Book review: Life on the Edge of the DMZ

by Jennifer Barclay on 13 June, 2010 updated 13 May, 2012

in Book Reviews | Books on DPRK | Other books

Life on the edge of the DMZLee See-woo: Life on the Edge of the DMZ
Global Oriental, 2008

I’ve been dipping in and out of this fascinating though often overly complex book by peace activist Lee Si-Woo. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether the English translation – for the most part unfussy ­– is sometimes too literal, or whether original is simply very unusual. When it gets too abstruse, however, the beautiful photographs help.

According to the jacket blurb, Lee’s journey is now a celebrated one along the Demilitarized Zone or Mintongsun. The author of several books and collections of photographs focusing on the anti-personnel mines in the area, he was imprisoned in 2007 briefly for contravening National Security Law. This is the first of his works to be published in English.

Lee meanders along this strangest of borders, lingering both in famous sites and in half-forgotten villages. He theorises on topics such as the tilted dolmens of Kanghwa Island, musing on political symbolism, and juxtaposes the old legend surrounding the blood-red tideland seaweed with the story of a 1951 massacre there. He loves to digress, a discussion of the Imjin River taking him onto the history of modern Korean currency. He’s also poetic, stopping by the roadside to ‘become a prisoner of the pensive fog’ by a lake. The detailed list of contents suggests a highly academic approach (‘Stone Age relics in Junkok-li and the aesthetics of unification’), and yet turn to the start of that chapter and he begins with an anecdote about a rainy field trip to the area and a debate en route about whether water falling over a cliff necessarily constituted a waterfall. It’s a very personal and often endearing book.

The book is dense with allusions, hard for any but a devotee of Korean studies to understand in full, contentious and sometimes overly philosophical. And yet it’s been by my bedside for months now, and I’m reluctant to give up on it, happy every now again to become a prisoner of its pensive fog.

Jennifer Barclay is author of Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi

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