Living on the edge of history

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Living on the edge of history

DAESONG VILLAGE,
Demilitarized Zone
Once upon a time, two farming villages, Daesong and Gijeong, were separated only by a low-lying embankment.
Just over a mile apart, it took at most 15 minutes to walk from one village to the other. Thus, the villagers often visited and had tea together ― before the Korean War, and the Military Demarcation Line that was drawn at its close.
Today, only flocks of wild geese cross the embankment freely. The course of history has put these two villages, Daeseong in the South and Gijeong in the North, on opposing sides.
Before the war, most villagers in Daeseong lived as tenants, farming land owned by well-off landlords in the nearby city of Gaeseong, which is now part of North Korea.
Chon Chang-kwon, 58, who has lived in Daesong all his life, remembers those days. After the war, Mr. Chon and his family returned to find that their town was now within the Joint Security Area inside the Demilitarized Zone.
Daeseong is the closest village in South Korea to the demarcation line. After the war, the government decided to let native villagers remain, which made Daesong the only civilian community in the southern part of the DMZ. It also had a new nickname: Freedom Village.
Today, Daeseong has a population of 225. Unlike Panmunjeom, which is a tourist attraction, Daeseong remains off-limits to outsiders. Entry is only allowed with prior approval of the United Nations Command, and once inside, visitors are escorted and guarded by military officers.
By car, it takes about an hour to get from central Seoul to Daeseong, passing tightly guarded checkpoints, land mine warnings and Black Hawk helicopters landing and taking off. Every vehicle in the area is required to sport a blue flag; on the northern side, the vehicles have red flags.

The first thing one tends to notice in Daesong is the giant South Korean flag at the top of a 100-meter-tall (109-yard) support structure. When the government first raised this flag, in the 1980s, it started a sort of flagpole arms race; when the North Koreans raised the flag in Gijeong to 160 meters, the South called it quits. “That North Korean flagpole would be the tallest in the world,” says Kim Yong-kyu, a media relations officer at the U.N. Command. Maintaining the support structure for the flag costs the South Korean government 10 million won ($8,500) every year.
The 225 residents of Daesong live under certain restrictions. Farming schedules are to be reported in advance to the U.N. Command; sentries are posted to guard villagers when they work in the fields. When they are told to quit for the day, they have to do so.
Nor is farming the only aspect of daily life that’s affected. The whole village has an 11 p.m. curfew, and going out after dusk is strongly discouraged. Residents who return to the village after 7 p.m. are only allowed to enter at 8, 9:10 or 10:30 p.m., under guard. Villagers are required to carry identification.
There are no cultural facilities to speak of. Even newspapers are not delivered on a daily basis; several days’ worth arrive at once from the post office. The only shop is a small mom-and-pop store selling daily necessities. There are no video rental shops, and certainly no movie theaters.
Mr. Chon doesn’t feel terribly inconvenienced, though. “Whenever I have to rent a video, I can go to the nearby town of Munsan,” Mr. Chon says.
Shopping and leisure are hardly the end of it. Middle school and high school students have to spend the school year elsewhere, returning home for vacations, because the only school in the village is an elementary school.
Residents are free to move away, but moving in is almost impossible. The village is reserved for the people who lived here before the war and their descendants. Even women who marry might not be allowed to live in the village with their husbands; there is a limit to how many women in one family can do so. (Daesong men who marry are under no such restrictions.)
But life in Daesong also has its benefits. No one who lives here has to pay taxes, and all male villagers are exempt from military service.
Since the original landlords and their descendants, who have been North Koreans since the war, have no access to the land, the residents, who are legally tenants, are free to cultivate it as they like. With rice as their specialty, villagers are said to be well-off, earning a per-household average of 60 to 70 million won per year, according to Mr. Kim.
Perhaps for this reason, the prospect of Korean reunification does not necessarily please villagers here. “For decades by now, we’ve felt a call to farm the land in this village,” Mr. Chon says. “But what if landowners show up after reunification to reclaim the land?”

Another drawback to life here is the propaganda broadcast over loudspeakers from Gijeong. These tend to be messages along the lines of “We should drive those American imperialists out of our peninsula,” as well as high praise for Kim Jong-il. Obscenities, directed at figures such as U.S. President George W. Bush, are not uncommon.
Sometimes this continues late into the night. “Well, you somehow get used to it,” Mr. Chon says.
One time when Mr. Chon did feel frightened was after Park Chung Hee, the South’s hard-core anti-Communist President, was assassinated in 1979. Before Mr. Chon knew it, North Korean loudspeakers were going off: “How can you shoot down the head of your country?” Mr. Chon, then 34 years old, took refuge at a nearby military post in case North Koreans invaded the village.
Such fears weren’t unfounded. In 1975, North Koreans abducted a villager, who was never heard from again. It happened again in 1997, when soldiers kidnapped a mother and son who were picking acorns. They were returned safely after a few weeks, however.
One dangerous fact of life here is that there are no visible signs, such as barbed wire, to indicate exactly where outside of town the demarcation line is. It’s not a straight line. “We hardly know if we’ve trespassed over the Military Demarcation Line or not,” Mr. Chon says. “One single misstep, and voila, you’re in North Korea.”
Others have different views. Lyu Gwan-sook, who teaches at the Daeseong Elementary School, says, “I guess Daeseong is safer than any other place in South Korea, for we are always closely protected by the soldiers.”
A citizen of Ilsan, Gyeonggi province, Ms. Lyu commutes to the village. Teaching at Daeseong Elementary School has been Ms. Lyu’s dream ― she applied for the appointment before, but was beaten out by stiff competition.
Ms. Lyu is in charge of a fifth grade with only two students, Na-yeong and Hee-ryeong. The elementary school has a total of 14 students. On the school playground stands a small bronze statue of Lee Seung-bok, the legendary South Korean boy said to have been killed during the war for saying, “I hate Communists.”
Ms. Lyu’s students say they’re happy with life in the village. “I don’t want to go out even when I grow up,” Na-yeong says. “I like my hometown ― the air’s clean, with a sky full of stars at night. Besides, North Koreans are not necessarily our enemy, are they?”
Neither of these young girls seems to have any fear of their neighbors to the north. “I like watching North Koreans in the distance,” Hee-ryeong says. Ask what they’ve heard about North Korea, and they’ll tell an anecdote about a North Korean soldier who gave their village a dog, after eating one that had wandered from Daeseong into Gijeong. “I want to meet a North Korean myself one day,” Hee-ryeong says, eyes sparkling.
Eventually, the girls will attend middle school in Munsan. “I’m a bit worried about whether they are going to adapt well to the usual classes full of students,” Ms. Lyu says. “They’ve been all by themselves too long.”
But venturing outside is a necessity, if only to one day find a significant other.
Because most of the village’s population consists of several extended families, villagers tend to marry people they meet outside. Mr. Chon married the daughter of the head of the post office in Munsan, where he went to middle school.
“You can do everything here ― we are not locked in a cage,” Mr. Chon says. “We are living here just like our ancestors did for generations.”


by Chun Su-jin
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