SEOUL – Kim Tae-geun walked into the cinema this weekend expecting comedy. He left deeply moved.
“The movie theater was full of young boys and girls laughing a lot,” said the South Korean special forces veteran. “They were silent and some of them were crying at the end of the movie.”
The film he watched, “6/45” is currently topping South Korean box offices. It features a lightweight plot: A winning lottery ticket – number 6/45 – drifts across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, where it is retrieved by North Korean soldiers who learn that it is the winner. Naturally, South Korean troops hatch a plot to get it back.
But though the film begins with laughs, by the time the end credits roll, the bitter reality of unbridgeable national division stirs different emotions.
“It was so touching,” Kim, who asked that his real name not be used in this article, said of the audience. “And it was touching for me, too.”
For Kim – today a successful entrepreneur who runs several companies in downtown Seoul – the film’s portrayals are personal. Scenes in the film when troops from both sides meet in the high-tension no man’s land resurrected Kim’s memories of encountering North Koreans during midnight ambush duty inside the DMZ.
The experiences of Kim and other former soldiers who spoke to Asia Times make clear that the commonly held images of the DMZ differ from reality. More broadly, the national division that the zone so starkly represents is rarely far from the news.
Currently, South Korean-US military drills are underway while fears of another North Korean nuclear test hang heavy over the divided peninsula. Meanwhile, the impermeability of the DMZ means that a solution to South Korea’s demographic crisis, highlighted by recently published data, remains far out of reach.
DMZ fact and fiction
K-film has enraptured audiences across the world with hard-boiled thrillers (2003’s “Old Boy”), nail-biting horrors (2016’s “The Wailing”), Oscar-winning black comedies of manners (2019’s “Parasite”) and much more.
“6/45” is the latest entry in a uniquely Korean genre: The divided nation narrative. Indeed, the DMZ has proven a fecund space for producers.
“Joint Security Area” (2000) – a tense and tightly plotted thriller about a relationship that springs up between northern and southern troops – is to this day a de rigueur entry on any list of “Best Korean Movies.”
Lighter fare includes “6/45” and Netflix hit “Crash Landing on You” (2020). The latter is a romantic comedy about a South Korean heiress who is blown across the DMZ while hang gliding, only to fall into the lap of a dashing North Korean officer.
Kim experienced a tenser reality. In the 1980s, he served in Seoul’s elite “black beret” airborne brigades, a capacity that deployed him to the DMZ.
“Many people are confused about what the DMZ really is,” Kim said.
The international image – featured endlessly on TV news reports – is of blue huts and soldiers from both sides glaring at each other in Panmunjom, also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA).
In fact, the purpose-built truce village was designed for negotiations and bears no resemblance to the rest of the DMZ, a flashpoint frontline that snakes through and over 250 kilometers of scrub, forest and mountain.
It was established across the waist of the peninsula via armistice when the Korean War fizzled to a halt in 1953. It is four kilometers wide, with the MDL (“Military Demarcation Line” – the de facto border) running through its center.
South of the DMZ is the Civilian Control Zone, where some civilian access is permitted. Many people who enter this fenced-in area mistakenly believe they are in the DMZ – an error Seoul-based “DMZ Tour Companies” are not anxious to correct.
With the exception of Panmunjom, in which guided tours are permitted, the only entrants to the DMZ are lightly armed infantry, either patrolling or manning guard posts. They are expressly forbidden from crossing the MDL.
Strangers in the night
Kim’s special forces unit was not assigned to the DMZ, which is held by regular infantry divisions. It deployed to the area for ambush training.
Kim and fellow black berets were guided inside the DMZ by specialist infantry who knew the paths. The area is seeded with millions of landmines and so patrol pathways are carefully monitored: “Every year, it changes with heavy rain and flooding,” Kim recalled. “The landmines float.”
The summer night of his encounter was dark and moonless. Kim and his comrade had settled into a two-man ambush site in heavy scrub just south of the MDL when they heard – then saw – figures approaching.
