The politics of pop culture

The border between India and Pakistan is a place of mutual boot stomping, but the DMZ is the oddest border I’ve seen.

Korea border Reuters
A visitor takes photographs of North Korean soldiers standing guard near a concrete border inside the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, August 28, 2019 [Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters]

The line between North and South Korea is one of the most militarised borders in the world, buffeted by armies at full battle readiness. Landmines, armed guard posts and electrical fences surround the DMZ. The North has launched incursions, infiltrations and raids, but South Korea has terrorised the North with a unique weapon of their own: K-pop.

Both Koreas maintain speakers across the 240km long buffer, but South Korea’s are more technologically advanced and can be heard as far away as 10km in the day and 24km at night. In January 2016, after North Korea claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb, the South turned their speakers high. “We have selected a diverse range of the most recent pop hits to make it interesting,” a defence ministry official announced, noting that the music – including Big Bang’s Bang Bang Bang and Apink’s Let Us Just Love – was not designed to annoy North Koreans, but to pique their interest in avant-garde hits from across the border.

North Korea called it “an act of war” and threatened to blow up all the speakers.

Last summer, while researching my book New Kings of the World, I visited the DMZ days before the historic June 12 summit in Singapore between the great deal-maker (“the best!”) US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s isolationist leader Kim Jong Un. That June, there was quiet at the Dora Observatory. All that could be heard was the excited chatter of schoolchildren, standing on their tiptoes to peek through binocular lenses at the North.

As borders go, the DMZ is the strangest I have ever seen. Pakistan, my country, and India run an aggressive daily shouting match at our border, Wagah, where every afternoon, citizens can sit in the stands and watch our respective suited and booted soldiers stomp along the border, raising flags and slamming gates in each other’s faces. The Khyber Pass, between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is another historic but shadowy corridor where you can buy handmade pistols but not postcards. The only pop heard across the Khyber Pass is not the musical kind.

The DMZ, however, is a hit tourist attraction for travellers passing through futuristic Seoul. Only the South allows the public access to the border and, in true capitalist spirit, for less than $50, you can be shepherded through the buffer zone between the democratic South and communist North with gift shops at every turn.

Soo, our guide, was impossible to separate from her microphone and could be considered a strong impetus for defection to the other side:

“Guys, do you know where we are going? Yes! To the DMZ!”

“Ok! Now I tell you about Korean War!”

She pointed out the wire fence that marked the beginning of one of the world’s most contested borders by telling us that over the river was North Korea, identifiable because they have almost no trees compared to the South. They use their wood for fuel, she frowned. “Take pictures!”

Stop one was Imjingak Peace Park, a shopping ground and war memorial where Soo invited us to visit the pain of the Korean people for exactly 20 minutes, use the loo and buy some snacks.

A monument encircled by South Korean and American flags paid humble tribute to the sacrifice of America’s sons while nearby billboards advertised K-beauty products, whose exports amount to $3.6bn a year. The gun keychains sold in the many kiosks do not exactly scream “peace park” but we move on, crossing Freedom Bridge – also called Cow Bridge because the founder of Hyundai, who had North Korean origins, sent 1,001 cows over the bridge as a gesture of goodwill to his former homeland – before we were stopped at what Soo called a “checking point”. 

The Joint Security Area – ground zero of the military demarcation line – was shut to tourists in advance of the Singapore summit and so North Korea is neither seen or felt. They are a ghostly presence, the bogeymen of the DMZ.

We were greeted at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, secretly dug by the North and discovered by the South in 1978, with an eight-minute video, narrated by a Moviefone voice. “North Korea is provoking us endlessly using tunnels, land and sea!” the voice boomed. The tunnel we were about to descend is large enough for 30,000 soldiers to pass through in one hour. As I put on my hard hat for the 500-metre trek, I felt bad about thinking Wagah absurd. At least both sides get to engage in boot-stomping there, it is an equal opportunity propaganda zone. Here, there is only one voice.

And Soo’s. 

We were not allowed to bring our phones or photograph anything, though the tunnel is as frightening as a subway station, down to the CCTV and soft music pumped through the speakers. “It must be nice to a be a dictator and have all this free labour,” an American member of my group murmured appreciatively. By the exit, a gift shop sold chilled bottles of Starbucks lattes and DMZ soybean chocolates.

At the Dora Observatory, as we stood under a sign promising “end of separation, the beginning of reunification”, Soo told us how the North Koreans used to blare music through their speakers, how they continually extended their flagpole so that it would stand higher than the South’s and how, if we turned our binoculars to the right, we could see a Northern and Southern village but theirs, she insisted, is a propaganda village.

The DMZ, for all the exhausting jingoism one endures to stand at this man-made line in the earth, is beautiful. The frontier is lush and green, the climate cool and brisk. The Northern village is so small, there is no danger of anyone actually seeing it. Like India and Pakistan, underneath Korea’s artificial boundaries, the soil is the same. Like us, the Koreans speak the same language and share the same flavours of food, family and culture. But unlike the subcontinent, unification is spoken about here as an eventuality, a promised future, forever unimperiled by the present. 

Before Soo guided us to a ginseng factory where we were encouraged to buy ginseng to our hearts’ delight, we made one last stop: Dorasan Station, from where one day, a train will run to Pyongyang. The day I visited, the departure gate to the North was shut, used only for selfies, but one day it might welcome actual travellers. When the North is finally connected to the South, you will be able to journey to Europe from here.

What began as surreal ends as sad. We leave Dorasan in eerie silence; there is no traffic there, only tour buses and military vehicles. We, a busload of Singaporean, American and Pakistani tourists, are the only citizens in this no-man’s land, playing brave, climbing down tunnels and carrying gift bags.

Are you happy about the idea of peace? I asked Soo as we had our passports checked at the second unnecessary checking point, guards stationed to halt any southerners fleeing north.

All Korean people love unification, Soo smiled. 

And Trump? 

Only half like him, she replied.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.