Of brain drain, K-Pop, and other threats at the inter-Korean border

The mayor of Daeseong-dong is concerned. His village is facing an existential threat: The young are leaving increasingly for bigger cities, where they can make twice as much money as through the work in the surrounding rice fields. Barely anyone moves to the village from the outside. Barely anyone can move to the village from the outside. There are strict rules: Only those who have lived in Daeseong-dong before 1950, and their descendants, may live here. Women, who marry villagers, may move in, but not vice versa. Outsiders need to be invited to visit the village and apply for military escorts two weeks in advance. They are, after all, approaching one of the world’s most heavily guarded borders. They are entering the 한반도 비무장 지대; the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the Korean Peninsula

Broadcasting warfare

Daeseong-dong is one of two official “peace villages” inside the Korean DMZ and it might be the only one that is inhabited. The North Korean pendant, Kijŏng-dong, despite its wealthy and neat appearance from afar, is not actually a place where any North Koreans live. Much like what the Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin (Stalinallee back in the day) was to the GDR during the Cold War, Kijŏng-dong is little more than a propaganda tool––a flagship village with colourful houses that couldn’t be further removed from the day-to-day reality of most North Koreans. For a majority of time since the end of the Korean War, the imagery has been accompanied by broadcasts of propaganda messages, blasting towards the south, before hitting South Korea’s own––quite literal––sonic barrier. In a way, the Korean War continued long after 1953, with massive speakers as the weapon of choice.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that an audio-armistice was first introduced. This was a consequence of the unprecedented meeting between leaders from the two Koreas, which temporarily eased tensions on the Korean peninsula. But after a border incident in 2015, when landmines, believed to have been planted by the North, seriously wounded two South Korean border guards, South Korea decided to reactivate their ear-splitting broadcast. And Pyongyang did not hesitate to resume directing electricity––which isn’t particularly of abundance in North Korea––into their own speaker system. It would be another two years of psychological warfare––with the South firing K-Pop torturous enough for Kim Yong-un to prepare an actual, armed attack against the neighbour’s loudspeakers. Only in 2018, after another inter-Korean summit, did the South dismantle their speakers once again and in return receive a break from the North’s anti-capitalist, Kim-leadership-glorifying tunes

The scariest place on earth

Prior to the first formal contacts between the Koreas in 2000 and the following decades of easing tensions (at least from a perspective relative to the second half of the 20th century) the DMZ was nicknamed “the scariest place on earth” by former US President Bill Clinton. Particularly the DMZ Conflict, which some refer to as the Second Korean War, painted a picture of terror inside the border zone. During the cross-border conflict, which lasted from 1963 until 1966, over 700 North- and South-Korean as well as American soldiers lost their lives. But there have been other deaths and injuries, resulting from the seemingly slightest missteps: During a routine tree-pruning operation, through which visual contact between the UN observation Post in the Joint Security Area and a UN Checkpoint at the Bridge of No Return was to be ensured, two US Army officers were killed and a group of South Korean severely injured by North Korean soldiers. This “Korean Axe Murder Incident” nearly put an end to the Korean armistice in 1976. Then there was said mine incident in 2015, wounding two South Korean border guards, which the country retaliated with K-Pop at about 147 decibels––the equivalent of an air-raid siren, above the physical pain threshold.

Civilians haven’t been spared by the two states’ cross-border power play either. In 1996, two villagers from Daeseong-dong, a mother and her son, were arrested and detained for five days by North Korean border guards for accidently crossing the demarcation line when picking acorns. This is the risk that comes with the privilege of being allowed to move around the DMZ freely and only having to report back for the nightly headcount at curfew, 23:00.

Free lunch and lush fauna

Despite the looming threat of getting caught in a propaganda cross-fire or being arrested for picking acorns––and other concerns that come with life only a few kilometers away from a rising nuclear power––Daeseong-dong does have its charm. For instance, the primary school. If it wasn’t for the “commuters”, children from nearby villages, the school would have four students. But the possibility to learn English from American soldiers and UN officials, who oversee the DMZ, is perceived as a great opportunity by many parents in the area close to the border and make the primary school a cheaper alternative to many expensive private schools. With lessons (and lunch!) being free, too, places even have to be given out through a lottery.

Just a few hundred meters outside Daeseong-dong stretches one of South Korea’s best kept nature reserves. A very low and strictly managed population density has turned the DMZ, and the surrounding civil control zone, into a wildlife sanctuary. Over 5,000 plant and animal species have been spotted inside the DMZ, including over 100 endangered species. The area is closely observed by the DMZ Ecology Research Institute. Members of the organization have expressed their concerns that increased cooperation between the Koreas may actually pose a serious risk to the unique biodiversity inside the DMZ and its surroundings. Mine clearance, for instance, would destroy much of the local flora. Increased industrial activities and planned railroad services between North and South Korea––and inevitably its buffer zone––would disturb the residing wildlife. Perhaps, it is better to leave the DMZ as it is, thinks Jung Suyoung, researcher at DMZ Botanical Garden nearby.

In many regards, cooperation on the Korean peninsula is at its most active point since the division of the country nearly seventy years ago. And cooperation, particularly across the DMZ, does not solely have to come in the form of economic activity or political acts of clearing mines. Both countries have been pushing for the declaration of the area as a biosphere reserve through UNESCO, very much to the delight of the members of the DMZ Ecology institute. Of course, as for natural resource conservation any kind of industrial human activity is worse than none, and increasing land utilization in the area poses a threat to its natural beauty. But so does yet another broadcast-war or continuing military training just a few kilometers away. Not to forget the threat looming over the area coming from the moody neighbour’s pet nuclear project… Whether cooperation will continue to increase or whether another provoking act in the neighbourhood will cause a resurrection of loudspeakers and other weaponry––for now there is hope. For Korean citizens, the natural beauty of the DMZ, but most of all for the villagers of Daeseong-dong, who have been craving some peace, and mostly quiet. 

by Maya Diekmann

Photo Credits

Tae Song Dong, Jeffrey Allen, U.S. Air Force, CC BY 2.0

DMZ, Korea, Piero Sierra, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

President Moon Jaein Gangwondo, Kang Min-seok, CC BY-SA 2.0