Friend or Enemy? -Visit to the Demilitarized Zone

By Angela Lauman a young woman from the YWCA of Australia.

Nearly 60 years since the creation of the Korean Demilitarized Zone – Korea’s heavily guarded demilitarised zone – a YWCA delegation participated in a witness visit in the context of the International Training Institute on Violence against Women and Peace building taking place in Seoul from November 8-13, 2012. Angela shares her experience: 

Yesterday we visited to demilitarised zone which separates South Korea from North Korea.  It was timely that we were on a ‘peace pilgrimage’, considering it was Remembrance Day, the day the First World War ended in 1918.

Angela Lauman

The day began with a bus trip from Seoul and a worship service at the Cheorwon cultural centre. From there, in the rain and cold, but warmed by a tasty lunch and a brief session of gangam style dancing in the lobby, we headed through the civilian controlled zone surrounding the DMZ to the Cheorwon Peace Observatory overlooking the southern limit line which marks 4 km on the south side from the original military demarcation line dividing the two countries.

I don’t know what I had expected, but what we saw wasn’t it. It seemed heavily geared to tourists rather than a tension filled border area.

In the distance you could see the watch towers of both the South Korean and North Korean armies. My overwhelming feeling was one of sadness for the young men whose job it was to maintain the border, keep up the image of war so long since the original division occurred. It would have been the decisions and convictions of previous generations that caused the separation. Nearly 60 years on, did the current soldiers share this too? My guess is they were probably standing around bored, talking about their girlfriends back home, what they did last night, or what they were going to do when they got out of the army. They may also have been looking over to the other watch tower and wondering what life might be like for those on the other side. Soldiers on both sides probably have a lot in common – a group of young men that share a language, a job, and until relatively recently, a culture. They would probably have a lot to share were they ever to find themselves sitting across the table and having a chat. For me this experience highlighted the arbitrary divisions between enemy and friend that are necessary to justify war, and against which it is so necessary to fight.

The information in the Observatory’s exhibition about the war and the history of the DMZ seemed steeped in propaganda which positioned the North Koreans as the enemy, and promote a sense of fear about the North Koreans. This seemed incongruent with the messages of peace and reconcilitation we heard during the worship service, and from our YWCA of Korea sisters in the lead up to the trip. The voices of North Korean women and men were conspicuously missing from the story, which was also sad.

It is heartening however to see that the women of YWCA of Korea recognise both the potential for peace and unity and the commonalities between North and South Koreans which will hopefully one day help them to achieve a united country. This is evident through their programs to support women and children in North Korea, and through their work to support refugees from North Korea. This work is important, and I look forward to going home and telling the story of their work to our YWCA members in Canberra.