“Unification Aesthetics:” A Review of Lee Si-Woo’s Life on the Edge of the DMZ

By | November 06, 2013 | No Comments

The DMZ, a "barbed" and divided landscape--much like the human condition? | Image: Mattflaschen via Wikipedia

The Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjeom | Image: Mattflaschen via Wikipedia

East Asia is a geography of edges, where the Eurasian landmass finally gives way to the Pacific, mighty at this point. Of course East Asia’s most crystallized edge is no edge at all, but the demilitarized zone (DMZ) runs across/cuts in-half the Korean Peninsula. Human and military intervention onto landscape and topography has created an edge across which one can only stare, hope, or dream. Lee Si-Woo’s contemplation of that edge in not just geographic but also temporal terms is addressed here by Sino-NK’s Editor in Chief, Adam Cathcart, who recounts not only Lee’s text but his own watery engagement with the continuing generative fissure at the heart of East Asian politics. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

“Unification Aesthetics:” A Review of Lee Si-Woo’s Life on the Edge of the DMZ

Si-Woo, Lee. Life on the Edge of the DMZ. Translated by Myung-Hee Kim. Kent, UK: Global Oriental, 2008. 330 pp. ISBN: 1905246668.

by Adam Cathcart

Concerns 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, DC, the word “Korea” itself is often paired with the term “threat,” rapidly paired 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 such 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.  Lee is a peace activist known for his photography, 150 poignant examples of which adorn the present text. He is also a vocal 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.  (While texts on North Korea’s missiles or nukes tend to be more rapidly translated, Lee’s work took nearly half a decade to arrive in English.)  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.

Recovering North Korean Idealism in the “Liberation Era,” 1945-1950 | 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 arrestingly beautiful natural environment, though one that has been marred by conflict. We are also forced to retreat, as this text does, back in time to the pre-Korean War era. Just as Tessa Morris-Suzuki brings Gestalt to meditations on the East Asian past, Lee uses his own movement as a means of relocating our understanding of the DPRK into the pre-war era, the liberation period (1945-1950).

The author’s political subjectivities, 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 Cheolwon, a crumbling and bombed-out edifice now on South Korean soil. Lee takes the building foremost as an aesthetic object.

For readers already familiar with Charles Armstrong’s work on the liberation period in North Korea (1945-50), 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.  Ryu provides an unapologetic discussion of the purpose of the building and the rising support for the nascent People’s Republic at that time (p. 25). The text’s look at North Korea prior to 1950 is suffused with the nigh-millennial spirit of the Sunshine Policy prevailing at the time of the book’s writing; Ryu’s story is thus intended to show how idealistic the Koreans in the north had been some fifty-odd years prior.

In doing so, Lee has company. He appears particularly animated by the spirit of one left-wing journalist he cites—Anna Louise Strong, who visited North Korea in 1946 and whose work from that year bolsters Lee’s description of the liberation era as one of wholesale optimism north of the 38th parallel.  Naturally, the Soviet occupation of those years goes wholly unnamed.

After echoing the former labor activist in Seattle (and friend of Mao) who was so enamored of North Korean youthful optimism, Lee veers off into a new meditation on the meaning of the inter-Korean borderlands.

It becomes quickly plain to the reader that the author regards the desolation of the border region as a huge canvas for a meditation on life itself:  “Loneliness,” writes Lee, “stems from a self-awareness of emptiness and thus contains energy with which to combat the emptiness” (p. 19).  There is no pedagogical intent here about coaxing North Korea into contact with its neighbors, merely a reflective man making notes on division as a human condition. The rest of the book is akin to the Workers’ Party headquarters described at its outset—replete and riddled with gaps; mismatched, wildly idealistic, with ample imaginative space in which to play and free from the weight of having to the story’s ever nook and cranny.

Old Conservatives and Unification Aesthetics | Employing the classic travel writer’s technique, using place as a platform, Lee arrives at Cho Man-sik’s statue near the observatory at Odu Mountain Unification Observatory. While other churchmen had followed American troops south in December 1950, Cho stayed behind, in captivity, and was rumored to have been killed by the KPA (Korean People’s Army) as they fled Pyongyang.

While the Presbyterian minister is sometimes seen as an alternative to Kim Il-sung in the north, Lee avoids such speculation. Rather, he sees Cho as a contemporary problem, a divisive figure:

Looking toward the North, I wonder once again if it s appropriate to have a statue of Cho Man-sik at the Odu Mountain Unification Observatory (p. 133).

Cho Man-sik | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Cho Man-sik | Image: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, Lee meanders into thoughts about Kim Ku and “unification aesthetics,” and delves into what he calls “Tangoonism” (단군주의), imagining that the mythical earliest King in Korean lore would necessarily found an important place in post-unification Korea.[2] At times, Tangun brings out salient discussions of national identity, cultural heritage, and Korea’s cultural patrimony in the shadow of the (older) Chinese monolith. Yet in Lee’s writing, wallowing in the primordial feels like a psychological escape from the awful specifics of the present era. Clearly any and every means must be grasped and considered for its possible utility in a Korean unification.

Unification for Lee, however, is not merely a matter of personnel, of Cho Man-shik’s place in the history of a reunited Korea, or of the place of a long-term defector in Cheolwon.  It is about the environment of the peninsula.  Within this book’s immense layering of cultural references is a plea to see the peninsula as an environmental unity.

Readers familiar with work on environmental politics in the DPRK (Eleana Kim and Robert Winstanley-Chesters being two leading voices), or intrigued by Brett Walker’s treatment of Japan’s environmental history, will find great resonance in Life on the Edge of the DMZ. The author’s intermingling of environment and politics also falls away, sometimes beautifully so. Well prior to the deadly thunderclaps of conflict on Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, Lee approached the locale with a reverent and occasionally funny bow to its abundant fish. “Herring tastes great even when it’s rotten,” he writes (p. 119).

While North Korea is ostensibly innocent of any environmental despoiling in his view, characterizing Lee’s viewpoint on the US 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.

Likening South Korean zones dominated by US military bases to, say, Okinawa and Puerto Rico is rapidly achieved in this text. But again, North Korea remains an absent partner. Honestly recouping from the wounds of the past properly requires assessment of the DPRK’s development in the intervening decades since the division of the Korean peninsula and the savagery of the Korean War. The American military brought defoliants, mines, and even nuclear weapons to South Korea, but the North Korean state has surely wrought its own peculiar environmental devastation on its side of the DMZ.

For scholars who take a humanistic approach to Korean ecology, peace activists, opponents of US 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 US-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. Lee can be a highly frustrating interlocutor, but to read his work repeatedly is rewarding, in spite of the critiques that follow.

Lee’s DMZ: Intellectually Brittle But with Winsome Captions | Lee’s journey along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) sometimes meanders into thematic territory that is, to put it charitably, intellectually brittle. His analysis of the corporate and capitalist proclivities of American Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles (pp. 42-43) veers into accusations that Dulles actually relished seeing Korea divided and devastated (p. 262). The author’s analysis on the suppression reportage from a fourth tunnel under the DMZ in 1990 is simply incoherent. An analysis of North Korean tunnels curves back into American bombing patterns in Afghanistan; perhaps instead a mental journey between Gaza and Egypt, or the US and Mexico, would have been more productive. And occasionally the author’s habit of spiraling down into monologues robs his journey of any sense of propulsion:  “The closer we get to the future, the more the past presses upon us,”(p. x) and “the brightest light can appear in a very dark place” (p. xi), he writes. Poetic insight and narrative prose are, like the Koreas, occasionally better when kept apart.

For readers who tire of the author’s mental meanderings, an episodic approach to reading, and the constant inclusions of beautiful photographs are very helpful.  The photos include such winsome captions “When I visited the minefield, an old man, drunk with the fragrance, walked into it and got killed; a wild flower in full bloom was leaning against a mine,” reads one (p. 256). There are other moments of repose in the text that need to be savored for their beautiful fatality.

A misty and mystical Taebuksan, the place of Tangun's (and the Korean nation's) brith, according to legend | Image: Esteban Mendieta Jara

A misty and mystical Taebuksan, the place of Tangun’s (and the Korean nation’s) birth, according to legend | Image: Esteban Mendieta Jara

This is a frustrating book, but frustrating in the way that an early Wagner opera or a borderland excursion by a genius (see: William T. Vollmann, Imperial) is frustrating. In the long course of writing this particular review, I found myself thinking back to the book frequently, as occurred on my own sea voyage from Dandong to Incheon. On a misty morning in the Yellow Sea, I watched a man wave his arms above his head. In the early dawn, I thought he had been captured by the desire for unification, and that he was motioning to unseen North Koreans on the Ongjin peninsula that he acknowledged them, that they were being kept apart by politics, that the war could be over. Then I saw that he was simply waving his cell phone in his hand, in search of a South Korean signal from Yeonpyeong Island. He soon received the requested dispensation, and was quickly hunched over his phone, talking with South Korea through the coastal wind.  It was a moment of sudden intellectual conflict and possible breakthrough on the long edge of an invisible—but very much present—Korean fissure. It was a moment I would very much like to have shared with Lee Si-Woo.

[1] Sonia Ryang, ed., North Korea: Toward a Better Understanding (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009).

[2] The legend of Tangun, the mythological first king of the Koreans, is a story of the founding of Chosun (ancient “Korea”). Born to a bear-woman and son of Hwan-in (God of All) atop of Mt. Taebaek (on the border between Manchuria and what is now North Korea), Tangun would eventually move to Pyongyang where he established the “Land of the Morning Calm” (the Chosun Kingdom). Some claim lineage to Tangun and his offspring as the ancestors of modern Koreans.

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