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DMZ: The Forbidden Land Glimpsed through Barbed Wire Fences SPECIAL FEATURE 2 Peace of Mind Relished on the DMZ Forest Trail

Where does the capacity for peace come from? I pondered this question while walking through the forest which had been a bloody battlefield six and a half decades ago.

Eulji Observatory in Haean-myeon, Yanggu County, Gangwon Province, has a sweeping view over the Punchbowl, one of the fiercest battlefields during the Korean War. Far away beyond the basin area, the peaks of Mt. Kumgang in North Korea are visible on clear days.

In May 1986, the Spanish National Council for UNESCO published the “Seville Statement on Violence” adopted at an international meeting of scientists on non-violence education held in Seville, Spain. Containing five principles formulated to refute the notion that “organized human violence is biologically determined,” the statement concludes:
“Just as ‘wars begin in the minds of men,’ peace also begins in our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace. The responsibility lies with each of us.”
In the same vein, can it be said that demilitarized zones (DMZs) have been a viable invention of the human mind in the transition from warfare to peace? Those who can bring to mind some successful DMZs around the world may smile knowingly and nod in agreement. We probe the question further by going over one such case.

DMZ and the ‘In-between Field’
In ancient China, the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 B.C.) experienced constant territorial disputes between the feudal states Yu and Rui. One day, their leaders decided to call on Zhou, another feudal state, to appeal for mediation by the Viscount of the West. Upon entering Zhou, however, they became convinced of their own fault and returned to their respective states. What they had witnessed in the Zhou countryside was the customary practice of farmers sharing the banks between fields with different owners.
Included in the “Records of the Grand Historian” (Shiji) by Sima Qian, in his praise of the Viscount of the West, posthumously called King Wen of Zhou, this anecdote provides a glimpse into the agricultural wisdom and customs of ancient Asia. The story describes the concept of the socalled “in-between field” or “fallow field.” The “Great Commentary on the Book of Documents” (Shang shu dazhuan) by Fu Sheng, another ancient Chinese scholar, documented how territorial disputes would be resolved by designating the borderline area as an in-between field. The “Garden of Stories” (Shuo yuan), compiled and annotated by the Confucian scholar Liu Xiang, defines a fallow field as a “buffer zone that belongs to neither party.” The “Book of Rites” (Liji), a collection of texts on etiquette and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty, calls this type of land a “vacant field,” which belongs to no one, like the moon in the sky and the trees in the mountains.
Now, there certainly seems to be a clear difference between a DMZ and an in-between field. While the former is produced at the negotiation table in consideration of human life on the simplest, most functional, and most interest-oriented level, the latter was the alchemy of concession, moderation, and tolerance, based on the practical interests of the parties concerned.
Nonetheless, DMZs have proven to be a relatively successful invention. They have been effective in mitigating conflicts, albeit temporarily, in various war-torn parts of the world, and have also served well for scientific research and exploration in remote areas like the South Pole. However, their efficacy seems very limited when the opposing parties are inclined to engage in an arms race to protect their own values and interests. For instance, the DMZ between the two Koreas, defying initial intentions, has become a heavily fortified area where some 1.5 million troops and varied weaponry are deployed. For more than 60 years, a state of confrontation, with the potential to renew hostilities, has reigned over this lengthy stretch of land.
If you believe that big international organizations, government think tanks, or prominent political leaders can bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, I may as well stop right here. Instead of those bureaucratic efforts, I would like to talk about something that might seem trivial — like people who clear trails of overgrown brush, widen roads to schools, and transplant unknown flowers into their gardens. Although they live beyond the civilian control line of the DMZ, they are no different from other Koreans in that they endure and make sacrifices for the sake of a better life. I find in these people a capacity to create peace, for surely the notion of in-between fields would have been conceived by such an attitude toward life.

