'Beyond the DMZ'
[Review] Capturing a divided Korea in dance
Email Article  Print Article Jay Hauben (jhauben)    
▲ Scene from the Sudden Enlightenment Theater performance in New York City
ⓒ2006 Yoon H.J.
The people who live on the Korean peninsula in Northeast Asia share a long history and language. In the year 668CE, the earlier Three Kingdoms were unified under the Silla Kingdom. For the first time, most of the peninsula was a single political entity.

From 668 until the late 1940s, the political unity of the Korean people was more or less continuous. For 35 years the whole of Korea was subjugated under Japanese colonialism (1910-1945). In the summer of 1945 Imperial Japan was facing defeat in World War II. Virtually the entire Korean people began to look forward to the reemergence of a Korean nation finally independent again of foreign dominance.

But that was not to be.

Instead, WWII ended with the Korean peninsula again occupied. In August 1945 troops from the Soviet Union (SU) entered Korea, followed in September by troops of the United States. This created a military arrangement not intended as a political solution.

Beyond the DMZ

Presented by Sudden Enlightenment Theater

Composer/Director Eun-Hee Kim

Choreographer Hey-Jeong Yoon

Sarah Pope
Joshua Warr
Jeong Min Michelle Lee
Donven Gillard
Nichole Falloon
Kathryn Bringle
Blake Faulds

The Poets Den Theater
309 East 108 Street
New York

The U.S. proposed and the SU agreed to separate zones of occupation separated at the 38th parallel north latitude. With talk by the U.S. and the SU of a five year trusteeship under a single provisional government, Korea was not fully divided. The current division was cemented when the U.S. dominated United Nations supervised an election of only voters south of the 38th parallel, inaugurating the Republic of Korea on Aug. 15, 1948. A month later the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established north of the 38th parallel. Korea's political division was completed.

The story and consequences of this division and the separation of the Korean people are portrayed in a touching series of 10 dance/drama scenes called "Beyond the DMZ." The original performance of this dance/drama was in 2004 in New York City (NYC). Director Eun-Hee Kim and choreographer Hey-Jeong Yoon, both natives of Seoul, collaborated on the original and have upgraded their dance/drama piece with the plan to have it performed in New York, Dallas, Seoul and Berlin.

The performance I attended was in a classical small theater in NYC known as the Poet's Den Theater. The seven dancers performed the ten scenes with various interesting costumes and a variety of lighting and background projections. As in most dance performances there were minimal props.

The first scene is titled, "DMZ" for the demilitarized zone that has separated the Korean people since the end of the Korean War (June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953) over 50 years ago. There are ribbons across the stage separating two groups of dancers. No matter how hard they try, they cannot get together. The dancers successfully convey the desperation and tragic separation of countless Korean families caused by the division of Korea. The play bill tells us that 7,670,000 Koreans living in the South are from separated families. Adding their family members in the North means around 10 million Koreans have had no way to see or be in touch with family members for over 50 years.

ⓒ2006 Yoon H.J.
The next scene, "Funeral," suggests the sorrow and pain during the 35 years of Japanese occupation, like the pain experienced at a funeral. That pain is contrasted with the joy that must have been felt by all Koreans as the humiliation and cruelty of the Japanese occupation was about to end in August 1945. The third dance scene, "The World is Beautiful" captures that joy as women beautifully dressed in red dance excitedly with their companions. This is the only scene where the dancers portray Korean people smiling.

The decision to separate Korea into northern and southern occupations zones occurred without the participation of any Koreans. The choreographer portrays this historical fact in the next dance scene, "The Yalta Conference." Images of Joseph Stalin of the SU, Franklin Roosevelt of the U.S. and Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom are flashed on the background of the stage. A big map of the Korean peninsula lies flat on the stage. Three dancers, one each for the three big powers, circle the map eyeing it carefully and contemplating what to do. Finally they draw a line straight across the middle. They are so proud of their work.

