DMZ Peace Train: inside the music festival bringing positivity to Korea’s no man’s land

Held near the heavily militarised border between North and South Korea, the returning festival brings harmony and unity to an unlikely location – and sets an important example for the world at large. NME reports from the 2022 event, speaking to festival organisers and performers Starcrawler, Balming Tiger and Leenalchi

In a field in Cheorwon, near South Korea’s demilitarised zone (DMZ), a crowd is running laps after each other. Some are carrying flags on big poles, others holding out their hands to high-five spectators around them. As the song being played by post-hardcore band Soumbalgwang on the stage behind them reaches a crescendo, everyone rushes into the middle. Giddy smiles painted on their faces, they gently slam against each other, screams of joy ringing out from the mesh of bodies.

This atmosphere at DMZ Peace Train Music Festival – one of pure liberation and euphoria – is not what you might expect to experience at this location. Rather than good-natured fun, community and freedom, the DMZ is a landscape associated with war. The area was formed in 1953 as a buffer between North and South Korea after the Armistice Agreement was signed, stretching two kilometres on either side of the border between the two. Almost 70 years later, though, a peace treaty has still yet to be agreed upon. Korea is still technically at war, and the DMZ is still one of the most heavily militarised borders in the world.

“Great artists in a great environment and a great atmosphere can change lives” – Cecilia Soojeong Yi, DMZ Peace Train Music Festival co-founder

Despite that, DMZ Peace Train’s HQ offers a beautiful setting for a festival that inspires goodwill. “I didn’t know what to expect,” Starcrawler guitarist Henri Cash tells NME on the first day of the festival (October 1). It’s the band’s first time performing in Korea, and he and singer Arrow de Wilde are awestruck by the scenes before them. “We got here last night and it was super dark, and we couldn’t see anything. Then I woke up and there’s this beautiful forest and raging waters and hiking trails. I definitely didn’t think that this is what part of the demilitarised zone would look like.”

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“Nobody knew about this area before,” Cecilia Soojeong Yi, one of the festival’s co-founders, says later, smiling. “But it’s very, very special for us. It’s not touristy, and we love the river and the atmosphere here.”

DMZ Peace Train Music Festival
The audience at DMZ Peace Train CREDIT: Courtesy of DMZ Peace Train Music Festival

The festival held its first edition in this idyllic location in 2018 after a group of international music industry figures toured the DMZ while visiting Seoul for Zandari Festival. Glastonbury booker and The Great Escape co-founder Martin Elbourne was among them. He and a few others suggested there might be potential to hold events there with their Korean counterparts.

“They kept asking us, ‘What’s going on? Why don’t you do that?’, so we were inspired by that,” explains Yi. “So at the end of [2017], we invited some British music industry people [back over] to show to the local government we were serious about this and we [could] do an international movement with the festival.”

After convincing the governments of the county, Gangwon Province, and Seoul, organisers were given leftover funds from the 2018 Winter Olympics to put on the first event. “It was amazing,” Yi recalls. “The local residents were surprised because they hadn’t seen young people [here] for decades. The young people were really surprised that something could happen here that was not commercial and that was at least trying to say something.”

DMZ Peace Train Music Festival 2022
CREDIT: Courtesy of DMZ Peace Train Music Festival

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With that attitude of message over money, DMZ Peace Train Music Festival also shares something with Glastonbury’s roots. Although Yi notes she’s never been to the British megafestival, she notes some ways it has influenced the Korean event: “It was an organic event from the beginning and that organic sense of the festival inspired us.”

Throughout the two days of this year’s festival, a slogan flashes up on the big screen that hangs between the two stages, highlighting the event’s mission of unity and harmony: “Dancing for a borderless world.” It’s a feeling that is palpable across the weekend, from local fans taking newcomers under their wings to show them how to mosh without hurting others to the audience forming another huge circle as veteran Korean singer Yoon Soo-il covers John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, this time swaying with their arms around each other.

Before DMZ Peace Train, there’s been a long history of festivals around the world pushing for peace or social change: Glastonbury, Woodstock, Rock Against Racism, and many more. And it’s important that South Korea has its own festival like this right now because of its relationship with its neighbour to the north.

Balming Tiger
Balming Tiger’s San Yawn and Omega Sapien CREDIT: Courtesy of DMZ Peace Train Music Festival

“Next year, it will be 70 years since South Korea and North Korea [signed a] truce for the war, and it’s not over yet,” says Jang Young-gyu, bassist of the band Leenalchi, who mix alternative pop, new wave and the Korean style of folk storytelling known as pansori.

“My generation heard [about the war] directly from our family, so we know the story of this horrible war very well, but the next generation has only heard it from people who have heard about it from other people,” he adds. “We have to understand and we have to know the danger and the cruelty of this kind of war. I think music has the direct power to let people know about this, and I hope this festival helps it.”

The idea for the festival first emerged at a time when North Korea was making international headlines thanks to leader Kim Jong-un and then-US president Donald Trump’s nerve-wracking war of words and threats of hitting the nuclear button. But, by the time the fest’s first edition approached, Kim and then-South Korean president Moon Jae-in had embarked on a new peace process. “We used that for promotion – ‘the war is over’,” Yi says. “We were like, ‘This is the ending war party!’”

Leenalchi and Ambiguous Dance Company at DMZ Peace Train Music Festival 2022
Leenalchi and Ambiguous Dance Company CREDIT: Courtesy of DMZ Peace Train Music Festival

Talks between the two leaders were still ongoing by the time of the 2019 festival, but there was still some hope – though relations worsened once again and discussions halted. In 2022, things aren’t much better. In March, North Korea launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile in five years, an act Kim said was a deterrent to nuclear war but drew condemnation from leaders around the world.

With tensions continuing across the border, the ongoing war is at the forefront of the minds of the Korean artists on the bill this year. “I heard that if you blast the music loud enough, North Korean people can hear it,” Balming Tiger’s Omega Sapien says backstage before the alternative K-pop group perform. “We have an unreleased song called ‘War’ and the chorus goes, “Fuck this war, I want peace” – we’re going to perform that today, so hopefully, they can listen. It’s symbolic to perform it.” Yi later tells NME it’s not true that the music from the festival can be heard over the border, but the sentiment behind the rapper’s impassioned statement lingers.

The biggest threat to DMZ Peace Train Music Festival’s future, though, comes from within South Korea itself. With a new party in charge of the country as a whole as well as the local region, now organisers have to convince those politicians of the need for the event. That’s not as easy as it might seem, especially when the festival’s budget suffers cuts year on year. Carrying on over the next few years will be “very, very difficult,” Yi says, but the team are trying to secure the festival’s future.

Starcrawler
Starcrawler’s Arrow de Wilde CREDIT: Courtesy of DMZ Peace Train Music Festival

DMZ Peace Train Music Festival’s continuation isn’t just important for Korea, but the whole world. The line-up is a mix of homegrown and international acts, with some – such as Palestinian producer and rapper Makimakkuk – coming from conflict zones. “[We don’t book these artists] because of the political reasons, we book them because they’re cool, but they have less opportunities,” Yi says. It’s a reminder that Korea isn’t the only place that could do with a little more peace.

“The slogan of the festival in English is ‘dancing for a borderless world’ and the Korean literal translation of that is, ‘let’s dance together before drawing a line to each other’,” says Leenalchi singer Shin Yu-jin. “I think it means that everyone attending this festival shares this spirit of respecting the value of peace and equality, regardless of age, nationality or generation. So I think we will be able to deliver this message [to the world] that we can be one through this festival.”

“It’s the best time to be an artist in Korea right now” – Omega Sapien, Balming Tiger

For Starcrawler, that potential for unity is evident in how they can come to a different continent and have audiences sing every word of their songs despite language differences. “It’s interesting to me that here and when we played in Japan – or places in Europe, even – people really connect with the music,” de Wilde says. “It’s because it’s not just words – it’s not just about if people can understand what the lyrics mean.”

“It’s about the feeling,” Cash adds. “Even when I was a kid and I watched videos of The Clash and The Ramones, it was because of the energy in that room that I so wanted to be there. That’s what brings people together, no matter what kind of music you’re listening to or what language you’re speaking.”

It’s no secret that global interest in Korean culture as a whole has skyrocketed in recent years, which, for some on the bill, gives them a bigger platform to drive home important messages like those behind DMZ Peace Train. “This is a local indie festival, but if you do music in Korea, you cannot just be local – it’s impossible,” says Omega Sapien. “You’re getting love from China, Japan, America, France, Thailand, Malaysia… everywhere. It’s the best time to be an artist in Korea right now.”

DMZ Peace Train Music Festival
The audience at DMZ Peace Train CREDIT: Courtesy of DMZ Peace Train Music Festival

Given the current global situation – a world still hurting from the pandemic that has itself exacerbated racial tensions in the west, fresh conflict arising in Ukraine, and ongoing tensions in the Middle East – DMZ Peace Train Festival feels more important now than ever. “Absolutely,” Yi agrees, “but we don’t want to be more important. But we have felt more responsibility. Great artists in a great environment and a great atmosphere can change lives.”

With all the doom and gloom constantly churning through our news cycles, it’s easy to become cynical and pessimistic about music’s power to create change. But, at DMZ Peace Train Festival, everyone still resolutely believes it can positively impact the world. “If we see music as a whole – from the making to the listening – it’s a thing that society shares together,” Leenalchi singer Ahn Yi-ho explains. “If we have this common ground, there’ll be less conflict and empathy will be created by music.”

Balming Tiger’s Seoul the Soloist, meanwhile, points to an iconic song as proof. “‘Imagine’, John Lennon,” he says emphatically, before cracking a playful grin and adding suggestions for new songs to take on that mantle: “‘Sexy Nukim’ and ‘War’, Balming Tiger.” It might be a while before they reach Fab Four status, but, judging by the crowd’s reaction at DMZ Peace Train, he’s not wrong about the power those songs – and the festival as a whole – hold for the better.

Find out more about DMZ Peace Train Music Festival here

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