On the Punchbowl Trail
The Punchbowl area in Yanggu County, Gangwon Province, was the scene of ferocious battles that is never overlooked in discussions of the Korean War. It was a highly strategic area that had to be secured by all means, because its loss would endanger Chuncheon, which in turn would leave Seoul vulnerable to enemy attack. Out of the nine major battles fought in the Yanggu area, four took place in the Punchbowl area, including the Battle of Mt. Dosol, which eventually gave the ROK Marine Corps the nickname “the invincible marines,” and the Battle of Gachil Peak, a cutthroat struggle to control a strategic vantage point, which changed hands six times in 40 days.

Kim Eun-suk (right), a forest tour guide on the DMZ Punchbowl Trail, explains the geographic features of the surroundings.

The basin surrounded by mountains rising over 1,000 meters in height came to be known as the Punchbowl thanks to a foreign war correspondent; this nickname caught on with Koreans as well. Formally called Haean Basin, the area was home to a small mountain village nestled in the basin created by rock weathering and erosion. After the armistice, the devastated village was relegated beyond the civilian control line. The government started to relocate people there in 1956, and the village is now a small township with a population of about 1,700. At a time when the nation’s per capita income was less than a hundred dollars, the settlers risked their lives to cultivate the land strewn with landmines, up to the hillside as high as 600 meters. Recently, when the Korea Forest Service had the ground plowed for afforestation of Mt. Wawu, two large sacks of shell casings were collected here, bringing home once again what happened decades ago. Even today, the tracts of land that the residents have not cultivated are either minefields or restricted zones controlled by the military.

As she guides tourists, Kim Eun-suk emphasizes that the Punchbowl Trail is a special forest path where you can take a walk contemplating war, peace, and the mystery of nature.

The DMZ Punchbowl Trail, a trekking course, was opened in this northernmost village in the autumn of 2011. The first priority in creating the trail extending beyond the civilian control line was demining. The military would not have allowed civilian passage otherwise. In addition, every tour must be accompanied by a certified guide for safety.
Kim Eun-suk, 56, is a forest trail guide who has led tours along this trail for five years. Managing the trail and carrying out ecological surveys are also part of her duties. Kim sees her job as one of the benefits of having grown up in this remote area. She and her husband had engaged in farming for their livelihood and to raise their two children. But they found it harder every year to deal with the laborious work, while crop prices continued to drop. The opportunity to work as a trail guide came at a time when she was looking for something else to do.
The trail runs through an area that Kim used to wander about with her mother collecting linden tree bark and wild greens to help their family survive through the lean times in spring. She never imagined that the names of the trees and herbs that her mother had told her long ago would be so useful today. Of course, the fauna and flora is not exactly the same today, due to the disappearance of some native species — the medicinal herb Arnebia euchroma, marsh cudweed, Seemann’s sunbonnet — and the addition of other exotic ones.
The DMZ Punchbowl Trail is a trekking course stretching 73 kilometers, divided into four sections: Forest of Peace Path, Oyu Field Path, Mandae Plain Path, and Meonmet Hill Path. Although the Meonmet Hill Path that leads to Baekdu Daegan (Great White Head Ridge) is also quite impressive, Kim’s favorite course is Oyu Field Path. Unlike the mountainous, mine-strewn areas around Gachil Peak and Mt. Daewu, this path is relatively flat with diverse scenery of red clay roads, valleys, and reservoirs. Above all, this area is where she lived as a child, cooking for the family “squatting beside the stove on top of a wood-burning furnace” because she was too small to reach the stove top.

Her parents’ graves lie at the entry to the path, reminding her of her farmer father, who would always dress in a traditional high hat and long outer robe when he went out.
As she guides tourists along the path, she is often tricked into thinking she is combing the woods to collect wild herbs with her mother, especially when looking upward through gaps in the tree tops at the blue sky dotted with white clouds. Once, while guiding a group of elderly marine corps veterans who had fought in the Battle of Punchbowl, she sensed the same feeling in their eyes. Perhaps, somewhere along the trail, they had seen young soldiers, as defenseless as small children, sitting on the ground and fallen asleep leaning on their rifles.

Once, while guiding a group of elderly marine corps veterans who had fought in the Battle of Punchbowl, she sensed the same feeling in their eyes. Perhaps, somewhere along the trail, they had seen young soldiers, as defenseless as small children, sitting on the ground and fallen asleep leaning on their rifles.

