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DMZ Not All That Peaceful for S. Korea Village : Asia: North Korean jeeps and other military gear are an unnerving presence for farm families living along the heavily armed border.

August 28, 1994|DONALD SMITH | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

TAESONG-DONG, South Korea — Ku Chun Woo's eyes harden as the North Korean Army patrol jeep, bristling with radio gear, rattles off into the late afternoon sun.

"This is my hometown," said Ku, standing near his flooded rice field 100 yards inside South Korea. "My ancestors lived here. I was born here. I have no interest in leaving."

The jeep and other military gear are an unwelcome and unnerving presence for Ku and about 240 other South Korean farmers and their families who dwell here, within hectoring distance of the most heavily armed border in the world.

Ku will soon head toward his house, where his wife and two daughters, ages 6 and 4, are waiting to begin dinner. Any last-minute family errands in the village will have to be finished quickly. All residents are required to be in their homes by sundown.

At 11 p.m. they will bolt their doors and windows to keep out intruders from North Korea who might try to sneak across the border and kidnap them--and later claim they defected.

It's another day inside the post-Korean War curiosity that Americans call Freedom Village.

In many ways, Taesong-dong is a typical Korean hamlet. It has a school, shops, a pharmacy, rows of neat brick-and-frame homes and some picket fences.

But even more than their countrymen elsewhere on the Korean Peninsula, residents of Taesong-dong live, literally, under the shadows of guns. South Korean soldiers stand guard as they work in their fields.

"Sometimes North Korean soldiers come to the line and try to talk to the villagers, try to get them to defect," said one of the military guards, Cpl. Ahn Byung-hoon, through a translator. "It gets especially spooky at night or in fog or rain. You're not sure what's out there."

Taesong-dong is a metaphor, in part calculatedly so, of life in South Korea.

The 1953 armistice that ended the shooting in the Korean War resulted in the existence of three villages inside the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the 2.5-mile-wide buffer that cuts a 150-mile swath across the peninsula and divides North and South roughly at the 38th Parallel.

One of the three is Panmunjom, a village destroyed by tank fire during the war. It was designated as the site of the truce talks, which continue sporadically to this day. The village straddles the military demarcation line that runs down the middle of the DMZ, marking the border.

In addition, both nations reserved the right to set up one "working" village inside their sector of the DMZ. They chose sites directly opposite each other.

The village on the north side, a few yards from Taesong-dong, is called Kijong-dong, or Peace Village. Southerners call it Propaganda Village: Every day, Taesong-dong residents are subjected to long propaganda harangues boomed over the border through three-story loudspeakers, urging them to cross voluntarily into the workers' paradise of North Korea. No one has yet accepted the invitation.

Sometimes the competition for the hearts and minds of Koreans on opposite sides of the line sinks to seemingly childish proportions, though probably not inconsistently in an area where for years negotiators have sat across a green baize table and hurled insults at each other.

A few years ago, South Korean authorities built a 330-foot tower in Taesong-dong from which to fly their national flag. A few weeks later, the North Koreans put up a 525-foot tower in Kijong-dong. The flag that flies from it is 98 feet long. It requires a 25-knot breeze to unfurl and a large truck to haul it off for cleaning.

As the South Koreans like to point out, Taesong-dong is inhabited around the clock by working farmers. Kijong-dong, in contrast, appears to be vacant most of the time.

Not all the games played inside the DMZ are peaceful. The current mayor of Taesong-dong carries a nasty bayonet scar on his chest from an attempted kidnaping about 15 years ago. When he resisted, he said, North Korean troops stabbed him and left him for dead.

Like virtually all Koreans, farmer Ku longs for eventual reunification of his country--a vision common on both sides of the border.

Before his death in July, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung had targeted 1995 for reunification--albeit under his own terms. How Kim's successor will deal with this commitment remains unclear.

In the South, ardor for quick reunification has cooled, as the realization has settled in that reunification would be costly.

South Koreans have closely scrutinized the reunification of East Germany and West Germany--the resulting economic drain on the prosperous West. Most are now convinced that a similar effort in Korea would be even harder on their pocketbooks, because the disparity between the two regions is greater than in Germany.

The South's economy is more than 10 times bigger than the North's, where even basics such as food are in short supply, defectors say. Per-capita income in the South is more than five times higher than in the North.

Most southerners now speak of reunification in five to 10 years.

Public opinion polls indicate that most South Koreans doubt that North Korea would launch an attack. Even in Seoul, the booming metropolis of 10.5 million just 35 miles south of the DMZ, within range of North Korean artillery, residents find it hard to believe those guns would ever be used.

"We are all brothers," said E. B. Lee, a Seoul businessman who was born in the North but whose family fled south at the end of World War II. "And, besides, they could never win."

Closer to the demarcation line, where residents have witnessed North Korean attempts to infiltrate the South by various means, including rubber boats and tunnels, people aren't so sure.

"I've seen their willingness to violate the terms of the truce," said Ku Chun Woo, watching an egret swoop in from the north and splash down in his rice field. "Especially if they had nuclear weapons, I think North Korea would attack."

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