S. Koreans living in DMZ village enjoy great benefits — and high risk
TAESONG-DONG, South Korea — The residents of this hamlet don’t pay taxes or perform the military service mandatory for men elsewhere. They have a competitive school and some of the best farmland in South Korea.
The trade-off? They live in the Demilitarized Zone, with North Korea less than a mile away, so there’s the constant threat of invasion across the world’s most heavily fortified border.
And you can forget about ordering pizza.
Villagers interviewed during a rare media tour last Tuesday said they recognize the danger but feel safe, living in one of the most guarded areas anywhere.
“Outsiders think this village might be dangerous or there might be tension, but residents don’t feel that because soldiers are guarding the buildings,” Mayor Kim Dong-ku said. “And they guard us whenever we go to work the farmland.”
Taesong-dong — which the U.S. military calls Freedom Village — and its North Korean counterpart, Kijong-dong, dubbed Propaganda Village, are an embodiment of the one-upmanship that has characterized the conflict between the two countries since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
When South Korea erected a 323-foot flagpole in the village in the 1980s, North Korea responded by building one that’s 525 feet tall. The two countries also trade propaganda broadcasts that have provoked violence.
Both villages are in the DMZ, an area about 160 miles long and 2½ miles wide marked by barbed wire and dotted with land mines.
A key difference is that the North Korean side is believed to be largely vacant — a Potemkin village that exists mainly to look pretty and broadcast round-the-clock propaganda and socialist songs that provide a constant soundtrack in Taesong-dong.
“It’s very loud,” Kim said, although the volume Tuesday was somewhat muted by windy conditions. “The residents hear it but don’t pay attention.”
With a population of just over 200, residency in Freedom Village is strictly limited to descendants of the original inhabitants or to women who marry men who live there. Men are not allowed to marry into the community because the government doesn’t want people to exploit the military service exemption, Kim said.
Residents can come and go, but they have an 11 p.m. curfew and must be present in the village for at least eight months of the year. The mayor said one of the biggest inconveniences is that they can’t receive pizza deliveries or online mail orders.
The trade-off for the bleak conditions is a tax-free income; free accommodation; land for rice paddies, red peppers, ginseng and other crops; and an elementary school with nearly as many teachers as students.
Despite the benefits, the aging population has declined in recent years, forcing the school to bus in students from nearby areas. Only four of the 29 students are from the village, officials said. There is no high school.
The Taesong Elementary School and kindergarten are highly competitive because the students get special attention from the 20 teachers working there. They also get English classes taught by U.S. troops assigned to the DMZ and by other international volunteers.
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Waite, 22, of Palmer, Mass., said teaching is a welcome break from his usual duties of guarding tours and meetings at the Joint Security Area in the nearby truce village of Panmunjom for the U.N. Command Military Armistice Commission.
He said there have been tense moments as North Korea staged an unprecedented number of nuclear and missile tests this year, but he generally feels secure.
“It always keeps us on high alert, but as far as the area where I’m working out of, I always feel fairly safe here and I don’t believe they would be firing missiles in this area for the most part,” he said after leading an English class in reading stories and writing words on a board.
Despite the reassurances, the danger was brought home as recently as August 2015, when North Korea fired shells across the border to protest anti-Pyongyang broadcasts by Seoul, prompting the South to fire its own artillery barrage.
Waite said he had to work overtime as negotiators held midnight meetings at the JSA to hammer out a deal to end the crisis.
Koo Hyun Jin, a teacher at the school, recalls that everybody had to take cover in shelters. But she said it’s essential to keep the village running.
“We can see the North Korean flag from here,” she said. “This village is a peace village. This school must be here as a symbol of peace.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.