[Opinion] Peaceful use of the DMZ for divided families

Posted on : 2013-09-30 14:55 KST Modified on : 2013-09-30 14:55 KST

By Jin Young Song

In Berlin, there is the Potsdamerplatz, once devastated by the war, but now one of the most important streets symbolizing the reunification of East and West Berlin. Not very far from this street, we encounter the Holocaust Memorial, designed by Peter Eisenman. Even as an Asian tourist who does not have any direct experience or memory of either the Holocaust or World War II, I experience a sensation of the sacred and solemn reflection on the knowledge learned from history. In addition, I gain an appreciation of the German society’s effort to remember the past.

In Washington, D.C., there are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. When we walk through the space, viewing the sculpture and reading those beautiful phrases, even without understanding the complicated political background or history, we instantly feel respect for life and the sacrifices these people have made. In this way, memorial design as public art appeals to ‘Memory’ before ‘History’. Rather than on the past, it actually focuses on contemporary people experiencing the artistic sensations generated, and the future which will be shaped by their responses through the memory. ‘History’ belongs to the past, but ‘Memory’ constantly intervenes in our current life and our future action.

In Korea, there are two opposite ways to remember the past. One is just denying it - a kind of amnesia - the evidence for which is the monuments located near some unknown highway service area, or the dry artifacts lying inert at the gigantic War Memorial Museum- both of which are detached from our real everyday life. The opposite way is excessive reaction to the past events, as manipulated by political preferences between Left and Right, each exhausting themselves by unproductive hatred and blame of each other. There should be one ‘history,’ but some people don’t remember it at all, while others have two opposing memories contending forever. If I were to be asked about the purpose or role of art, I would answer that its purpose is to stimulate challenging questions which will provoke amnesiacs, and to embrace the scars, suffering and hatred, thereby bridging the gap between memories. We desperately need genuine memorial artwork, to transform the memory of tragedy and to provide energy to move forward into the future.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the memento left us from the horrible Korean War, the no-man’s land protected and isolated from people for more than half a century. In order to make something positive of this sacred keepsake from the war, this requires serious debate and discussion from us, because any work on this plot of land is not only about the past but also about the future. South Korea’s Peace Ecology Park development plan at present pursues international attention, economic profits and political benefit, yet does not intersect with any interest from the other side of the land, North Korea, and has nothing to do with the actual peace or ecology of the DMZ. Without any communal and cumulative effort towards reconciliation or peace talks between North and South from any sides or entities, who can claim to have legitimacy or justification to touch this land, the beautiful keepsake protected after the war?

I want to remind us that there is another sad but beautiful keepsake left us from the war. It is the divided families: parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, separated by the war and missing each other for over a half-century. If part of our rationale is their consolation and careful consideration for them as fellow humans and as countrymen, I do believe we can respectfully touch the land, the keepsake. Since the core of memorial design is to serve as a medium through which we can remember the past and shape our future, as a method to remember the two keepsakes in artistic consideration, my suggestion is that we build housing for the dispersed families, at the DMZ, and that we deliberately design the development as a memorial. If we can be witnesses to their reunion in neither the land of the North or the South, this respectful observance of this moving together to live in this memorial house, in the protected neutral land, can become an experience to generate a new strong memory, and be an appeal to our minds to act for the future.

If we allow them to meet again at their age, with not much time remaining for them, if we let them cook for their husbands and wives once again, stay with the sisters and brothers, console the tragic past 60 years, if we provide a place for them to experience these in this beautiful land, this structure and memorial, the memory may well be transformed into a positive energy which will accumulate deep in our mind, for the eventual reunification of Korea. Let us move forward and build housing for divided families, within the DMZ, within and between the currently divided Koreas.


Jin Young Song is Assistant Professor in Architecture at SUNY Buffalo

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Hankyoreh.


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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