Gleaming Guard of the 38th Parallel

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Gleaming Guard of the 38th Parallel

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Amur leopards, Asiatic black bears and possibly the last remaining population of Korea's tigers roam the lush natural haven of the Demilitarized Zone. More recently, the border area between the two Koreas welcomed a new addition to its animal kingdom: a Swiss cow.

The cow may not be an endangered species, but this cow is so rare, it is one of a kind. The beast, which is made of aluminum, stands 1.6 meters tall and 3.5 meters wide, and weighs 500 kilograms, actually is a sculpture designed by Lim Ok-sang. It will be unveiled on Switzerland's National Day, Wednesday (Aug. 1), in a grassy area of the Swiss-Swedish camp about 200 meters from North Korea's border.

For the Swiss, the cow is a symbol of the countryside, of alpine pastures, a steadfast companion to farmers, and in this case, a monument to 710 years of nationhood and peace. For the artist Mr. Lim, the cow is a symbol of a reunification he desires and promotes.

The two visions may not immediately seem related, but they coexist in a metal cow named Elsa, whose symbolic wings are fashioned from 10,000 forks, spoons and knives. Instead of serene pastures and mountains, or a carefully preserved gallery setting, Elsa resides amid land mines, barbed wire, tanks, artillery and infantry.

Elsa is a strange sight in a strange land. How did she become such a complex symbol?


Elsa actually dates to the end of the '90s. Back in Switzerland, the Zurich City Association concocted a plan to bolster tourism. Officials would scatter 815 plastic cows all over the city as part of a campaign called "Land in Sight."

On paper, the idea might sound peculiar, but the 1998 summer event was a huge success. The beautifully decorated cows ?some standing, some kneeling, some in mid-step ?drew an additional one million tourists. The summer ended with a cow auction that brought in a windfall of 1.4 million Swiss francs ($808,000).

By the end of the campaign there were spare cows that had not been used during the campaign. A memo was sent to Swiss embassies around the world. If an embassy wanted any of these extra cows, they would have to pitch a project idea. The embassy in Korea secured three.

Students at the German school decorated one of the plastic cows, named Han-i-mu, earlier this year in honor of Visit Korea Year 2001. That cow is being exhibited at Seoul art galleries. Another plastic cow can be found kneeling in the garden of the Swiss Embassy in Seoul. The third plastic cow, designated for Swiss National Day, was recast into aluminum and now stands at the DMZ.


When Roland Knobel, the new cultural attache, arrived in Korea last October, the assignment of finding an artist to decorate the National Day cow fell in his lap. He enlisted the help of his staff, and Jean Kim introduced him to Mr. Lim. New to Korea, Mr. Knobel was not aware that Mr. Lim was a famous political artist involved in the People's Art Movement of the 1980s.

Mr. Lim agreed to meet Mr. Knobel with some hesitation. "Come on, it's a cow," Mr. Lim protested. But as talk of the project continued, the idea of creating a symbol of goodwill that would stand inside the DMZ, no matter how temporarily, captured Mr. Lim's interest. "People need to be reminded about the DMZ and its sad history so we can create a new future," Mr. Lim said.

In 1953, at the end of the Korean War, both sides signed an armistice that called for a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission made up of four "observers." These four countries, with camps stationed within the DMZ, were to monitor the compliance of both sides. The United States chose Switzerland and Sweden. The North chose Poland and Czechoslovakia. Today, only Switzerland and Sweden actively maintain their roles. For the past several years, it has become a tradition for the general at the Swiss camp, Adrien Evequoz, to host a reception in Korea for Swiss National Day.

On Feb. 1, Mr. Knobel and Mr. Lim drove to the DMZ to survey the site. They passed through a bridge checkpoint. They passed another check point where they exchanged identification cards for visitor cards. From that moment on, soldiers accompanied them.

Later that day in a meeting with the general over a meal of wine, cheese and meat, under the warm sun in the beautiful and forlorn area, Mr. Lim thought of Elsa. The first word that came to mind was freedom. Holding a fork in his left hand, a knife in his right, he thought about how a cow is born into a life of giving - giving milk, then meat. "Elsa is surrounded by all these security measures, but I want to give her freedom," Mr. Lim said. "The wings that carry her aloft are tools that could have ended her life."

Last week, Mr. Lim drove Elsa from his studio to the DMZ and cemented her to the ground. She faces the entrance to the two camps. The sunlight reflects off her so that she glows with an ethereal light.

During the last minute arrangements, Mr. Knobel reminded Mr. Lim, "You do understand Elsa may not be be a permanent exhibit in the DMZ?"

Mr. Lim smiled and said, "She has wings. She can go anywhere."

by Joe Yong-hee

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