High anxiety for rice farmers in Korean DMZ

Cho Young Sook looking toward North Korea from her home in Taesung, also known as Freedom Village, located in the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, on April 19, 2017.
Cho Young Sook looking toward North Korea from her home in Taesung, also known as Freedom Village, located in the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea, on April 19, 2017.PHOTO: NYTIMES

South Korea's Freedom Village gets no peace as North Korea blasts propaganda songs

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 Madam Cho Young Sook, 57, standing in a second-floor bedroom in her home. From there, she can see 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 4km-wide Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separates North Korea from South Korea.

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 402m 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 165m 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 Demilitarised Zone, most of them growing rice sold under a special DMZ brand.

Their plots - about 7ha per family - generate about US$80,000 (S$112,000) 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 stand-off.

The village is just down the road from the military demarcation line that US Vice-President Mike Pence visited this week, where he warned that the Trump administration was considering all options in its efforts to thwart North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

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 command that oversees the village. Residents can come and go freely, but must adhere to a midnight curfew.

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.

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.

"The North Koreans are our brethren," said Madam Cho, glancing out the window towards Kijong. "I think it is very unfortunate that we have to live as enemies."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline 'High anxiety for rice farmers in Korean DMZ'. Print Edition | Subscribe