Report from the Underside: Dongducheon
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The Korean peninsula has been and remains a flashpoint for the world’s superpowers. Over the past century, Korea has seen a succession of violent ruptures: the first four decades under Japanese colonialism, followed by the three-year Korean War that ravaged the entire peninsula, and then by three successive military regimes supported by the U.S. over four decades. Even now, the peninsula is still gripped by Cold War geopolitics, long after the fall of the Communist bloc.
This online exhibition focuses on photographic work by artists who engage with history and politics in Dongducheon, a strategically important city since the early 20th century. Dongducheon is located about 40km north of Seoul in the proximity of the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, which divides the Korean peninsula. The DMZ is the most heavily militarized border on the planet. The South Korean government’s strategic build-up in Dongducheon transformed this agricultural town into a small city to support the U.S. military presence. Some 42 percent of the land has been confiscated and made available to the U.S. military without the consent of the town’s residents. Over the past six decades, six U.S. military bases have been established, along with hundreds of businesses that cater to the American presence. Beginning in 2005, reflecting changes in regional geopolitics, the army bases have been either shut down or relocated to other locations in South Korea.
For many South Koreans, Dongducheon signifies an exception, a non-territory of negation and oblivion; its residents the objects of contempt. The widespread disparaging views of Dongducheon are the result of sustained exploitation of the land and its residents by the South Korean government. To pursue their strategic objectives, the U.S. and South Korean governments neglected to follow basic democratic procedures in its treatment of the city and its residents. Consequently, Dongducheon and its residents have been sacrificed in the service of a militaristic nation-state, its anti-Communist national security policy, and its foreign relations. Often referred to as “camp town,” Dongducheon is one of the most significant sites of fraternization between Korean sex workers and American GIs. In fact, the U.S. currency earned by sex workers was not insignificant to the Korean economy in the 1960s and 70s. Yet the South Korean public regarded the sex workers with contempt, labeling them “Yanggongju,” a derogatory term meaning “Western princess”. In this regard, Dongducheon is a place of exception designated as undesirable. Its residents are considered in need of “redemption” when seen by the self-righteous masses, yet Dongducheon is simultaneously considered indispensable to national security and the economy.
What follows below is a group of photographic works that represents a necessarily selective history of Korea in the Cold War era (from 1980 to the present). It shows the lives of the inhabitants of Dongducheon, a people neglected and forgotten; unregistered, in the literal sense, in public history and social consciousness. I take to heart the feeling expressed by the artist siren eun young jung as she reflected upon her two years of work concerning Dongducheon. According to siren, the task is not to represent in a spectacular way the grand narrative of Dongducheon or to disclose the trauma of the Korean nation-state, which Dongducheon embodies; rather, it is to refuse calls for collective healing that attempt to compensate for trauma through a nationalistic narrative of sacrifice at the expense of subalterns.
I present these materials while being mindful of the tendency to collectivize others as a singular entity, to nullify individualities and complexities, to regard and objectify others as simply “others”. I discuss these images in this public space of an online journal while also recognizing that I may be complicit in a contradictory double bind: growing up in Korea during the Cold War era, I was a part of the dominant mass that, either out of ignorance or tacit approval, savored American culture while simultaneously regarding the Yanggongju with contempt. The flipside of resentment against American imperialism was one’s own exploitation of Dongducheon. Finally, as siren’s work shows, the legacy of the Cold War is ongoing and now extends to sex workers from other nations, who continue to serve American GIs in Dongducheon and are subject to exploitation and violence by club owners and soldiers.
DMZ is a series of works for which the artist Yong Tae Kim collected some 300 photographs from various commercial photo studios in Dongducheon, and then simply arranged them in the shape of the letters “DMZ”. In one photo, the oversize insignia in the backdrop of the photograph reads: “I am sure to go to heaven because I spent my time in hell.” A black military policeman is standing with a baton in his hand, staring impassively into the camera. This canonical image from the 1980s grassroots people’s art movement called “Minjung”, obviously reflects upon the presence of U.S. military forces in South Korea. Needless to say, “hell” here refers to the Korean peninsula.
The photographs are mostly commemorative souvenir images of U.S. soldiers posing with comrades or with their Korean girlfriends or wives in front of kitschy backdrops depicting natural or urban landscapes, traditional Korean countryside, or exotic Hawaiian landscapes. The photographs show soldiers in many different relationships and moods. For example, a white soldier marrying a Korean woman is beaming at their wedding banquet; another soldier is frowning next to a Korean woman with a young daughter between them.
Through his explicitly political use of the readymade photographs, Kim reveals the consequences of international relations on the realm of the personal. While the Korea-U.S. relationship provides the historical context for DMZ, it is the quotidian lives of the specific individuals that matter. Yong Tae Kim’s DMZ photographs are a synecdoche of human relations as much as they are symbolic of the U.S.’s own perception of its position as a benefactor of South Korea, and thus superior to it.
