The Sounds of Demilitarized Peace

Figure 1. South Korean soldiers erect a tower of loudspeakers along Korea’s Demilitarized Zone.

Figure 2. South Korean soldiers adjust the broadcasts from inside a control room.

The sounds of militarized division have permeated the landscape in and around Korea’s demilitarized zone (DMZ) for more than six decades. Although the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement in 1953 brought a temporary halt to armed combat between China- (and Soviet-) backed communist and US-led capitalist forces fighting for control of the peninsula, it has kept the two Koreas in a latent state of war for sixty-five years. Geographically divided by only a 2.5 mile-wide buffer zone, North and South Korea’s militaries have used acoustic weapons to wage psychological warfare along the de facto inter-Korean border. Since the early 1960s, the two countries have blasted a continuous barrage of propaganda broadcasts from loudspeakers posted on opposing sides of a Military Demarcation Line, filling the DMZ’s narrow strip of land with the cacophonous noise of music, recorded messages, and news reports. As the crests and valleys of the so-called demilitarized zone have reverberated with the militarized sounds of an unfulfilled promise of peace and reunification in Korea, I can only wonder what demilitarized peace might sound like in Korea [Figures 2 and 3].

In this essay, I attune my ears to the DMZ to listen for what ideas and narratives about division are sonically reproduced or silenced about its borders. What knowledges and stories about the DMZ–and, by extension, division–have accumulated within the enduring echoes of the Korean War? Alternatively, what knowledges and stories have been rendered inaudible through decades of brutal military dictatorships, anti-communist doctrine, historical suppression, and trauma–especially within the United States? How do we begin to listen for the many silences and unheard sounds along and within the DMZ?

These questions have reverberated with particular force and urgency for me in 2018, as Donald Trump edged perilously close to launching a preemptive strike against North Korea. As Trump’s military action most certainly would have resulted in catastrophe for the entire peninsula, we saw in plain view the colonial dynamic underlying the so-called US-ROK (Republic of Korea/South Korea) Mutual Defense Treaty. In April, the two Korean leaders ordered their militaries to dismantle their loudspeakers systems in one of many highly staged displays of their shared commitment to peace and resistance to US aggression. The move came as part of an urgent and historic effort to sign a formal peace treaty and bring a long-awaited end to the Korean War, against a backdrop of quiet within the DMZ.

The broadcasts have been mutually shut off in the past during a few rare periods of inter-Korean unity; the last hiatus lasted more than a decade under the diplomacy-forward presidencies of Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008). However, this stretch of silence, as well as much of the diplomatic work achieved by the previous leaders, was ruptured by the notoriously aggressive policies of former president Park Geun-Hye (2013-2017). Indeed, when the current South Korean president Moon Jae-in halted the loudspeakers broadcasts earlier this year, they had been running every day at irregular hours for two consecutive years under Park Geun-hye’s orders [Figure 4]. Although the diplomatic gesture brought a moment of quiet to the most militarized border on earth, the silences have been wrought with tension as Trump has consistently challenged and thwarted diplomatic attempts with Kim Jong-un, and demanded North Korea’s denuclearization (their only remaining defense) while refusing to remove the US’s 28,000+ active-duty soldiers stationed throughout South Korea or stop its joint military exercises with the ROK [Figure 5]. The events reminded us of the precariousness of peace in the shadow of American empire. Peace in Korea, when interpreted under the stewardship of the United States, actually implies the militarized forestallment of war.

The dominant story told within the United States and South Korea boasts about the formidable display of military and technological might in South Korea’s loudspeaker system. Stacks of amplifiers resembling giant artillery batteries loom over the border from eleven undisclosed locations along the DMZ, blasting a broadcast which purportedly can travel as far as 6.2 miles during the day and up to 15 miles at night. Some accounts even remark upon the decrepit state of North Korea’s loudspeaker system, which has suffered in recent years due to electrical grid blackouts.

Figure 3. Joint US-South Korean military exercises underway just outside of the DMZ

These narratives of South Korea’s technological superiority have been matched by claims about its cultural modernity. In 2015, then-president Park Geun-hye ordered the Defense Ministry to rebuild the program around K-Pop, in an effort to sonically delineate a temporal division between North and South Korea. As depicted in the Girls’ Generation clip featured below [Figure 6], this genre, which draws almost entirely from contemporary US and Western European themes and sounds, bears no trace of historical memory or musical traditions from Korea. Like all pop music, it is always the sound of the “present,” driven by current and future trends on the horizon. As one Defense Ministry official states, they included K-Pop so that “North Koreans can learn that the world is changing” and demonstrate how their “media blackout” had brought it out of step with a globalized world which largely has moved on from the Cold War.

