder, and lightning. We stopped at an observatory and looked north over the empty wilderness of the DMZ, seeking glimpses of North Korea. We had a 180-degree panorama from glass windows in a high tower filled with banks of auditorium seats facing north. But we could see nothing past a kilometer or so: ramparts of dark clouds filled the northern sky, blocking our vision. It was as if North Korea were fenced off from the rest of the world by meteorological sorcery, shrouded in secrecy. Like Mordor.

We visited several other observatories, but it rained almost constantly. I suppose at other times North Korea might see clear skies; I suppose at times the countryside might even sparkle warmly in the sunshine after it rains. But that’s not really what I think of when I imagine North Korea. For us, at least, the North remains opaque: a dream-vision only.

Instead, we looked over the DMZ. We saw highly zoomed images of the view to the north where steps were cut into the hillsides leading up to crude watch-huts. Small gardens where the North Korean soldiers farmed to supplement the food they got from the military. Our guides told us that they were lazy, rarely stirring from their huts, perhaps because they had so little food.

But, to me, the most interesting views were general prospects of the rest of the DMZ. The landscape of the DMZ is alien to anyone who has spent much time in Korea post-development; at times it has more in common with other continents than native vistas elsewhere in this country.  You see a stream in a low valley. You see a lone tree in the midst of swampy lowlands, speared by sunlight, the air thick with humidity. You see relatively flat land stretching for miles. There are no other such wild flat places in Korea.

View of the DMZ (photo credit Choi Byung Kwan)

View of the DMZ (photo credit Choi Byung Kwan)

In the DMZ there may even be real tigers, the last on the peninsula except perhaps a few around the sacred volcano at the Chinese border with North Korea. The DMZ is also a winter refuge for endangered red-crowned cranes, which the Chinese believed could live for a thousand years. There are birds and flowers and plants and insects unknown to the rest of the South, protected by sixty years of non-development.

Red-crowned cranes over the DMZ (photo credit Michael S. Yamashita)

Red-crowned cranes over the DMZ (photo credit Michael S. Yamashita)

I first imagined those storm clouds that hung over the DMZ that day as walls concealing a modern-day Mordor, and thought of the DMZ as a geographic reminder of the political division of a culture.  But those dark clouds could also be heralds for the loss of this thin strip of wilderness, after unification and open borders and de-mining render it unnecessary. The DMZ is not only a political symbol; it is also a reminder, in one of the world’s most heavily developed nations, of the difference that lives in even a thin wilderness.

Flowers grow out of a helmet in the DMZ (photo credit Choi Byung Kwan)

Flowers grow out of a helmet in the DMZ (photo credit Choi Byung Kwan)

If you’re interested in learning more about plans to turn the DMZ into a national park, check out dmzforum.org.

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The photos in this post were from the following articles:

http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/05/07/eco.korea.dmz/index.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/The-DMZs-Thriving-Resident-The-Crane.html

Check them out for more fantastic photos (and maybe stay for the writing)!

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