There is a brutal tension beneath the beautiful landscape
When the Armistice that marked the cessation of the Korean War was signed in 1953, it was agreed that a Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ) would be created and maintained by a limited number of civilian police from both sides. That never came to pass. Instead, military personnel were simply redesignated as ‘civilian police’. Tensions remained high and, in the late 1960s, both sides began to build fortifications and defences until the demilitarised zone became the most highly militarised strip of land in the world. It remains an ongoing site of contention, dividing an ancient culture into sovereign states of polar opposition, divergently aligned within the larger dynamic of global geo-politics.
Half a century after it was installed, the photographer Park Jongwoo was to become the first person to document the interior of the DMZ. To represent such a contentious environment came with a considerable weight of responsibility for, with a structure dividing highly polarised ideologies, it would be all too easy to slip into a form of visual propaganda. Nuance was everything. He determined to remain as objective as possible – to be a collector of evidence rather than a builder of narrative or pundit of opinion.
The resulting images touch on the curiously charged ambiguities of a place whose name is the antithesis of its nature. Recognising the significance of such barriers in a world slipping once more into division and isolationism, he has travel to document similar buffer regions in other parts of the world. Barriers that cordon groups of people unable to live in peace with their neighbours. In an extension of this work, Park Jongwoo has made a visual taxonomy of the serried obstacles created to ward off invasion, though it is sometimes hard to establish if this is a practical strategy or symbolic gesture. An undertow of ambivalence reflected in their pseudo-mythologic name: dragon’s teeth.
I would like to focus in this interview on your work about barriers and divisions. But first, could you briefly describe your wider practice.
When I was twenty-five years old, I joined The Korea Times newspaper as a staff photographer and started working as a photojournalist. During my eleven years as a newspaper photographer I covered a wide range of stories. Then, in 1995, I went freelance, initially working as a stringer for Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. After that, I began to travel independently, exploring the ways of life and cultures in other countries.
In 2003, I started making a documentary about ethnic minorities who trade across the Himalayas. That was the first work in which I paid attention to the impact of divisions and barriers. I was particularly interested in the lives of minorities, many of whom lived close to national boundaries, and began to think about what borders mean to people, especially those from minority groups.
[Left] © Park Jongwoo Guard Post seen from the Southern Limit Line fence of the DMZ in winter. 2010 from the series ‘DMZ’
[Right] © Park Jongwoo South Korean soldiers patrolling the minefield inside the DMZ. 2010 from the series ‘DMZ’
How did your series on the DMZ in Korea begin?
In the summer of 2009, I was commissioned by the Korean Ministry of National Defence to document the Demilitarized Zone to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War the following year. No civilian had photographed the inside of the DMZ since the armistice in 1953. But, more surprisingly, there weren’t any military photographic records either.
What were the challenges of photographing in such a contested area?
The biggest challenge was getting permission from all the various authorities responsible for the DMZ. Then there were the many restrictions operating inside the zone. Much of the area inside the fences is littered with unidentified mines, so my activities were restricted to certain designated reconnaissance trails. Many of the locations I visited to make photographs were within firing range of the North Korean military. So, I had to wear a helmet and bulletproof vest when working there, which made it difficult to handle the camera equipment.
[Left] © Park Jongwoo DMZ field and the North Korean mountains seen from the bunker of the General Observation Post. 2010 from the series ‘DMZ’
[Right] © Park Jongwoo South Korean troops conducting reconnaissance activities inside the DMZ. 2010 from the series ‘DMZ’
Given the lack of photographs of the DMZ, it was important that this be a faithful record. That meant a lot of careful research, which was not easy given this was a highly sensitive military area where much must remain confidential. I focused my work on making an objective record and not adding any personal subjective interpretation that might overlay the images with my own feelings about the national division hidden beneath the landscape. So, working within these many limitations and having undertaken a lot of research, in time I learned how to simplify the subject and create a powerful image.
Did you always make photographs from the south side of the DMZ?
Yes. As a South Korean citizen, I am forbidden by North Korea from entering their country to take photographs. Extreme military security is maintained over the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone.
In photographing the DMZ over a long period of time, what did you discover about the way the environment of the zone was changed by its circumstances?
