South of the North Korean border lies an odd village that locals call Kijŏng-dong, or ‘the Peace Village’. Its inhabitants must be leading quiet and peaceful lives, since an overall feeling of tranquility seems to be hovering over their homes’ roofs. From a distance, one can just notice lights going on and off in apartment buildings, or attentive caretakers sweeping the not-very-busy sidewalks.
This village, said to house about 200 people, was erected at the heart of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ) in the early 1950s. The latter is a buffer zone dividing both Koreas which serves as a point of contact, meeting, or diplomatic negotiation between the countries. Running through 250 kilometers (155 miles) across the peninsula, the border is spiked with barbed wire and hundreds of soldiers are posted on both sides to guarantee its inviolability.
One must travel back as far as 1945 to understand the crucial role this very area played in the course of the history of Korea. At the time, the country was a Japanese colony, which ended up in the US’ and the USSR’s hands by the last months of WW2. Fearing that Korea would soon be occupied by the Soviets, two American soldiers were handled a weighty task: to mark out the limits between the U.S. and the Soviet occupation zones. They managed to complete it quickly, using a map featured in a recent issue of the National Geographic, and decided to delimit the border along the 38th parallel. Then, in August 1945, Korea was cut in two halves.
Although the threat of permanent partition did not yet worry the Koreans, two opposite doctrines were gradually implemented in both countries. In the south, Syngman Rhee, winning the favor of U.S. authorities, put a strong anticommunist and repressive policy into practice. Numerous political opponents were jailed, for the luckiest ones. In the north ruled Kim Il-Sung, building on the Soviet ‘traditional package’: farm collectivization, resources dealt equally, hammer and sickle were all involved in the process to turn North Korea into a Soviet satellite state.
Soon enough, both dictators’ opposition – with Western and Eastern ideologies pulling the strings – escalated into the Korean War. The bloody conflict, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, caused millions of deaths, especially among civilians. Permanent partition, as feared by many Koreans at the dawn of the war, became a reality.
“The tragedy of Korea is further heightened by the fact that its military action is confined to its territorial limits. It condemns that nation, which it is our purpose to save, to suffer the devastating impact of full naval and air bombardment while the enemy’s sanctuaries are fully protected from such attack and devastation.” – U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur, 1951
Thereafter, weapons were dropped to favor cold warfare tactics, mostly propaganda, as both sides began bragging about their respective political doctrines. However, the conflict did not end following the armistice, signed on July 27, 1953: numerous incidents would occur on both sides of the border from that point on. A memorable one, known as ‘the poplar tree incident’ happened when two U.S. soldiers, asked to chop down a tree in the DMZ, were shot by North Korean soldiers who considered the tree to be sacred in 1976.
Through this tense context of mutual defiance, the foundations of the ‘Peace Village’ were laid out in the still-steaming buffer zone. Brightly-colored apartment buildings were erected and then ‘embellished’ with a proud-looking North Korean flag. The government still claims that as many as 200 people live there – apparently, this happy community is also home to schools, a hospital, and a kindergarten… Is this the long-awaited symbol of peaceful coexistence between Koreas?
Not really: on a closer look, it appears that this pretty picture is no more than a smokescreen, without any sign of life within. The apartments have no windows or, for those who feature one, come out on empty rooms lacking furniture; plus, lights going on and off inside do so on a synchronized schedule, a routine that repeats daily. It actually seems that the sidewalks’ caretakers (as well as the soldiers posted at the border) are the only people residing in the area. The ‘Peace Village’ would in fact be a fake inhabited town solely built for political purposes (which reminds the ghost capital of Burma, Naypyidaw). But the quiet city does not keep silent all the time: speakers are also set up there, spitting out nationalist songs and denouncing Western policies, a deception tactic aimed at persuading South Koreans to cross the border and join their Northern ‘comrades’.
A 160-meter high flagpole is also towering over the village, with a fluttering North Korean flag atop: it was erected after a similar flagpole settled in the neighboring South Korean village of Daeseong-dong (which, shamefully, was only 98 meter high). Some people nicknamed it ‘the flagpole war’ when it occurred, back in the 1980s: that’s right, this diplomatic struggle sometimes escalates to a pissing contest between the countries sitting on both sides of the 38th parallel.
The village of Kijŏng-dong was fabricated in the North Korean propaganda factory, and then sold to whoever would buy it as a peaceful, safe haven. And from a distance, on this harshly-contested, controversial frontier, one will just make up two flags which have been defying one another for decades… This should keep us reminded that such a result was obtained through the loss of three and a half millions of lives, civilians for the most part (67%), in the course of the Korean War.