Sangdon Kim is an artist in his late 30’s who works across various media and who produced a reconsideration of Yong Tae Kim’s DMZ series. He recognized that many of the photographs in the original DMZ series were misplaced and that curators have resorted to exhibiting prints of the installation view of the original work. Given the significance of DMZ, the younger Kim confessed that his encounter with it became something of an “incurable pain” and that he felt obliged to respond to the work in some way. As Sangdon Kim began his numerous visits to Dongducheon, he gathered souvenir photographs from commercial photo salons and sought to “contribute” to DMZ, as it were, by titling his work Regarding DMZ. Sangdon Kim seems to consider his work a supplement to the lost originals. Interestingly, he made his own selection of photographs based on his speculation that the kinds of images he chose might not have been selected by the elder Kim. Sangdon Kim suspects that some of the prints are from the same studio, as they reveal identical backdrops. While Regarding DMZ bears close resemblance to Yong Tae Kim’s work, the images are given a contemporary update: a soldier is photographed while using his cellular phone; another man is on his knees, looking up above where the image of his girlfriend hovers, obviously pasted in through digital image manipulation.
In addition, Sangdon Kim made the Test Prints series by printing test strips he acquired from commercial photo salons in Dongducheon. Produced in the era of analog photography, the lab technicians had randomly arranged the images and printed the test strips in order to be cost-effective. Test Prints are his selections from a collection of such random arrangements, enlarged and printed digitally. Interestingly, readings of the images are possible in ways most likely unintended by lab technicians. In one vertical arrangement of three strips, a young girl is repeated twice, as if she is her own guardian. The colors of each strip fade out from the bottom up, making it impossible to discern any image in the uppermost portions of the strips. Viewed together, the piece suggests that the girl, presumably born to an American GI and a Korean woman, is left on her own to become invisible in the supposedly mono-ethnic Korean society. In another piece with multiple strips featuring the cropped faces of soldiers and their girlfriends, a blonde woman appears twice, but washed in red in one image. Numbers are casually written over the faces, indicating the differential light exposures. The combinations of multiple faces and numbers seem to nullify individual differences and lend the subjects anonymity, suggesting their fate as an undifferentiated, objectified mass deployed in the name of “democracy” and peacekeeping.
Kang Yong Suk is the only person among the present group of artists who uses photography exclusively. Since 1984, Kang has also photographed the people of Dongducheon in his series Dongducheon Commemorative Photographs. The clubs in which these photographs were taken forbid entry to Korean nationals. Kang obtained a permit as a freelance photographer for the clubs’ customers. The images convey the desires of individuals who are pursuing their respective notions of romance, or experiencing moments of unexpected discomfort. The women in these images often appear visibly unhappy. For the GIs these encoungers may offer immediate sensual gratification, while for the women, the encounter provides monetary compensation and perhaps even the prospect of a bright future in the U.S. As seen in the DMZ series, here we witness the grotesque, comical, and frightful discrepancies when races, cultures, and customs are forcibly juxtaposed by geopolitical circumstances. Together with the photographs of Yong Tae Kim and Sangdon Kim, Kang Yong Suk’s images of the Dongducheon club scene remain a symbol of militarized modernity and imposed hybridity.
Political scientist Katharine Moon writes that both U.S. and South Korean governments sponsor and regulate the sex industry geared toward the U.S. military. However, the camp town prostitutes have been:
forced out of Koreans’ consciousness for half a century, for Koreans have not wanted reminders of the war lurking around them. ... They are living testaments of Korea’s geographical and political division ... and of the South’s military insecurity and consequent dependence on the U.S. The sexual domination of tens of thousands of Korean women by “Yankee foreigners” is a social disgrace and a “necessary evil” that South Koreans believe they have had to endure to keep U.S. soldiers on Korean soil, a compromise in national pride, all for the goal of national security. Such humiliation is a price paid by the “little brother” in the alliance for protection by the “big brother.”
Hence, these photographs reveal how camp town club workers have been instrumental “in the promotion of two governments’ bilateral security interests.” Indeed, the subtext of the images is that the women were ““personal ambassadors” responsible for improving U.S.-Korea civil-military relations through their sexual relations with GIs. That is, the women “personified and defined relations between two governments.”
siren eun young jung has been investigating the politics of gender and the limitations of language in order to probe the complex conditions of female subjectivity within South Korea’s patriarchal social order. The leitmotif of her work is the representation of the social malady of invisible women. That is to say, siren‘s work records the signs of people who exist but remain invisible among Koreans. “Invisible” refers not simply to those who are socially marginalized, but “unregistered, undocumented, and unidentified individuals,” whose existences cannot be easily enunciated in common language. siren is sensitive to the inherent violence of the camera, yet she is also aware of the urgency for counter-languages in order to articulate invisible presences.
In 2008, siren was invited to participate in a collaborative project for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and Insa Art Space in Seoul called Dongducheon: A Walk to Remember, A Walk to Envision. Called upon to participate in a project on Dongducheon, siren has said she felt her own self-doubt and questioned the legitimacy of engaging the citizens of Dongducheon, who have a profound distrust of outsiders due to their systemic exclusion and exploitation over the past several decades. In response, siren continued her feminist practice by engaging with invisible abject women, Filipinas who have now virtually replaced all the Korean club workers in Dongducheon.
