Two Korean Villages Seem World's Apart
Jan. 17, 2003
TAESONGDONG FREEDOM VILLAGE, South Korea (AP) _ With painted-on windows and ghostly streets, one town is dismissed as a cardboard communist prop. Lights mysteriously switch on and off in unison, while ornamental laundry hangs out to dry for weeks because nobody lives there to haul it in.
The other is hailed as a successful symbol of the free world, despite the gun-toting army patrols, land mines, evening curfews and occasional abductions.
Cold War rivalry makes life anything but normal for the only villages inside the razor-wired no man's land separating the two Koreas. Nearly within rifle range of each other, Kijongdong in the North and Taesongdong in the South face off every day across a shallow valley of rice fields that constitutes one of the world's most militarized borders.
``Life here can be inconvenient,'' admits Taesongdong's 59-year-old mayor Chun Chang-kwon. ``But this is my birthplace. I don't want to leave.''
The tale of two towns actually predates the divided Korean peninsula to a time when the villages were still friendly neighbors. But how the sister cities have evolved over the last half-century only underlines a legacy of mistrust _ and the shifting fortunes of one of the world's last communist dictatorships and its freewheeling, capitalist neighbor.
``The split is very regrettable,'' Chun said.
Things changed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, when truce makers charted a new borderline running smack between Kijongdong and Taesongdong.
The towns were enveloped in a meandering demilitarized zone on both sides of the border. They managed to survive under an armistice proviso allowing each country to keep one village operating inside that buffer, which is 2 1/2 miles wide and 156 miles long and bisects the peninsula coast to coast.
Today, the only thing separating the villages is an imaginary boundary line marked by widely spaced, rusting signs and roving patrols of communist and South Korean United Nations troops.
Taesongdong was rechristened Freedom Village and equipped with a towering South Korean flag that can be seen for miles across the border. Today, its 226 townsfolk are among the richest in the country, with an average tax-free family income of $82,000 from rice, ginseng and pepper farms.
Not to be outdone, North Korea erected an even larger and taller flag in Kijongdong.
Its blue-and-red North Korean flag is as big as a basketball court and so heavy, at an estimated 600 pounds, it rarely ripples in the wind and takes 50 people to raise, according to officials of the U.S.-led U.N. Command, which controls the south side of the DMZ.
As for the villagers, there are none, U.S. officials say. From what they call painted-on windows to the fake laundry blowing in the wind, Kijongdong is all a charade. It's reportedly devoid of people partly out of North Korean fears they would try to defect and partly because the surrounding area is military zone packed with an estimated 30,000 communist troops.
From a nearby hilltop on the Southern side, Kijongdong resembles the plastic model town for a toy train set _ with no signs of people, despite the neat rows of apartment buildings. What really goes on there, however, can't be independently confirmed because the North restricts media access.
The surrounding hills are topped with billboards with propaganda slogans such as ``Yankee go home!'' Thickets of radio towers jut skyward to jam broadcasts from the South.
To the south, Taesongdong isn't exactly bustling either. There is an elementary school, a church and only one general store _ with two half-empty coolers and a lonely cafeteria.
But teenagers roam streets, their parents till the land, children play with dogs, and villagers hop in their cars for the hour's drive south to Seoul for a night on the town _ through several checkpoints along the way.
``Taesongdong is a living, functioning village,'' said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Matthew Margotta, head of the local U.N. Command unit. ``The farmers are successful, the people are happy. That's a symbol of a system that works.''
But it works mostly with a lot of help from the 50 soldiers stationed there.
Every day, army patrols guard farmers on the job, military escorts flank civilian autos after nightfall and soldiers check every house after the 11 p.m. curfew to make sure everybody's inside with the doors and windows locked tight.
There is a good reason for the precautions.
Run-ins with North Korean infiltrators were once common.
And as recently as 1997, a mother and son from Taesongdong were seized by Northern troops and kept for several days. They were released after signing a statement saying they accidentally stepped into enemy territory. But they later stuck by a different story _ that they were abducted in a Northern propaganda ploy.
Surrounded by mine fields, the town is also on the front line in the event of another Korean war. There are emergency evacuation drills several times a year.
Living there has some advantages. Locals don't pay South Korean taxes and are exempt from military service. They can also farm about three times the amount of land available to the average farmer south of the buffer zone.
Mayor Chun takes the good with the bad.
``There is not much to do around here,'' he said. ``But if I were to leave, I'd have to start my whole life over again.''