At first, “we thought they were our guys,” Kim said. But as the figures approached to within ten meters, they made out their weapons and uniforms as the North Korean enemy.
“We whispered the password,” Kim recalled. “They did not respond. We pointed our guns as they tried to hide.”
The enemy patrol was three men – “two troops and a supervisor” – Kim guessed. Despite the reputation of the black berets for ruthless action, he knew that if he opened fire it would ignite an immediate military crisis. “The untold rule was, ‘No shooting,’” Kim said. “So we shouted, ‘Who are you, you sons of bitches? You are fucked!’”
There was an inaudible murmur in reply from the North Koreans, who immediately went to ground. A tense silence. Then one called over, “Have you got any cigarettes?”
“We said, ‘Yeah,’” Kim recalled. “But we knew that the moment a cigarette lights up, that is the time to shoot.”
Instead, Kim threw a pack of military brand “Hwarang” cigarettes over to the North Koreans. An awkward conversation started.
“They said, ‘We knew the special forces were coming,’” Kim remembered, recalling how good North Korean signals intelligence was.
Then the enemy troops suggested the duo of Southerners join them in the North. “They said, you can meet a beautiful girl, you can get married, you will eat good food all the time. We knew it was bullshit.”
Kim decided to end the conversation. “We said, ‘Fuck Kim Il Sung!’ Then they shut up and just went away.”
The crisis – it had lasted just minutes – had been defused.
“We never expected to encounter these guys and the North Koreans are the same,” Kim said. “We were south, they were north, but the border line was not clear.”
Kim would not encounter North Korean troops again, but some of his comrades did. In one meeting, the two groups actually exchanged weapons for the duration of their discussion – “We called it ‘deposit,’” he said – in order to ensure nobody opened fire.
An unmarked demarcation line
Kim hung up his uniform in the 1980s. A general who commanded Kim’s unit more recently, and who retired in 2016, expressed doubts as to whether such an incident could occur now.
“Highly unlikely,” Chun In-bum, who formerly led the South’s Special Warfare Command, told Asia Times. “If you come into contact with the North Koreans within the DMZ you shoot first, you don’t open a conversation.”
Still, he conceded it was possible.
“Let us just say that, for whatever reason, they talk,” Chun told Asia Times. “They might exchange cigarettes, but weapons? That would be unthinkable.”
Chun admits that psychological operations (psy-ops) are undertaken inside the DMZ by the South Korean side, in which specialized units seek to encounter North Korean troops to engage them in conversation. Otherwise, South Korean troops avoid the MDL, the actual border that runs through the middle of the DMZ.
“We plan our ambushes and our patrols in such a way that we stay way clear of the MDL,” he said. “Way clear.”
The high fencing, topped with razor wire and lit with searchlights at night, which demarcates the southern parts of the DMZ, represents a clear and obvious barrier.
Not so the MDL inside the DMZ. Though today’s troops have better navigation and night vision equipment than was the case for Kim’s unit in the 1980s, the MDL is –problematically – poorly demarcated now.
Originally, it was marked by a line of 1,292 yellow wooden stakes, placed 100-200 meters apart, when the DMZ was first established after the war. Each of the markers is – or was – numbered with four digits to be used as a reference point in the case of armistice violations.
The line of stakes, with their numbers, was marked on maps issued to both sides. But that was in 1953-54. Things are different now.
The markers have not been maintained for decades, Steve Tharp, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who served in Korea for over 20 years, told Asia Times. “In the late 1960s and early ‘70s the North Koreans were ambushing our patrols that were repairing them.”
Their current status is dubious. “The last report I read, about five years ago, said maybe only 7% percent of those original 1,292 markers are left,” Tharp said.
Of course, today’s South Korean troops have access to detailed maps and advanced navigation devices. But a problem that did not exist when the DMZ was established is vegetation: The area’s previously deforested and shell-blasted soil is now carpeted with tree cover.
So could a patrol cross the MDL mistakenly?