Sensitive to the fine line between “intervention” and “intrusion” in community-based practice, siren did not aim her camera at individuals, but rather focused on the narrow metal gates situated in the gaps between club buildings, leading to the shabby dwellings of the club workers. This series of photographs, entitled The Narrow Sorrow, was then distributed at the aforementioned two exhibitions in the form of stacks of free posters. By engaging with the un-representable, siren reveals collective sentiments, such as loss, agony, remorse, and sadness felt by the club workers. Further, by choosing to render their presence through the motif of the narrow gates, she implies the liminal state of their existence that oscillates between being and non-being. Finally, The Narrow Sorrow bears witness to the always partial and ideologically biased nature of public memory that obliterates the narratives of undesirables, the homo sacer. It attempts to inscribe their presences in our collective consciousness.
There are at least three silent landmarks in Dongducheon. In front of Camp Casey, the most prominent of the six U.S. military camps in Dongducheon, there stands a life-size white marble sculpture of an American Indian. The presence of this solemn figure is unnerving, as it appears to be a ghost of native Americans, a symbol of genocide, but somehow transposed here to either greet or observe the American GIs moving about in Dongducheon.
Of the two other significant “landmarks” of American intervention in Dongducheon, one is known as “the foreign apartment”. It is a completely deserted apartment building in the middle of the city which once housed a government-regulated VD clinic for sex providers officially servicing U.S. soldiers. The building was also home to many couples of American GIs and Korean women. With overgrown weeds in the front and back yards, the building has been off limits for decades, to the extent that it appears as a haunted place. No one in the neighborhood seems to know why it has been abandoned for so long, or whether there will be any plan for change or development of any kind. The building appears to be standing still in time. One can observe traffic and even military tanks passing by on the raised boulevards behind this absolutely silent building.
The last landmark is a cemetery in Sangpaedong, a short walk from Dongducheon city center, where more than 1,000 unidentified bodies are buried. The dead are various social “deviants” – the club workers, prostitutes, migrant workers, drug dealers, “illegitimate” children of U.S. soldiers, and disenfranchised Koreans. The peaceful appearance of the cemetery is deceiving, partly because it has been neglected, with no tombstones. A large percentage of prostitutes were buried here in the 1960s and the 70s. The photographs of club workers presented by Yong Tae Kim and Kang Yong Suk were taken in the 1980s, and therefore these workers may not have been buried here. While there are testimonials that many women who are buried here were victims of murders committed by American GIs, there is apparently no substantial evidence for this. However, one can surmise that the cemetery is the final resting place for many nameless women who “endured precarious lives and had to forge their identities while in direct contact with the American soldiers in Dongducheon.” Seen together, the photographs gathered here represent the dominance of the U.S. over Korean lives and politics. The continued U.S. military presence and its attendant sex providers, now mostly foreigners, signal the complexity of body politics in the perpetuation of South Korea’s neocolonial standing with regard to the U.S.
Young Min Moon is an artist, critic, and Associate Professor in the Department of Art at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His work has been exhibited in the U.S., Canada, and South Korea. He has published essays on contemporary Korean art and curated the traveling exhibition “Incongruent: Contemporary Art from South Korea” (2005-2007).
Describing the juridical and sociopolitical condition of Dongducheon as a state of exception in terms of Agamben’s definition may be open to debate, and requires further study. The exceptional status of Dongducheon is not simply the work of the Korean government, but rather a combination of the state’s exploitative treatment, the public’s disregard for its residents, and the involvement of the U.S. government. The latter operates on the basis of Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which is widely perceived by South Koreans as highly problematic for its excessive protection of U.S. military personnel.
Kim, 10-19. I am referring to curator Heejin Kim’s introduction of a major undertaking, the two-year research based project that involved collaborations, workshops, panels, and two part exhibitions Dongducheon: A Walk to Remember, A Walk to Envision, held at New Museum in New York and Insa Art Space in Seoul, 2008-09. The exhibition is archived at: http://www.museumashub.org/neighborhood/insa-art-space
Kang Yong Suk Kang’s photographs of Maehyang-ri, a bombing test range in South Korea, is the subject of another essay in this issue. See “Leviathan: Kang Yong Suk’s Maehyang-ri Photographs” by Chan-Kyong Park.
Lucy Lippard, “Countering Cultures,” in Min Joong Art: New Movement of Political Art from Korea, exhibition brochure, curated by Boksoo Jung and Hyuk Um (New York: Minor Injury and Toronto: A Space, 1987), 3.
For the exhibition Dongducheon: A Walk to Remember A Walk to Envision Sangdon Kim has made video art pieces on these two landmarks, entitled Foreign Apartment (2008) and Hold Your Breadth for Four Minutes—The Cemetery (2008).