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The Strange Case of Kijong-dong And Daeseong-dong

After three years of bloody conflict that saw three million people dead, the two neighboring countries, North and South Korea, entered into an armistice in 1953 agreeing to end all hostilities of the Korean War but never quite agreeing to peace. As a result, the border between the two countries is still one of the most heavily armed regions in the world enclosed by barbed wire fences and dotted by land mines, and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

As part of the armistice signed, a 4-kilometer strip of buffer zone called the DMZ or the Korean Demilitarized Zone, stretching the entire 250-kilometer-long border was created separating the two countries. Both nations were required to evacuate their part of the DMZ of all civilian settlements, except one that each nation was allowed to keep or create. These sole outposts, thinly masquerading as working villages, were built for propaganda to extol each side's superior way of life. They sit directly opposite each other.

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A massive flagpole in the North Korean “Peace village” as seen from the South. Photo credit: Mattis Kaminer / Shutterstock.com

On the South Korean side is Daeseong-dong, or “Freedom Village”—home to some 226 residents. These people were either original inhabitants of this region before the Korean War broke out, or are their descendants. No one else is allowed to stay at or enter Daeseong-dong. Despite its name, there is little freedom here—residents have to carry special IDs, and must pass through countless checkpoints each time they enter or leave the village. They must all be home by sundown, and at 11 PM every night a headcount takes place to account for any unwanted intruders that might sneak in from North Korea. According to LA Times, these intruders from the north sometimes attempt to kidnap villagers and later claim they defected to North Korea.

Although living under the shadow of guns, villagers of Daeseong-dong enjoy some unique benefits. The inhabitants, all of which are farmers, are allotted large patches of land for farming, and enjoy some of the highest household income in the country. They have the same rights to vote and receive education, but are exempt from paying provincial taxes and serving in the military. The village’s elementary school receives extra attention from the government, as part of propaganda, and its special funding allows the school to buy equipment and facilities found in no other school in the country.

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On the North Korean side, directly across Daeseong-dong stands Kijong-dong, or “Peace Village”. From afar it looks modern enough with brightly-painted multi-story buildings and low-rise apartments that create a silhouette of an urban skyline. At nightfall, the apartments light up with electric bulbs which was something unheard of in the north or south in the 1950s.

But it’s all a big sham. Daeseong-dong is a ghost village. Nobody lives there. The buildings are actually concrete shells with no interiors. Electric lights operate on an automatic timer, and the only people in sight are maintenance workers who sweep the streets to give the illusion of activity and life in the village.

Of course, the Supreme leader Kim Jong-un and his government denies all of it. It’s a farming village, they say, and houses over 200 local families. The village has a child-care center, a kindergarten, a primary school, a secondary school, and a hospital.

Then, there are these massive flagpoles.

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The flagpoles of South Korea (left) and North Korea (right).

In the 1980s, South Korea erected a 98-meter-tall flagpole in Daeseong-dong, flying a 130-kg South Korean flag. North Korea responded by building a 160-meter-tall flagpole with a flag that weighs a humongous 270 kg and requires a small gale to unfurl. It is currently the fourth tallest flagpole in the world.

Southerners call Kijong-dong a “Propaganda Village”, although that term could be applied to both. Until recently, both sides harangued each other with long propaganda audios blared through massive speakers mounted on top of buildings and directed towards the other. Originally, DPRK broadcasts extolled the North’s virtues and urged disgruntled soldiers and peasant farmers to walk across the border into the supposed paradise of North Korea. When that didn’t work, they switched to anti-Western speeches, Communist operas, and North Korean military songs.

In return, South Korea teased their arch rivals by blasting songs from popular K-pop girly groups in high decibels. These broadcasts are so loud that the loudspeakers can be heard up to 10 km into North Korean territory during the day, and up to 24 km at night.

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Members of the South Korean pop group Apink performing onstage. Photo credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP

“K-pop is quite a powerful means of propaganda,” says Professor Roald Maliangkay, director of the Korea Institute at The Australian National University. “It depicts South Korea as a hyper-modern, wealthy nation solely populated by passionate and attractive people.”

“K-pop group songs sound upbeat and powerful and the lyrics of the songs selected portray the image of a strongly unified South Korean front,” he told The Outline.

Aside from K-pop, South Korean speakers also relayed cultural programs and news from abroad which are censored by Kim Jong-un’s regime, as well as favorable discussion of democracy, capitalism and life in South Korea, and comments on corruption and mismanagement in the North. These broadcasts so grated on the nerves of Mr. Kim that he threatened to blow up South Korean speakers.

The speakers have been playing on and off since the 1960s. In 2004, both countries agreed to end their loudspeaker broadcasts at each other. But in 2016, following escalating tensions as a result of nuclear tests by the North, the speakers resumed operations. Weeks before the historic summit in April 2018, where leaders from both the nations met, the speakers again fell silent as a gesture of goodwill, but for how long?

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The panel of loudspeakers on the South Korean side. Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun

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The North Korean “Peace village” as seen from the South through powerful telephoto lens. Photo credit: modusoptimus.com

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The North Korean “Peace village” as seen from the South through powerful telephoto lens. Photo credit: Kurt Wahlgren

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