They were next door neighbors. The villagers were all friendly Koreans who wore similar clothes. They enjoyed farming festivals together and spoke with a tinge of northern accented dialect. The boys knew the pretty girls and the girls had heard of dutiful boys in the neighborhood village.
Casting long shadows, after the day’s work, the farmers with A-frames on their back silently returned with their cows to their homes in Daeseong-dong and Kijong-dong where wood burning smoke lingered under the evening glow. They loved the serene farm fields and were happy, until one day in June 1950.
Men and women were transplanting rice saplings in the muddy paddy when they saw heavily armed soldiers wearing brown fatigues running toward south on their levees.
A few months later the villagers noticed other armed soldiers who wore greenish uniforms, with fish net covered helmets decorated with bushes as they rushed this time toward the north passing through the villages. They were all Koreans but each aimed their rifles at different directions and the two troops repeated their charging and retreating. The farmers realized they were fighting each other.
When the growing rice saplings covered the wet field dark green in the summer of 1953, the villagers were told by tall American soldiers that their homes were in the middle of the demilitarized zone with an invisible armistice line running on their levee between the two villages.
The United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC) asked people in Daeseong-dong to move into South Korea and Kijong people to relocate in the north of the demilitarized zone. The two villagers didn’t budge insisting that the villages are their graveyards. Inevitably, the UNCMAC hastily created a special law and allowed the two villagers to live in their own hometowns, one in the north and the other in the south of the demarcation line within the neutralized zone.
Then the two friendly villages were turned into, against their will, front line propaganda towns and received new honorary names each; Freedom Village in the south, Peace Village in the north.
South and North Korean governments put up in competition large propaganda billboards lined up face to face. The bragging war escalated into a flag raising contest. When the South’s had reached at 99 meters height with 18-meter-flag on a steel tower, the North rebuilt theirs to as high as 165 meters with a 30-meter- flag.
It is so heavy that a dozen soldiers were needed to hoist it and gale to make it flutter. South Korea replaces the worn-out flag once every two-month spending 1,400,000 won (equivalent to U.S.$1,300) each. The North Korea too couldn’t afford to display a faded flag and replaced theirs but not often enough due to short of money.
All together 201 people live in the Freedom Village. Those who wish to move out of the village can do so but newcomers are not allowed to move in, except a bride from the south who marries a village boy, but the village girl couldn’t bring her bridegroom in from the south, and she must leave the Freedom Village. The residents are exempt from South Korea’s military and tax duties.
Curfews are imposed at 11 p.m. on either side. The Freedom villagers, despite somewhat uneasy UNCMAC restrictions, they don’t want to leave the village. As it happened, most of them, legally speaking, don’t own their rice paddies, which are, or used to be, owned by the people of Kijong-dong now the neutral village in the North Korean side.
The Freedom villagers are rich farmers because they get mountains of gifts from their sister towns and cities outside the DMZ in the south and they enjoy a neutral status and the boys were happy that they don’t have to serve South Korea’s obligatory military service.
Yet, they get an uneasy feeling every time they hear the word “Unification” because it sounds like the footsteps of proprietors coming from the north.
The writer is a Japanese-English-Korean translator. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
(Note: This article was once published by The Korea Times on July 11, 2013)