A village in the demilitarised zone, growing rice under war’s shadow

A village in the demilitarised zone, growing rice under war’s shadow
North Korea is seen from Taesung, also known as Freedom Village, located in the Demilitarised Zone in South Korea, April 19, 2017. Source: The New York Times
Published: 8:25 PM, April 21, 2017
Updated: 8:31 PM, April 21, 2017

TAESUNG, South Korea — All day long, and all through the night, the villagers hear the music. It is loud and chirpy, with lyrics trumpeting the virtues of their sworn enemy, North Korea.

“It feels so close now,” said Ms Cho Young-sook, 57, standing in a second-floor bedroom in her home, where she can see into North Korea and hear the propaganda songs booming at all hours. “The loudspeakers remind us that maybe they can attack us.”

The 197 residents of Taesung, also known as Freedom Village, have a front-row seat to the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. They are believed to be the only civilians living inside the 2 1/2 mile-wide Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separates North Korea from South.

Two years after the 1953 armistice that suspended the Korean War and created the DMZ, both sides agreed to build model villages inside the zone to demonstrate the superior virtues of the two countries. South Korea built Taesung and the North built a hamlet named Kijong, just 440 yards away. Only a field separates the two.

The South Korean military says no one really lives in Kijong, a sprinkling of turquoise buildings with a North Korean flag flying from a 540-foot pole. But North Korean soldiers patrol the village, and propaganda songs blast from its loudspeakers.

Taesung, though, is a real community, albeit one with strict limits on who can come and go. The residents are mostly farmers from families that have lived here for generations. They cultivate fields inside the DMZ, most of them growing rice sold under a special DMZ brand.

Their plots - about 17 acres per family - generate about US$80,000 (S$111,820) a year, much higher than the average farming income in South Korea. But they must live in the shadow of two armies locked in an increasingly tense standoff.

The village is just down the road from the military demarcation line that United States Vice President Mike Pence visited this week, where he warned that the Trump administration was considering all options in its effort to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Last weekend, the North tested a missile, which failed after liftoff, after a parade in Pyongyang designed to showcase its military might.

North Korea has about 1 million troops and South Korea has about 600,000 soldiers, though not all are stationed near the DMZ, which runs about 150 miles from coast to coast. Most of the 25,000 US troops in South Korea are based in Seoul, about 35 miles away.

But the proximity to danger in Taesung is mixed with an odd sense of security. South Korean soldiers escort villagers to the fields, checking for land mines. Visitors must pass through several checkpoints to get in and apply two weeks in advance to the United Nations (UN) Command that oversees the village. Residents can come and go freely, but must adhere to a midnight curfew.

“The military is protecting us and safeguarding us every day,” said Mr Kim Dong-gu, the mayor of Taesung, under the watchful eye of three military spokesmen who accompanied the writer on a visit to the village this week. “We feel safe enough to work here and farm here. If we were really scared, why would we be here farming?”

There have been outbreaks of violence inside the DMZ, including the killing of two US soldiers by North Korean troops in 1976 and a 1984 firefight that killed three North Korean soldiers and one South Korean.

Two years ago, North Korean soldiers reportedly sneaked into the southern side of the zone and planted land mines that maimed two South Korean soldiers.

But the last time anyone in Taesung can remember something bad happening in the village itself was in 1996, when a mother and son were detained by North Korean guards for five days because they had crossed the military demarcation line to pick acorns.

Because Taesung is officially administered by the UN Command, its residents do not pay national income taxes and are exempt from South Korea’s mandatory military service requirement.

Only people who lived in the village before the Korean War or are direct descendants of past residents are eligible to live here, though women who marry male residents can move in. Men who marry female residents cannot.

This week, a group of villagers gathered around a sowing machine, preparing rust-coloured rice grains for germination before planting. The North Korean propaganda music was a constant, cloying backdrop to the work.

“Sometimes when I hear their propaganda, I can’t even put myself to sleep,” said Mr Park Seung-bu, 74. But he added that he planned to stay in Taesung even though his children had all moved to Seoul. “I am a farmer here,” he said. “What can I do outside?”

Mr Park said he followed the news anxiously but could never leave his ancestors, who are all buried in the village.

Residents hold regular evacuation drills, and there is a shelter in Taesung, an underground cinder block bunker stocked with food, water and gas masks in plastic bins. But Mr Park said he did not think there was much the town could do to prepare for a conflict.

Aside from the hostile neighbour to the north, the true existential threat to Taesung is demographics. Mr Kim, the mayor, said he worried the younger generation was not interested in farming. “If they can earn two times as much outside, then why would they farm?” he said.

More than a decade ago, the elementary school in the village began recruiting students from outside the DMZ because the number of local children was dwindling. Today, out of 35 pupils, only 10 live in Taesung.

The sixth grade has only four students, including Kim Jun-yong, 11, and his twin sister Kim So-jin, who have lived in Taesung their whole lives.

The 11-year old student said he considered the village safe “if North Korea does not use its nuclear weapons,” but added that he had not yet decided whether he would stay when he grew up. “I don’t think I have to decide right now,” he said.

His sister declared, however, that she planned to leave Taesung someday and perhaps pursue a career as a pharmacist, taking him by surprise. “You’re betraying me,” he said.

Ms Cho’s two adult sons live and work outside the village. She fears they will not return, but concedes that might be better for them. “My biggest worry is that if they live here they won’t be able to get married,” she said.

It is also difficult to live in the echo chamber of the North Korean broadcasts. For about a decade, the North turned off the music, while governments more friendly to the North were in power in South Korea. But the music started up again about a year ago.

South Koreans go to the polls to elect a new president next month, and the leading contender, Mr Moon Jae-in, has pledged to pursue dialogue with the North.

But Ms Cho is not optimistic about politics easing the tense situation on the border outside her home. “I don’t think we are at a point where there will be a solution even if a liberal president gets elected,” she said.

“The North Koreans are our brethren,” she added, glancing out the window toward Kijong. “I think it is very unfortunate that we have to live as enemies.” THE NEW YORK TIMES