The DMZ has plains in the west and mountainous areas in the east. Before the war, there had been many villages but over the intervening seventy years human traces have all but been erased. Some claim that the DMZ has returned to Nature, but this is not really true. There are a few scattered clumps of trees but, before they form woodland, soldiers from the South and the North burn back the ground to maintain clear lines of sight. In the past they have used Agent Orange as a defoliant. The many layers of barbed-wire fencing keep out larger mammals, but, birds and smaller animals sensitive to human activity do gather in the DMZ, which has become a strange kind of sanctuary. The swamp in the picture [above] is an important gathering place for cranes migrating from Siberia in winter. But it is only outwardly tranquil. Inside the DMZ is far from peaceful, with many soldiers moving about carrying weapons.
[Left] © Park Jongwoo South Korean Guard Post facing Diamond Mountain in North Korea. 2010 from the series ‘DMZ’
[Right] © Park Jongwoo Southern Limit Line fence of the DMZ seen from a helicopter. 2010 from the series ‘DMZ’
Although the terms of the 1953 armistice ban any kind of military activity inside the DMZ, both North and South Korea do operate various military facilities within the zone. Indeed, it is probably the most densely militarised area on the planet, though many of the facilities on the north side are underground and not clearly visible. On the south side there are over seventy guard posts surrounded by barbed wire and linked by dirt roads. Beyond that, landmines make much of the area inaccessible.
How do you feel about the Korean DMZ?
There is a brutal tension beneath the beautiful landscape. The DMZ is an artificial barrier which has rent our country in two. It is four kilometres wide and runs 248 kilometres from the west coast of the Korean Peninsula to the east coast, without a break. When the sun goes down, bright floodlights come on along its length. It is a great tragedy that our country is divided like this. The Korean DMZ was not created by a war between different countries but different ideologies. For a millennium, Korea had been one country with a single language, culture, thought, religion, belief, economy, and politics. The DMZ has separated North and South for more than seventy years, but I think one day it must disappear.
[Left] © Park Jongwoo The Green Line penetrates the central downtown area of Nicosia, the capital city of Cyprus. 2019 from the series ‘Buffer Zone’
[Right] © Park Jongwoo Landmine warning sign at the Buffer Zone of Nagorno-Karabach Republic. 2013 from the series ‘Buffer Zone’
You have made work about similar buffer regions in other parts of the world.
The island of Cyprus is divided through the middle by a so-called Green Line. This is a buffer zone maintained by the United Nations Security Council that separates the self-proclaimed – though internationally unrecognised – Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus from the rest of the country. What’s special about the Green Line is that it runs through the very centre of the capital city, Nicosia. Unlike the Korean DMZ, which maintains a constant width of four kilometres along its full length, the Cyprus buffer zone varies in width from a few kilometres in some parts to just a few meters in downtown Nicosia.
I have also documented the Line of Contact which separates the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh from Azerbaijan. It was installed in 1994 to separated Azerbaijani and Armenian-backed forces at the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. Even after my visit in 2013, clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan continued in the Nagorno Buffer Zone right up until the signing of the ceasefire agreement in 2020.
There are different kinds of buffer zones: some are defined by natural barriers such as mountains and hills, others are built artificially. Some are armed with landmines, others are not. Ironically, while they are all supposed to be demilitarised, the reality is that many, including the DMZ that divides Korean Peninsula, are actually heavily militarized despite the name. And this is dangerously destabilising because there is always the risk of an armed confrontation.
[Left] © Park Jongwoo Anti-submarine obstacles at Cramond, Edinburgh, Scotland 2018 from the series ‘Dragon’s Teeth’
[Right] © Park Jongwoo Anti-tank obstacles at Pian dei Morti, South Tyrol, Italian-Austria Border 2018 from the series ‘Dragon’s Teeth’
You have made an extended study of ‘dragon’s teeth’. First, what are dragon’s teeth?
They are a form of anti-tank barrier first used during the Second World War. The idea was to slow down and funnel tanks into a killing zone where they could be disposed of easily by anti-tank weapons. They were also installed on shorelines to prevent enemy ships from landing.
Looking at your photographs, dragon’s teeth seem to come in many shapes and sizes.
It depends on their purpose. While the shape and design of the teeth changes from one country another, I think this is because each has a different topography and different approaches to the engineering of such structures. What I find interesting is that, in Europe, the shape of the dragon’s teeth often expresses the character of the people of that country. Dragon’s teeth in Switzerland are very hard, in Germany they are highly functional. On the other hand, Italian dragon’s teeth are beautifully designed but very weak, collapsing easily.
And in Korea…?
