In an observation pavilion overlooking the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, in front of an audience that included serving military officers in camouflage fatigues, Kang Kwan-sun sang for peace.
Dressed in white – the Korean color of mourning – she sang, “Come to us, come to us,” in the melancholy wail of pansori, or traditional Korean opera.
She was joined on the improvised stage by a male performer stripped to the waist, who smeared his body in paints of red and blue – a disturbing dance symbolizing a divided people, a divided peninsula.
Beyond the performers spreads a rugged mountainous panorama. A military guard post could be seen perched on a razor-back ridge. The ridge-line plunges down to a coastline, where brilliant blue waves broke on a white sand beach.
The long stretch of coastline is heartbreakingly beautiful but also strangely sinister. Completely still and completely empty, this is the DMZ: no man’s land.
Over the weekend the observation pavilion – with its lookout points, fences, binoculars and military vehicles – was draped in colored ribbons: ancient Shamanistic tokens of good luck for an art festival taking place in the run up to the Winter Olympic Games.
War paraphernalia and personnel – an armored troop carrier, medium artillery, camouflaged guard posts, armed infantrymen – contrast with symbols of peace. On the ridge below the observatory loom huge statues of the Buddha of Mercy and the Virgin Mary, silhouetted against the brilliant blue Sea of Japan. Both face north.
This outpost in Goseong County is the farthest north a civilian can go in South Korea. It stands on Korea’s east coast, north of the 38th parallel and just south of the DMZ in Gangwon Province. Gangwon, in South Korea’s northeast, is soon to host the Winter Olympics, in the province’s Pyeongchang County. Like Korea itself, Gangwon is divided between North and South.
“We can see Mount Kumgang, we can see clean air, and clean water, but we can take no step further into the North,” said Yi Way-su, a writer who read out a declaration of peace at the observatory. “We have to make efforts to terminate this tragic reality.”
In the past, hopes of inter-Korean reconciliation have been dashed again and again. But among those who live in this bisected corner of Korea, there are nascent hopes.
With North Korea having pledged to send a large delegation to Pyeongchang, there is anticipation that the upcoming Winter Games might – just might – provide a platform for inter-Korean communication, for trust-building. The longer-term goals are for the dismissal of the furies that have haunted this peninsula for seven decades, and then perhaps steps to national reunification.
At a nearby DMZ museum, curator No Yeon-su guides visitors.
Images and films show events from the 1950-53 Korean War: tanks rolling into Seoul, weeping women, orphaned children. There are displays of mines, barbed wire, razor wire and warning signs. Exhibits include a handful of the 28 million propaganda leaflets deployed by both sides, and a gigantic, rock-stadium style bank of speakers used to blast messages into the North.
A small section looks at past examples of inter-Korean interaction, including ice hockey jerseys from a joint team. Entire walls are covered in thousands and thousands of cards, on which visitors have scrawled their hopes for peace and reunification.
“Every day, I open my eye and see North Korea, but I cannot go there,” No, in his late 40s, said. “Now we are breaking the ice, this is an opportunity to start a conversation that could be ongoing in the future.”
Jeong Hong-yeon, a graduate student visiting the museum had similar hopes.
“The past two administrations did not [give] us a chance to communication, but now we are actively trying to communicate with North Korea. It is a totally different policy,” he said, referring to the 10 years of conservative governance that came to an end when President Park Geun-hye was impeached last May, opening the way for current liberal President Moon Jae-in. “This means a lot. I am excited!”
Even so, many among the young generation who have no remembrance of a non-divided Korea and no direct family links in the North are less focused on inter-Korean activities.
Speaking to foreign reporters in a coffee shop near the stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympiad will take place in Pyeongchang, Park Min-cheol, 24, an Olympic volunteer, said that while he likes the planned joint march of North and South Korean teams, he is against a unified women’s ice hockey team.
“There will be issues with teamwork, the quality of play will not be great,” he said. Addressing broader attitudes and the bigger picture, Park continued, “Around me, my friends don’t agree with reunification because in a lot of things the North Koreans will need our support. Why do we need to support them?”
Older Koreans are often critical of such opinions.
“I assume 80% of the over-50s agree with reunification, but young people have a perspective against unification – we have had different experiences,” said Choi Sang-hwan a 73-year-old volunteer who fought with the Korean contingent that served in the Vietnam War.
“The young don’t have any concept of war: It takes everything away. Without reunification, there is always the possibility of war in the future.”
With inter-Korean talks so far only focused on Olympic participation, reunification is still a distant dream. But it is also a poignant one. No, the DMZ Museum curator whose exhibits include sections of the border fence that once divided East from West Germany, has a very personal hope.
“To me, all this is not history, it is reality,” he said of his exhibits. “One of my dreams is this: I’d like to take a railway from here to Berlin before I die.”