Moves toward inter-Korean rapprochement are virtually frozen, and the location of 2019’s “DMZ Peace Train” music festival did not quite live up to its billing – but the scores of artists and thousands of fans who attended the blowout this weekend seemed to have a blast anyway.
Carefully manicured K-pop bands were noticeably absent on Sunday, the final day, when festival-goers braved thunder and downpours to sway to French blues-rock act Last Train, followed by equally heavy offerings from rising Danish neo-punk sensation Iceage.
After more sedate sounds from local RnB star George, as well as DJs and folk artists, former-Velvet Underground star John Cale – silhouetted against the background of a psychedelic light show – unleashed a rock-heavy set to bring the fest to a climax.
Irony was to the fore.
The festival’s brand was “Dancing for a Borderless World” but it took place in the front-line county of Cheorwon, northeast of Seoul – a region shattered and depopulated during the 1950-53 Korean War. Between acts, attendees from across Korea and around the world mingled with off-duty South Korean troops and took selfies in front of Korean War-era killing machines – tanks, warplanes and artillery pieces.
Rock in peace
This was the festival’s second year. Last year, over two days, it attracted some 8,000 attendees. This year, over three days, organizers registered 10,000 entrants for the first two days but – amid Sunday’s thunderstorms – the crowd was thinner on the third day, making for around 15,000 visitors in total.
Acts spanned the musical spectrum from rock to folk to RnB; artists hailed from locations as far apart as South Korea and Denmark, Thailand and the United States, Japan and France. For many fans, Peace Train’s highlight was Iceage, who took time out of their two-week Asia tour for a lightning visit to Cheorwon to play a half-hour set at Peace Train.
“We got asked to play and it seemed like a privilege to see the DMZ like this,” frontman Elias Ronnenfelt told international reporters. “The festival’s intention seemed quite noble, so it was a no-brainer.”
Resisting comparisons to rock activists like U2’s Bono, Ronnenfelt said, “We have not been a political band historically – I am not a subscriber to the idea that a band has a superior overview of how the world works – but it was nice that they were willing to ask.”
The various acts watched by Asia Times on Sunday made no political statements on stage. Clearly, though, many recognized that the event’s significance went beyond music.
“We want to be present at cool and meaningful events, so we are thrilled to be here,” said Kim Hwi-kyung, a representative of sponsor Red Stripe, the Jamaican lager brand. “A lot of people came out and showed love.”
Other locals were impressed by the location. “This is not a normal festival venue, it is a meaningful place with history,” said Korean RnB artist George (real name: Lee Dong-min). “It means a lot to me.”
Speaking on a hotel veranda overlooking verdant hills and a dramatic gorge, the 25-year-old offered a philosophical view of the area’s wider geopolitical ironies.
“The DMZ is a peaceful place – nobody can touch it,” Lee, who, as a youngster, went on singing tours of US military bases in Korea with a local Christian minister, said. “Freedom exists in contrast to oppression; some people say peace exists because of nuclear weapons. This area has two faces. It’s an irony.”
Peace Train gathers steam
The peace train festival – named for a Cat Stevens song – was inaugurated in the same area last year, promoter Yi Soo-jeong, 37, the festival’s head of content, explained. Although long interested in geopolitics – Yi’s masters’ thesis was on inter-Korean relations, not festival management – the genesis of the idea came when her colleague, Martin Elbourne, an act booker for the UK’s Glastonbury Festival, visited Korea and took a day-trip to the DMZ.
“He thought it would be super cool to do a festival near the DMZ,” she said.
Yi and her staff contacted local governments in areas adjacent to the DMZ. They settled on Cheorwon, due to financial and organizational support from the county, as well as from its surrounding province, Gangwon – the setting for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Thanks to this support, the festival is not-for-profit. “We wanted to do something meaningful, not commercial,” Yi said.
Still, from the get-go, the idea was to make it global. “We wanted to make it international so you would hear about it,” she said.
At first, global artists were reluctant to commit as they were unfamiliar with the DMZ – “I had to point to the location on Google Maps!” Yi said – but in 2017, publicity materialized from an unexpected source.
“Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump really helped us a lot by fighting over their red buttons on Twitter!” Yi said, referring to the widely reported war of words between the two leaders. “Maybe [the artists] thought it was time to do this.”
With such major acts as Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, Oasis and Bastille playing regular fests in Korea, and U2 scheduled to hit the country for the first time this year, Yi said she was not seeking top-tier names for Peace Train.
“Artists come to festivals for money, and because of that, they are expensive,” she said. The concept for the festival is to pair rock legends – such as Cale – with up-and-coming local artists – like George. Last year, assisted by festival bookers in the UK last year, Peace Train secured ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock as the headline act.
Looking ahead, Yi is keen to expand the festival into its third year and perhaps promote it further afield: With international contacts in the festival business, she is considering taking it to other conflict zones around Asia in the future.
In Cheorwon, visitors were drawn by both location and performers.
“My sister has a friend in Seoul, and she told us about this fest and it sounded really interesting,” said Jonny Flowers, a 20-something Scot who told Asia Times he was “travelling the world” with his partner, Lucy.
“There are some musicians here we like,” said Han Ga-young, a 26-year-old Seoul office worker attending the fest with two friends. “I did not know there was a big festival so close to the border – I thought it was kind of taboo to come here.”
DMZ? Not quite …
In fact, Peace Train was not that close to the inter-Korean frontier.
The main festival site – a tourism zone set in a bowl of hills featuring a spa/hotel, a Korean War exhibition hall, and a clutch of restaurants and motels backing onto a scenic gorge through which whitewater rafters swirled – actually lies some 11 kilometers south of the border.
Korean tourism czars have long recognized that the DMZ has global cachet, and art exhibitions, folk festivals, film festivals and lookout points are often branded with the three magic letters. But while tourists and media are permitted occasional access to Panmunjom, the iconic truce village inside the DMZ, virtually every other “DMZ” event and attraction is not in the zone – a four-kilometer-wide empty space stalked by wild animals and infantry patrols – but south of it.
And some ads are downright misleading. A visiting British businessman told Asia Times that he had been offered (“at considerable cost”) a bespoke DMZ fly-fishing expedition; he was dumbfounded to learn that the trip would take place in a river several kilometers south of the zone, rather than within it.
Still, at a time when the inter-Korean rapprochement process is virtually frozen, mirroring the deadlock in North Korea-US relations, the administration in Seoul – which has placed cross-border relations at the forefront of its policy priorities – is trumpeting “DMZ hiking trails” which are soon to be opened to the public.
Three trails – one at Paju in the west of the DMZ; one in Cheorwon in the center of the peninsula; and one in Goseong in the east – are being readied. Even so, according to preliminary reports, the trails themselves are not within the DMZ but south of it. Only at the end point of the trails are tourists offered brief visits to South Korea guard posts just inside the border fence.
Meanwhile, local governments have not pushed any agenda upon Peace Train. “They gave us absolute freedom,” Yi said. “That’s rare in Korea.”
… but plenty of signs of tension
Even if the stages were not in the DMZ, no festival-goer could ignore signs of militarization.
One of the Cheorwon area’s few pre-modern landmarks, the bullet-scarred shell of the Labor Party building (formerly in North Korea) is one of South Korea’s most famous, and most haunting, symbols of the war. Floodlit, it was used as backdrop for Peace Train’s acoustic and military-folk sets.
A nearby location, Wolgung-ri rail station – where the tracks stop dead at the southern entrance to the DMZ – was also used for more reflective performances, including a Saturday set by John Cale.
And even at the festival’s main stages, ongoing tensions were obvious: Camouflaged, off-duty troops were among those dancing to the acts.
At least one visitor was bemused by it all.
“I had imagined we would be on the border with a sniper and a machine gun at the back of the neck,” said Iceage’s Ronnenfelt. “But here we are seeing soldiers eating ice-cream and drinking soju.”
So: Can musicians realistically make a difference to one of East Asia’s most intractable geopolitical tragedies?
“I don’t think this will contribute a lot, I don’t think this is a big movement that will change the whole political situation,” mused Lee, the RnB star. “But this kind of small movement is important – every kind of small movement.”