When the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops invaded with Soviet-made tanks and, to the shocked embarrassment of the South Korean military, Seoul fell in just three days. To ensure such a thing never happens again, the authorities have built anti-tank obstacles along the northern outskirts of Seoul where there are roads leading to North Korea.
The dragon’s teeth of South Korea’s five West Sea Islands, which are geographically adjacent to North Korea, were first built in the 1970s. They were inspired by defensive barriers on the beaches of Kinmen Island in Taiwan, which face mainland China. Meanwhile, on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, the beach that runs beside the DMZ has many concrete obstacles installed to prevent North Korean tanks from advancing along the shoreline. Inland, the rivers flowing from the North to the South across the DMZ have many rows of steel and concrete teeth where the waters are shallow to deter enemy tank intrusion. All are designed differently to suit the terrain and their purpose.
[Left] © Park Jongwoo Anti-tank obstacles at Kohlscheid, Dutch-Germany Border 2017 from the series ‘Dragon’s Teeth’
[Right] © Park Jongwoo Anti-tank obstacles at Wimmis, Bern, Switzerland 2018 from the series ‘Dragon’s Teeth’
Have the intentions of such barriers change over time?
When I first started this work, I thought these dragon’s teeth would faithfully serve their initial purpose. However, it has become increasingly difficult to understand why they are still being constructed and maintained over the years. The first dragon’s teeth were built by the Third Reich almost a century ago and they are still waiting for an enemy that never came. In fact, I have found it difficult find any situation where these barriers have been used for their original purpose, anywhere in the world. In the end, I have come to think that the meaning or intention of such barriers have more to do with affirming a country’s political and ideology difference than with actual physical defence.
[Left] © Park Jongwoo Korean soldiers on reconnaissance activity along the barbed wire fence of the Guard Post inside of DMZ. 2010 from the series ‘DMZ’
[Right] © Park Jongwoo Military Demarcation Line signboard at the Joint Security Area. 2009 from the series ‘DMZ’
What kind of response to your work about barriers and DMZs do you get from the public?
In Korea the war never ended. There was no truce, just an armistice. The war is still underway, it is just resting for a while. But people in South Korea don’t think about this anymore. When they look at the DMZ pictures, they exclaim: “Really? There are such strange places in our country?!” And if they look at the pictures of anti-tank obstacles, they might say, “Oh, do we have this kind of ugly thing in our country? I didn’t know that.” But still most people have little interest in this and don’t take the time to look into it seriously.
How does this make you feel?
In Korea, the older generation have some interest in my work because they remember the horrors of war and the continuing existence of the Demilitarized Zone. However, the younger generation, born after Korea’s industrialisation, consider war to be part of a distant world that has nothing to do with them. I think that such intergenerational differences are somewhat inevitable. However, it is regrettable that many people do not understand, or even try to understand, the reality that the Demilitarized Zone represents, in name and in reality, a barrier that divides our country into two.
Park Jongwoo was born in Seoul, Republic of Korea, in 1958. He majored in journalism at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Chung-Ang University’s graduate school. From 1983 to 1995 he worked as a photojournalist for The Korea Times, later working freelance to publications such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. From 1995, his independent projects focused on documenting vanishing cultures and minority tribes, including a two-decade-long project on the Himalayan ranges. He has also worked on the production of many television programs such as ‘Mongolian Route’ (KBS-TV, 2001), ‘The Last Capitalism’ (SBS-TV, 2012), ‘The Last Power’ (SBS-TV, 2013)
His work has featured in dozens of group and solo exhibitions including ‘Himalaya Monographs’ (Goeun Museum of Photography, Busan 2009), ‘The Tea-Horse Road’ (Tokyo Canon Salon, 2011), ‘Asian Portraiture’ (Asian Cultural Centre, 2016), ‘Imjin River’ (Space22 Gallery, 2016), ‘On the Border’ (Youngwol Museum of Photography, 2019), and ‘DMZ’ (Goeun Museum of Photography, Busan 2020). Park Jongwoo won the Korea Press Award in 1994, the Steidl Book Award Asia in 2017, and the Eighteenth Donggang International Photo Award in 2019. His photographs have been published in three monographs, ‘Himalayan Odyssey’ (Edition Zero Publishing 2009), ‘Imjin River’ (Noonbit Publishing 2017), and ‘DMZ’ (Steidl 2017). He is based in Seoul, and works all around the world.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.