National Geographic came out with an unusual piece this week describing the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, a strip of no man’s land spanning the peninsula at the 38th Parallel. Specifically, the article (which has extraordinary images) was about the resurgence of nature and wildlife in the area since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. It presents a unique challenge, because the presence of barbed wire and land mines has not prevented endangered species from calling the area home. The tensions will end at one point and the country will be reunified, but the ecological reality of the DMZ might paradoxically mean it will keep its symbolic outlines in the future.
The picture gallery shows the vibrant natural recovery of the DMZ where only 60 years ago, thousands died for the pointlessness of East-West geopolitical jockeying. At night, the border on both sides is lighted to highlight the divide. The border was drawn in a State Department office shortly before the war ended, and that was perhaps its greatest ironic blessing as a nature reserve.
On the political level, the future of the DMZ raises questions about how North Korea will be connected upon unification. Perhaps the most painful fact of the Korean Wall is that it divides one nation and with that division, families have not seen each another in over a half century. It is, in character, precisely like the Berlin Wall, a symbol of ideological divide from an archaic time, no longer relevant in the modern world.
The Kaesong Industrial Zone is a hint for the future of a unified Korea, where development and communications are gradually going to spread north. The recovery of the peninsula’s natural social and economic links is a better policy to reduce the political and security risks that North Korea poses to itself, the Koreans not under Pyongyang’s government and the wider Southeast Asian region.
If the DMZ is a metaphor for anything, it is that nature’s harmony can be restored in the shadow of war, even between fences and on top of landmines. At that junction, the point for war and tensions goes away, because in the grander scheme of things, nature works by restoring balances and not letting the imbalances last indefinitely. It is contrary to the universe, in a word.
Politically speaking, every wall that ever went up has come down. The Chinese built the greatest of them all, and today it bisects the country. While it is a marvel of engineering, it was a colossal waste of life and treasure. In the long run, problems are solved politically, not by walls. The French constructed the Maginot Line to protect themselves from the Germans, and not only did it not do its job the one time it was required, but today the collaboration of both countries is the engine of the European Union. The point is that if we are to think in historical terms, walls are pointless. Dividing a single nation for outdated political reasons — one half being some derivative of neo-Stalinism, monarchy and fairy tales, and the other living in the shadow of conventional or nuclear annihilation — is not a life for anyone, much less Korea.
Kim Jong–un might be the lifetime president of North Korea, but it will take a lot more effort on behalf of Pyongyang, as it will from the West, to achieve progress on the peninsula. Active diplomacy and recognizing that the dangers of an unstable Korean peninsula are unacceptable are the foundation towards reunification.
With or without us humans, the world is moving on. It’d be nice to keep up, even if the stupidity of man is boundless.
(Images via AP/ Wikimedia Commons)