By Jack Williams
This eye-opening photo series offers a rare glimpse into a segment of land that was once described as the “SCARIEST PLACE ON EARTH.”
It was President Bill Clinton who coined that description of the Korean Demilitarized Zone – a 155-mile stretch across the Korean peninsular, measuring around two miles wide.
The zone was created in 1953, following an armistice between the North and the South – an agreement that ended three years of fighting between the two.
Photographer Park Jongwoo began documenting the zone in 2009, having been given rare access to visit there in the build up to the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the war.
His works, taken over the following eight years, show the likes of coiled barbed wire fences, soldiers aiming rifles, tunnels that appear endless, and areas where wildlife thrives.
Park, 60, who lives in Seoul, South Korea, said: “As a photographer from the only divided nation in the world, it was a dream for me, as it would have been to any other Korean documentary photographer or photo-journalist, to document the DMZ, though it’s a restricted area prohibiting civilians from photographing the place, or even getting in there.
No human development can take place in the zone, so more than 6,000 animals and plant species have been identified in the area, according to the South Korean Ministry of Environment – 106 of which have been labeled endangered or protected.
Shooting the series was surreal, Park said, as the zone is tranquil, with the sounds of elks very audible.
In order to photographer the area, Park had to accompanied by a group of South Korean soldiers, due to the thousands of landmines that litter the ground.
Park’s breathtaking images were released in a 2017 book entitled “DMZ: Demilitarized Zone of Korea.”
Speaking of the reaction to these photographs, he said: “After examining those photos, many people told me that they were shocked because of the surrealistic scenary.
“These days, Korean peninsula is often on news headlines due to the North Korean nuclear weapons threat.
“Everytime it happened, the DMZ was focused on because it is the borderline between North and South Korea.”
The photographs are the first part of an ongoing project named “Bundan,” which means “a divided nation” in Korean.
For the second part of the project, Park shot the Imjin River, which flows from North to South and is also a symbol of division for the country, he said.
The third phase is about “Dragon’s Teeth” – concrete antitank obstacles that are located to the DMZ from Seoul – and additional phases will follow.
Park, explaining what he hoped to depict through his DMZ images, said: “It’s been 65 years since the armistice in 1953.
“The majority of Koreans have already forgotten the war: Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is now just like any other cosmopolitan city and people are living their busy lives just like any other people in the world.
“But only one-hour ride from that city, there are heavily armed soldiers of the South and North confronting each other.
“I hope people realize that the war is not over, that it is still ongoing.”