“If you have been in the same place for a while, you know where the MDL is,” Tharp said. “But if you are stupid, it would be easy.”
Dangerous realities, hopeful possibilities
Since early this year, it has been a widespread belief among Pyongyangologists that North Korea is poised to conduct another nuclear test, which would be its seventh.
As the isolated country upgrades its arsenal of short and mid-range delivery systems, there are concerns that the test could be of a tactical, rather than a strategic, nuclear device. Such a device would shift the military status quo on the peninsula.
And recent fears are that South Korean-US joint military drills, which resumed in August after a four-year hiatus sparked first by diplomatic efforts to engage North Korea and then by Covid, will elevate tensions in the region.
Moreover, China and Russia this year shot down a US initiative in the UN Security Council to pile further sanctions on North Korea for its ongoing missile tests, undertaken in defiance of UN resolutions.
That rang alarm bells. Some fretted that, in the wake of the Ukraine War, the international community’s unified stance toward Pyongyang’s nuclear arms programs had collapsed. However, calmness prevails at present and a quiet restraining hand may be at work.
An informed source told Asia Times that China – beset by economic problems at home, riled by US-generated tensions around Taiwan, and faced with Western ire due to its low-key support for Russia over Ukraine – is in no mood for further problems ahead of a key Communist Party congress in mid-October.
Due to this convergence of issues, the source said, Beijing is urging Pyongyang to keep its safety catch firmly on.
Yet the heartbreaking reality of a divided nation drags on in its seventh decade with no sign of change on the horizon – sinking the barrier that is the DMZ ever more deeply into Korean soil.
The issue extends far beyond geopolitics
Data published this week showed that an “age quake” is en route: South Korea will become a super-aged society in 2025, when the proportion of those aged 65 or over will hit 20% of the total population. There is worse to come: According to data from Statistics Korea, it will be home to the world’s largest percentage of citizens aged 65 or over by 2044.
The combined population of the peninsula is expected to peak at 77.8 million in 2028. But while South Korea’s total population fell for the first time in 2021, North Korea’s population will not hit its highest point until 2033.
Against this backdrop, a source opined to Asia Times that unification could solve South Korea’s demographic problem.
North Korea’s labor is well-educated, well-disciplined and very, very cheap. This writer has visited factories in both the defunct Kaesong joint industrial zone and in northeast China, where North Korean workers are highly prized for their diligence and their price.
Little unification momentum
Despite being painted in global media as “slave labor,” their competence is one reason why today’s South Korean youth are ambivalent about reunification.
“I talk to many young people and they care about their job security and the economic impact reunification would cause,” said Kim, the former black beret who today looks 20 years younger than his 65 years. “Cheap labor could take their jobs away.”
And as the last members of the generation that remembers a pre-DMZ Korea fade away, Kim is bitter about it all.
A member of a divided family – he believes he has two siblings alive in the North – he has traveled to Pyongyang on a business reconnaissance and taken part in a cross-border environmental project to assist endangered cranes. As a result, he has seen North Koreans up close.
“We are the same people: Same language! Same social values!” he said. “But once we start talking politics, we start fighting. This is just the same in South Korea – when people of my generation drink, they argue and fight about politics.”
No outlook for unification is on the horizon. While South Koreans benchmark a German-style collapse-absorb scenario, the North has defied predictions of implosion for decades and today looks stable.
“Unification should be done acknowledging two systems, like a United States of Korea,” Kim urged. “Economically, socially and politically different, but sports, art, culture and conservation can be the same, and you would need a visa to travel across the border.”
Both external and internal barriers are preventing the serious promotion of pro-unification policies, Kim opines.
Externally, “I think Korea does not have the freedom to make its own decision in terms of North Korean relations,” he said, citing both US policy and international sanctions.
Internally, despite the current success of “6/45,” neither unification nor North Korean relations are front-of-mind among youth.
“I am 65, I have seen it all,” Kim said. “Some of the girls around me were crying in the cinema, but though the movie was nicely done, they are not the generation to understand.”
Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul