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[Letter to Editor] Redefining DMZ as contact zone of hope

On cold winter evenings, I watched drama series “Crash Landing on You.” Although this romance drama has been assessed by some critics as a pure fantasy, it has achieved great success by vividly featuring a North Korean village and depicting its people as friendly and no different from South Korean. Besides these aspects, it seems to me that the other key factor behind this TV drama’s success is South Koreans’ curiosity and interest in North Korea, despite the recent deadlock in inter-Korean relations.

The main setting of the drama is North Korea. However, the DMZ between North and South Korea also plays a significant role in the plot. This drama depicts the DMZ in several scenes and features it in a different light, portraying the world’s most heavily armed border as a border that can be crossed: Yun Se-ri (played by Son Ye-Jin) was paragliding over the DMZ and “accidentally” crash-landed in North Korea. She crossed the heavily militarized border on foot to get back home while remaining undetected. Additionally, Ri Jeong-hyeok, her boyfriend and a North Korean Army officer, was captured by South Korean authorities and sent through the DMZ back to North Korea. These individual desires to cross the border make a hilarious caricature of the austere DMZ, making a political and militarized border into contact zones of hope where various cultures and values communicate, converge, coexist and collide with each other.

With recent progress in globalization, different cultures and values are infinitely crossing borders and expanding beyond all boundaries of culture, ethnicity and religion. There is still a strong tendency to define a border simply as the opposite of a center or as the sharp edge of sovereignty in the modern era of nation-states. The creation of various social symbols, such as monuments, films and public holidays, has powered a collective memory, establishing the sanctity and invariability of borders into the people’s minds.

At the base of this fixed interpretation lies the ideology of modern nationalism, which has built a barrier between those identified as belonging to a nation and those outside of that identity -- “us” against the “other.” In other words, borders viewed through the lens of nationalism reinforce enmity and confrontation. However, the reality of borders, which are revealed when looking at history from a wide angle, is a dynamic place where various cultures and values coexist, creating a space with a rich history of reconciliation and coexistence.

“Crash Landing on You” provides us an opportunity to think of reshaping the barrier of the DMZ into contact zones, realizing the dream of reconciliation and coexistence. It additionally reflects the historical accounts of border crossings and how individuals and groups cross borders on grounds of political belief, religion or love. Overall, it helps to boost our imagination in redefining borders as potential integrated contact zones.

From, Cha Yong-ku
Professor of the department of history and director of HK+ RCCZ research center, Chung-Ang University.