In the Cheorwon Plains
The Korean Peninsula has long been an ideal wintering ground for migratory birds from Siberia and northeastern China. However, rapid urbanization and increased reclamation of wetlands have turned many of them away. The Cheorwon Plains is one of the few remaining places on the peninsula that still offer a sanctuary for wintering birds. Early flocks of wild geese and cranes start to arrive even before the fall harvest is done, followed by countless others, practically blanketing the October sky. Joined by mallards and Baikal teals a short while later, millions of migratory birds create a magnificent spectacle on the plains.

Uncovered in 1990 within the DMZ northeast of Yanggu, the 4th Infiltration Tunnel is part of the Security Tour Course in the Punchbowl area. It was dug by North Koreans for intrusion of the South.

The birds make the Cheorwon Plains their first stopover because of the warm streamlets of about 15 degrees Celsius flowing over the plateau of lava created by Mt. Ori. The warm streamlets and fertile soil of weathered basalt make these plains the best granary area in Gangwon Province. Just as people visit this place beyond the civilian control line for the clean natural environment, migratory birds also come here looking for grains scattered over the rice paddies after the harvest, grasses, and caterpillars of all kinds, as well as fish under icy surfaces.
The plains were also one of the bloodiest battle grounds during the Korean War. Called the Iron Triangle, this zone linking Cheorwon with Pyonggang and Kimhwa counties was a vital strategic area which had to be secured to maintain control over the central front. Up until the ceasefire agreement, the United Nations forces continued to exchange fire with the Chinese communist army here, which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties.
In December 1992, a guard in the Cheorwon part of the DMZ spotted a crane standing still in the snow-covered fields for an unusually long stretch of time. The bird was found in the same place almost a week later, fallen on the ground beside the carcass of a male crane that apparently had died a while earlier. The story of the crane grieving over her dead mate and the soldier looking after the exhausted bird soon spread among the villagers.
Thanks to the soldier’s devoted care, the widowed crane came back to life, and the villagers released the bird on a northern lake surrounded by white birch trees. A ring was attached around her ankle, so that they could recognize her when she returned. Over time, the Odae Rice from Cheorwon became a nationally famous rice brand, prized for its clean growing environment. Although there have been no accounts about the crane’s return, the locals tend to think of her as a harbinger of their good fortune and thus make an effort to feed the migratory birds that return to the area every year.

Some areas around the civilian control line, including Jangdan Peninsula, Imjin River, and Togyo Reservoir, are well-known wintering places for eagles. Two or three decades ago, large eagles started to show up at neighborhoods in these areas, often starved and exhausted. Since then, the residents have made it a point to leave food for the starving eagles, providing much-needed sustenance for their winter sojourn. Around 2,000 or so eagles visit these places every winter. By picking clean the carcasses of animals discarded by livestock farmers, the birds help to protect the natural environment, representing yet another model of coexistence between humans and wildlife.

Woljeong-ri Station in the civilian control zone in Cheorwon is a whistle stop opened in 1914 along the Seoul-Wonsan Line. The remains of a train car bombarded during the Korean War are on display under a sign reading, “The iron horse wants to run again.”

After the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) proposed creation of international peace parks in 1979, various research and investigation efforts have been conducted by diverse international organizations, as well as the Korean government and media, to advance the concept. Based on the outcomes, South and North Korea have signed several agreements that call for peaceful utilization of the DMZ, but there has been little progress in implementing them. This is because the agreements essentially required peaceful bilateral relations.
In his poem “Flower” which is widely beloved for its impressive opening line, “Flowers bloom along all borders,” the poet Ham Min-bok warns: “On the day tears dry up / and fail to pass between moonlight and shadows / the fence of flowers will wither / and all the borders between me and the world will give way.”

A guard post in the civilian control zone overlooks the autumn scenery of the Cheorwon Plains, beyond which lie North Korean fields and mountains.

Lee Chang-guy Poet and Literary Critic
Ahn Hong-beom, Han Dae-in Photographers


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