Unimaru: The art museum between North and South Korea where the curator wears a bulletproof vest

(CNN) – Art has always had the power to be dangerous. But a newly opened art museum is taking it to another level.

It is Unimaru’s position that makes him dangerous. The museum rests on the DMZ, or the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a no-man’s land along the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea.

Its inaugural exhibition, titled “2021 DMZ Art and Peace Platform”, featured 34 works by 32 artists and opened in September 2021.

"Elephant wagon" is a work of Nam June Paik, the late Korean-American artist considered the founder of the video art movement.

“Elephant Cart” is a work of Nam June Paik, the late Korean-American artist considered the founder of the video art movement.

Ministry of Unity

Before becoming a museum, Unimaru was a customs clearance center, where visitors underwent security checks before being able to visit the DMZ from 2003 to 2007. This was later replaced by a larger office.

The building remained empty until early 2021, when architecture firm MPART – which also designed the National Museum of Modern Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul – reinvented it as Unimaru. The name of the museum is a portmanteau of two Korean words: “uni”, which means one, and “maru”, which means space.

Its roof was opened so that visitors could see more of the view and a steel facade “representing the liminality of time and space in the DMZ,” according to a statement from the museum.

Due to both security and coronavirus concerns, the number of visitors is intentionally reduced.

A maximum of five tour groups per day was allowed during the opening of the museum, with no more than 30 people per group. Now Unimaru is on hiatus while setting up his next exhibition.

People who want to visit must apply for permission from the Ministry of Unification of South Korea (MOU) – the official government body that promotes the reunification of the Koreas and dialogue between the two countries.

Once approved, they get a free ticket to Unimaru and can board one of the special buses authorized to transport civilian guests to the DMZ.

On the left, you can see the mural by Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč "What is DMZ soil made of?"

On the left, you can see the mural by Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč “What Is DMZ Soil Made Of?”

Ministry of Unity

After checking their IDs, guests are escorted around the museum by MOU lecturers and staff members. These MOU staff members are civilians and do not carry weapons.

All visitors to the DMZ must adhere to a dress code that prohibits miniskirts, shorts and anything with a camouflage print.

They are not allowed to greet anyone they might see or take pictures of anything without permission, in case they run into security concerns.

Children under the age of 8 are also excluded from the DMZ, regardless of their country of origin.

In 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean President Kim Jong Un held an inter-Korean summit at the “Peace House” in Panmunjom on the DMZ.

Technically, the two nations are still at war, but during the meeting Moon and Kim have decided to go towards the formal end of their conflict. The agreement also stipulated that both countries would remove weapons, guards and anti-personnel mines from the Joint Security Area (JSA).

It was the departure of the guards from some of the military guard posts that allowed Unimaru to display artwork on a repurposed former watchtower just a mile from the border.

Yeon Shim Chung, UniMaru’s art director, told Artnet that she or other museum staff members wear body armor as a precaution when they go to install the pieces there.
The exterior of the Unimaru.

The exterior of the Unimaru.

Ministry of Unity

Works of art by South Korean and international artists are exhibited at Unimaru.

However, one of the most striking installations is an empty frame that represents where the museum hopes to one day exhibit the works of North Korean artists.

The JSA, or Panmunjom, is probably best known along the DMZ for its recognizable bright blue conference room, which is the most visited attraction in the area.

Former US President Bill Clinton said the DMZ was the “scariest place on earth” after a state visit in 1993.

Panmunjom’s tours resumed on November 30, after being suspended in July when South Korea tightened its restrictions on Covid-19.

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