By Jessica Xing, Staff Writer
In part with Strand’s partnership with Steindl, a renowned international photobook publishing company, Jongwoo Park discussed his new book DMZ: Demilitarized Zone of Korea with journalist Sara Rosen on Nov. 29. His photo book focuses on the 38th parallel, the zone separating North and South Korea, depicting the unrest but also startling beauty of the landscape in contrast to the turmoil the zone represents.
Park was invited by the South Korean government to photograph the inside of the DMZ in 2010. He began the discussion of his book with a recap of the the Korean War, showing present day photos he took of the war’s battle sites along the DMZ. Park was the first civilian photographer allowed into the zone in 60 years, so despite the 38th parallel being an arbitrary line drawn by the Korean government, Park reiterates that the DMZ is very militarized. He recounts a story the 60 year old minefield his team found, and showed his photos of the bones of Korean soldiers and holes that used to be filled up with dynamite during the war.
In the DMZ, the South Korean government took many precautions to protect Park. Any trip he took to get photos, he was accompanied by four or five army jeeps, all marked with blue flags. The blue flags were a part of North and South Korea’s agreement: South Korea would put blue flags on jeeps to indicate they were peaceful, and North Korea would not attack.
The South Korean government did not want Park to be discovered by the North Korean government, so Park could only take his photos at certain places at very specific times. When he was in protected areas, places that obscured him from sight, he could freely take photos, however in open areas when the North Korean bunker was visible the South Korean soldiers were on high alert. Whenever Park entered the DMZ he had to wear army clothes so that he would not be easily identified as a journalist. However, after a few months into his assignment North Korean officials found out and began to protest against his presence in the zone.
“Obviously since instead of guns, I had my big camera,” Park said, “So North korean officials noticed and protested that there was this South Korean journalist and he was taking photos of the DMZ. South Korea was then warned that if I took anymore photos they were going to shoot me — this was what they said in protest to my assignment.”
In contrast to the unrest, he talked about the moments of humanity on the zone, such as soldiers playing basketball or South Korean soldiers playing Korean pop music. He also showed photos of the landscapes he saw along the DMZ that people could not have access to, such as Mt. Kumgang, which Park calls the “most beautiful mountain in all of Korea.”
“[The DMZ] is truly a surreal landscape,” Park said in his discussion, “the South and North Korean army have to set fire to it from time to time because they need to have an open landscape, or else if there is a thick forest they can’t see enemy infiltration, so all that’s left is a very isolated, empty place.”