Girls’ Generation hit single “Genie” was included in Park’s inaugural program.

South Korea’s future-oriented model of development, however, depends upon a vast structural silence about the unspeakable forms of violence that were committed during the country’s rapid modernization process. Three consecutive military dictators, who drove the country’s industrialization between 1961 and 1992, used the specter of an imminent war with a communist north to legitimize their own authority, need for a militarized border, and push for economic development as a matter of national security. It was through a militarized nationalism, built upon anti-communist enmity, that they could mobilize millions of South Koreas into inhuman labor conditions (sometimes at gunpoint) and subject activists, artists, and journalists who expressed any hint of dissent to brutal suppression tactics. A logic of division requires a structural forgetting about whom this division has served most.

With this militarized context in mind, how do we begin to listen for a different present and future for Korea de-linked from a US-led model of militarized modernization? Relatedly, by drawing on the sonic as a decolonial practice, how might we realign Korea with a complex history of anti-colonial struggles for self-determination? While these questions are difficult to answer, I suggest that we begin with a sensorial engagement with the demilitarized zone. Upon initial glance, many might only hear and see a sonic clash of ideological enmity resounding within the crests and valleys of the inter-Korean border. Yet, if we listen and look closely, we might sense the possibilities that emerge from these sensorial contradictions. That is, amidst the violent collision of Cold War dynamics within this surveilled landscape, we come face-to-face with an untamed expanse of open air, land, and resonating silence incongruent with South Korea’s unfettered race to modernized development. Watching and listening to South Korea’s propaganda broadcasts across the DMZ, I am haunted by this glaring juxtaposition between the visual and aural composition of the landscape. While I refrain from describing the DMZ as a pristine landscape untouched by the global security system, the stunning preserve of rolling hills and wet marshlands, I argue, offers a possible glimpse of what this land might have looked like before it was marred by war. In her gorgeous work on the production of ecological value in and around the DMZ, Eleana Kim remarks upon the glaring irony that the most fortified border on earth is now home to a massive eco-preserve of biodiversity inhabited rather symbolically by the highly-endangered red-crowned and white-naped cranes that migrate across the border annually.

Indeed, given that ecological processes such as natural erosion have produced an ever-changing landscape with porous borders, this enclosed area formally demarcated as the “DMZ” refuses to abide by the Cold War geographical dictates established by the 1953 armistice. This ecological refusal is echoed by the unruly sonic traces within the DMZ: even as the sounds amplified from the South Korean state’s loudspeakers wash over this land, K-Pop’s driving beats and melodic vocals become diffused and scrambled across the DMZ’s expanse, fragmenting nationalistic narratives about South Korea’s overpowering might over a feeble North Korea. In a telling sense, amplified sound does not travel neatly through nature. Thus, we begin to sense that in tension with this sonic dissipation there exists a vibrational and affective accumulation of other kinds of sounds, images, and memories: a swelling of unforgotten cries and wounds, unmitigated anxieties and enduring hopes that dwell within this seemingly forgotten “no-man’s” zone.

Within these disjointed scenes inside the DMZ, where the muddied sounds of K-Pop nationalism spill across the narrow strip of a unified Korea, I began to hear a collision of two potential futures for Korea: one precariously driven by a United States-led model of militarized development and the other rooted in a paradigm of demilitarized peace, organized and led by those directly impacted by the un-ended Korean War. I cannot help but imagine what the latter might sound like: the healing of a wound; the reunion of families and loved ones; cranes sweeping across the landscape; a sound we may not have yet heard.

Cover image: Sound and the DMZ

Patty Ahn

Patty Ahn is assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Affiliated Faculty in the Transnational Korean Studies Program, Critical Gender Studies Program, and Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Their research and teaching interests include contemporary Korean and Korean American political economic and cultural history; postcolonial and feminist theory; cultural theories of global media with an emphasis on hallyu (the Korean Wave); digital storytelling; and transmedia activism. Drawing from their background as a community organizer, media producer, and scholar, their work traverses the boundary between traditional research and creative practice.