Spotlight: DMZ exhibition in S. Korea depicts transition, imagines future on Korean Peninsula

Source: Xinhua| 2019-04-19 14:37:59|Editor: Yurou
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A visitor takes photos of an artwork created by sculptor Ahn Kyuchul in a DMZ exhibition at the Culture Station Seoul 284 in Seoul, South Korea, April 2, 2019. (Xinhua/Wang Jingqiang)

by Yoo Seungki, Lu Rui

SEOUL, April 19 (Xinhua) -- Kim Dong-yeon, a South Korean graduate student, was waiting at the Seoul Station for a train to the southern port city of Busan when she was suddenly captivated by the word "DMZ" on a street poster.

The DMZ, as is known by all Koreans, stands for the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean Peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice.

Unwittingly led by the word, the 27-year-old entered an exhibition hall right beside Seoul Station. The former Seoul Station building is currently called Culture Station Seoul 284, where artworks by more than 50 artists, designers and architects are on display for the DMZ exhibition from March 21 to May 6.

"I came from Busan. I was waiting for a train in Seoul Station. When I found the word of DMZ, I stepped into the exhibition hall," Kim told Xinhua.

Even though she had not visited the DMZ, she was very interested in the place as it was what she called a "mysterious world that cannot be accessed easily" for ordinary people.


The DMZ had long been shrouded in mystery, vaguely known to ordinary people as a symbol of the division of the Korean Peninsula.

People were strictly forbidden from accessing the zone.

Since the Korean War ended with an armistice agreement, both South Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) moved their troops back an equal distance of 2 km from the military demarcation line (MDL).

By definition, the DMZ should have been demilitarized, but it had turned into one of the world's most heavily armed zones as the Korean War ended with no peace treaty. The zone got increasingly fortified, with mines laid and barbed wire fences erected along the 4-km-wide buffer.

The ongoing DMZ exhibition in Seoul was designed to draw people's attention to the forbidden zone, to which the world was paying an increasing attention amid the ongoing diplomatic efforts to denuclearize the peninsula and build a lasting peace.

"This exhibition is produced to wish for peace on the Korean Peninsula and enhance the understanding of the DMZ among ordinary people who have little knowledge of it," said Kim Haeju, co-curator of the exhibition and deputy director of Art Sonje Center in Seoul.

The symbol of division took an opportunity to transform itself into the symbolic space of reconciliation when South Korean President Moon Jae-in and top DPRK leader Kim Jong Un held their first summit talks at the border village of Panmunjom inside the DMZ in April last year.

It was the first inter-Korean summit in history to be held inside the DMZ. It was a historic moment when Moon and Kim met face-to-face and shook hands on the opposite sides of the MDL, taking a first step towards the transition of the DMZ from the symbol of division to the symbol of peace.


The transition was materialized last December, three months after the comprehensive military agreement was signed by defense chiefs of the two Koreas during the third Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang. The agreement aimed to alleviate military tensions in border areas by setting up buffer zones on the ground, in the air and the waters.

Under the military agreement, South Korea and the DPRK demolished 11 of their guard posts inside the DMZ each, one of which the two sides decided later to preserve for their historical value. There remains about 50 South Korean and some 150 DPRK guard posts each inside the DMZ.

The remnants of barbed-wire fences, iron stairs and fuel oil tanks, used for the DMZ guard posts that were destroyed, can now be seen in the DMZ exhibition hall.

Right behind it stands a wooden tower with a metal bell hung on the top, titled "DMZ Peace Bell." It is an installation work made of the remains of the DMZ barbed wires that were melted to form the bell.

"A barbed wire that was once a symbol of division is now transformed into a bell that brings people together," said Ahn Kyuchul, a professor at the Korea National University of Arts who made the artwork.

The central hall, housing the DMZ Peace Bell, features artists' works that reflect the current DMZ under transitions following the Panmunjom summit last April. Ahn's work indicates hope for the DMZ, a space of tension and hostility turning into one of peace and recovery.

"I wished audiences face the reality of the DMZ dividing the people (of the two Koreas). I also hoped people imagine a new future of the post-division era," said the 64-year-old artist.

Outstanding on the second floor, which exhibits the paintings of 17 modern artists presenting the landscape of the DMZ inaccessible to ordinary people, is "Goseong." It is an oil on canvas painted by Min Joung-ki after his rare trip in January to the preserved DMZ guard post in Goseong, a northeastern border town of South Korea.

The work of art involves the landscape in the DPRK side of the DMZ stretching out as far as to the Mount Kumgang that can be seen from the Goseong guard post, indicating how close the two Koreas are geographically.


The DMZ exhibition was designed to provide an opportunity for visitors to imagine a future DMZ in a new peace era. On the right of the central hall is a room housing works by artists, designers and architects imagining the future.

Among them is another of Min's work, titled "Embrace." It is an oil on canvas painted in 1981 to depict a scene where a man and a woman passionately embrace after crossing a barbed-wire fence.

The painting symbolizes the grim reality of the division in the early 1980s. At the same time, it figuratively expresses hope for the divided Koreas to be reunited like the couple embracing beside a barbed-wire fence in the darkness.

Tobias Rehberger, an artist from Germany, exhibits a 3D-printed model, titled "Duplex House." It was created in 2017 to represent an imaginary dwelling for the families of the two Koreas with the three-story house.

The three floors symbolize the history and future of the two Koreas. The entrance room on the first floor stands for the common past, and the separate spaces on the second floor represent the present by figuratively depicting the two Koreas mutually eyeing each other through two small windows. The top floor represents the joint future of the reunified Koreas.

The South Korean government under President Moon hoped to materialize the imaginations into a reality by transforming the DMZ into a peace zone, which ordinary people from the two Koreas can tour anytime they want.

Seoul is also reportedly planning to build several walking trails connected to the DMZ, which will soon be open to the general public, as part of the efforts to turn the area into "a peace zone."

"I hope the reunification (of the two Koreas) come early. I wish not to develop the DMZ after the reunification, but to preserve its ecosystem for environmental and historical purposes," said Lee Young-joon, a 58-year-old man who did his mandatory military service in late 1980s in the eastern South Korean side of the DMZ.

Kim Dong-yeon, the graduate student living in Busan, said she imagined her future trip to somewhere beyond the Korean Peninsula by a connected train across the inter-Korean border.

South Korea and the DPRK held a groundbreaking ceremony last December to modernize and eventually link rails across the border, but construction works had yet to be launched over international sanctions against Pyongyang.

The DMZ exhibition venue, the former Seoul Station building, was once at the center of the main rail artery linking from the top to the bottom of the peninsula, but the railway was severed following the division.

"Through this exhibition, we hope to make known the current DMZ and provide an opportunity to imagine together what this space can be in the future through works of art," said Kim Haeju, co-curator of the exhibition.

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