The historical events behind this scene include a conference held in Cairo Egypt in November 1943 where the allies, in the fight against Imperial Japan, the U.S., the U.K. and China defined their war aims. Chiang Kai-shek for China proposed freedom and independence for Korea. The U.S. and U.K. agreed but added "in due course" meaning not right away after the expected defeat of Japan.

At the conference in Yalta Ukraine in February 1945 and at the Potsdam Germany conference in July 1945, no division of Korea was discussed by the U.S., SU and U.K. leaders.(*) In informal conversation it is reported they agreed on a single trusteeship over all of Korea, not immediate independence for Korea. After the SU had declared war on Japan and Soviet troops had already entered Korea in early August 1945, days before Imperial Japan surrendered, the U.S. proposed to the SU a division of Korea at the 38th parallel. The SU agreed to separate zones of occupation. There was no mention of separate political entities. Separate governments first appeared in 1948.

The painful history of one people under two separate occupations and then a political division and war is depicted by dance scenes portraying a struggle between left and right (Scene #5: "Left or Right"), a war (Scene #6: "6.25 - Korean War") and the frustration of division (Scene #7: "North and South"). The dancers show confusion and sorrow and executions and all manner of intimidation and trouble. The war is depicted by two soldiers in different uniforms battling each other for the whole Korea, well represented by a table. First one soldier then the other "liberates" the table only to have the pattern repeated.

ⓒ2006 Yoon H.J.
The Korean War lasted for three years and one month but the division at the 38th Parallel lasts even until now. The pain of separated families and a divided nation remains. For the great majority of separated families there has been no correspondence, no visits, and no word if relatives are dead or alive. Still today, no Korean can visit all of the natural treasures of the whole peninsula. The next three scenes continue the story of the pain and frustration of the division; Scene #8: "Time & Tide", Scene #9: "Separation", and Scene #10: "Do you know this person?"

The desperate search for relatives who one has not seen for 50 years is shown by the faces of the dancers as they run to and fro or approach each other with a 50-year-old photo. Could you be my missing relative? The play bill tells us that in 1983, a process was started to bring about the reunion of family members separated but all living in the South.

For four and a half months people arrived at a TV studio to register for an appearance in the hopes their missing family members would recognize them. Over 10,000 South Korean families were reunited in this way.(1) In September 1985, 151 visitors were allowed to visit across the DMZ. Only in 1999 were such visits resumed. That process has gone on with ups and downs since then but has involved relatively few reunions or visits to home villages.

"Beyond the DMZ" ends with a dance scene of desperate and questioning gestures. Dancers with large placards show the search for contact continues but time is running out.

The whole dance/drama is a poignant plea for contact and reunion of the separated families and for the reunification of the Korean nation. The performance is not alone in such a wish. The official policy of both North and South Korean governments is reunification. There are very solid long range plans proposed(2) and an agreement 1) that such reunification should be the work of Koreans without foreign interference or help, 2) that such reunification must be peaceful, not forced by arms or economic might, voluntary and democratic and 3) that such reunification must be based on respect for ideological and institutional differences that exist now on the Korean peninsula.

I feel the performance of "Beyond the DMZ" is a timely contribution to the process of trying to reunite the two halves of Korea. A united Korea could contribute to the possibility of greater stability in North East Asia. The choreographer Eun-Hee Kim, the director Hey-Jeong Yoon, the Sudden Enlightenment Theater Company which presented the performance and the seven excellent dancers should be congratulated and encouraged to do more such work. I hope they will release a video on the Internet of this dance/drama so it can be seen by a world wide audience.

ⓒ2006 Yoon H.J.

(*) A previous version mistakenly placed Roosevelt at Potsdam. It was Harry Truman. OhmyNews regrets the error.

(1) See pp 15-19 of the KoreaSociety PDF file
(2) See for example, Kim Dae-jung's "Three-Stage" Approach to Korean Reunification: Focusing on the South-North Confederal State, translated by Rhee Tong-chin, 1997.

2006/09/06 오후 12:37
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