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(Yonhap Feature) Resignation, skepticism: Life in civilian-restricted Unification Village

2018/02/01 09:00

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By Woo Jae-yeon

Paju, South Korea, Feb. 1 (Yonhap) -- It's been a bit easier for Lee Wan-bae to get to sleep the last few nights. There hasn't been the incessant noise that has nagged him for almost his entire life: propaganda broadcasts from North Korea.

Living in Tongilchon, or Unification Village, only 4.5 kilometers south of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and within the Civilian Access Control Line, means one has to live with many inconveniences, such as the around-the-clock background noise and, for Lee, the lack of a decent coffee shop.

"I don't see anything good about living here, except that this is my parents' hometown," Lee, the head of the village, told Yonhap News Agency last Friday.

"The quality of life is not very good, as you can imagine. At night, broadcasts from the North disrupt sleep. The sound is as loud as if your radio were turned on."

  

This photo taken on Jan. 26, 2018, shows a military post on the way to Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap) This photo taken on Jan. 26, 2018, shows a military post on the way to Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

This photo taken on Sept. 20, 2016, shows a North Korean village at top and the South Korean village of Tongilchon at bottom. (Yonhap) This photo taken on Sept. 20, 2016, shows a North Korean village at top and the South Korean village of Tongilchon at bottom. (Yonhap)

The two Koreas have recently engaged in rare sports diplomacy after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unexpectedly suggested in his New Year's address that the North participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games that the South will host from Feb. 9-25.

The sudden diplomatic engagement has reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula and raised hope that the two sides will use this momentum to solve long-standing security concerns, including the North's weapons programs.

For Lee, however, the recent thaw in inter-Korean relations is too familiar to take any significant note.

Lee Wan-bae, the head of Unification Village, talks to Yonhap News Agency in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap) Lee Wan-bae, the head of Unification Village, talks to Yonhap News Agency in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap)

After the Korean War broke out in 1950, his parents were forced to flee from the village to Paju, some 30 kilometers north of Seoul. His mother was pregnant with him at that time.

In May 1972, then-President Park Chung-hee ordered the construction of the village, which was modeled after Israel's Kibbutz, to showcase the country's farming prowess to the North, which, back then, was richer than South Korea.

Only 80 households were allowed to settle in the village, which was completed in August 1973, with 40 former residents and 40 military officers who worked there. They built the village from scratch and cultivated fields to plant beans, ginseng and rice. As the land served as the backdrop for perilous battles, they often had to work at their own peril. Lee remembers four to five people died or were injured from land mines -- a vivid vestige of the war.

Until the '80s, fully armed villagers patrolled and stood guard. Women took part in shooting exercises a few times a year.

"We had a catchphrase, 'Fighting as Work and Work as Fighting,'" Lee recalled. "We felt responsible for doing our share for the country at the front."

  

This photo provided by a reader on Feb. 14, 2016, shows the North Korean national flag as seen through a telescope from Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap) This photo provided by a reader on Feb. 14, 2016, shows the North Korean national flag as seen through a telescope from Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

Last Friday, the sleepy village, now with 183 households and a population of 446, was eerily quiet and felt deserted as the temperature dipped as low as minus 21 Celsius degrees -- a day that was one of the coldest during this brutal winter but also crystal clear.

Icicles hung from a roof's edge. Only stray cats were occasionally spotted sleeping curled up in a ball in the sunlight. Along the main road, rows of the Korean national flag "taegukgi" fluttered in the biting wind.

Icicles hang from a roof's edge in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap) Icicles hang from a roof's edge in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap)

A street sits quiet and empty in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap) A street sits quiet and empty in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap)

To escape from the blistering cold, Park Cha-soon, 79, spends most of her afternoons at the community center for seniors, watching TV and chatting with friends. She moved to the village with her military officer husband and has lived here for 45 years now.

Trepidation and anxiety over North Korea's repeated provocations gave way to resignation and a sense of helplessness long ago, she said. For her, the most painful memory while living in the village has nothing to do with North Korea but concerns a dispute over land ownership back in the '80s.

"We all worked almost to death to cultivate the fields only to be suddenly deprived of our land. We went to Seoul and strongly protested in front of (the presidential office) Cheong Wa Dae but to no avail," Park said.

She was one of many villagers who thought they were harmed by the incompetent government of then-President Chun Doo-hwan and its disorganized bureaucratic process.

"I don't care about what North Korea is babbling about in its broadcast. It doesn't mean anything," she said. "I've ignored it all my life and it doesn't bother me. I sleep well at night however loud it is."

  

This photo shows signage at the Tongilchon Village Museum in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap) This photo shows signage at the Tongilchon Village Museum in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap)

Rows of the Korean national flag "taegukgi" flutter in the wind along a road in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in this file photo. (Yonhap)  Rows of the Korean national flag "taegukgi" flutter in the wind along a road in Tongilchon, Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in this file photo. (Yonhap)

Yoo Ji-hye, an official at DMZ Camp 131 Greaves, located near the village, acutely felt the physical closeness to the heavily guarded border and the danger it poses to her safety when land mines exploded in the demilitarized zone in August 2015. According to the South's investigation, North Korean soldiers secretly crossed the MDL to plant the mines. The incident led two Korean soldiers to have their legs amputated.

"We had just welcomed some 100 visitors, who were supposed to stay for the night to do some educational programs. But everyone including the staff had to be evacuated immediately," she recalled.

Two cartoon cutouts stand at DMZ Camp 131 Greaves in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap) Two cartoon cutouts stand at DMZ Camp 131 Greaves in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap)

Snow covers DMZ Camp 131 Greaves in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap) Snow covers DMZ Camp 131 Greaves in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap)

Located two kilometers south of the DMZ, the camp housed the U.S. Army's 506th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Battalion for 50 years. In August 2004, the regiment was pulled out to assist in the Iraq War.

In December 2013, the base, after renovation, reopened as an education center for young students about peace and security -- the only such facility inside the Civilian Access Control Line.

"Amid the heightened tensions last year, we had some booking cancellations. And when the North kept firing missiles, we were ordered to close," she said.

Despite the camp's evident downsides -- its close proximity to North Korea and the hassle of the identification screening process -- more than 23,000 tourists visited it last year. After it emerged that the megahit drama "The Descendants of the Sun" had been partly shot at the camp, 8,330 foreigners from countries including Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand came as well.

This file photo shows former U.S. Army barracks at DMZ Camp 131 Greaves in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap) This file photo shows former U.S. Army barracks at DMZ Camp 131 Greaves in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

Visitors look around an exhibition held at the gallery of DMZ Camp 131 Greaves in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on May 17, 2017. (Yonhap) Visitors look around an exhibition held at the gallery of DMZ Camp 131 Greaves in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on May 17, 2017. (Yonhap)

Village head Lee said he was scared the most when North Korean soldiers brutally murdered two American soldiers at the Joint Security Area (JSA) inside the DMZ in August 1976.

The horror totally unsettled the villagers, he said.

"Everyone believed a war was going to break out again," he said. "We stayed inside a shelter for a couple of days."

   Having lived through the unpredictable, volatile cycle of security situations at the front line, including a near-war experience, he seems to have become doubtful, if not totally skeptical, about the present peace and quiet.

"Although I've felt a bit relaxed the last few days, it might suddenly change," he said.

The Korean word "Tongilchon" is inscribed on a stone sculpture (L) at the Unification Village in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap) The Korean word "Tongilchon" is inscribed on a stone sculpture (L) at the Unification Village in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Jan. 26, 2018. (Yonhap)

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr

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