It is only 35 miles from central Seoul, but the village of Daeseong Dong is difficult to reach. To get there, you race north up Chayuro (“Freedom Expressway”) until you reach a checkpoint manned by armed infantrymen.
If your paperwork and ID is in order, you then drive through the barbed wire to the joint South Korea-US Camp Bonifas – complete with its helicopter pad and bunkers in its central lawn. The next obstacle is an anti-tank wall, watched over by guard towers every 100 meters and with wicked Claymore anti-personnel mines planted every 10 meters.
A few minutes’ drive through low, wooded hills brings you to the modest village of 207 souls. Backed by hills and nestled among paddies, with tractors standing outside vinyl greenhouses, Daeseong Dong looks like any farming hamlet: It boasts a school, a village hall and a modest church.
But it stands in the shadow cast by a huge South Korean flag flying from a 98-meter high flagpole. An underground shelter is notable at its center and there is a plethora of men in camouflage uniforms. The village’s most prominent building is manned by troops; the sign at its front entrance proclaims, “Battle Room. Stand By!”
DMZ quiet – but not quite normal
Daeseong Dong (also spelled Taesong Dong – “Freedom Village”) is the only civilian village in South Korea inside the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, the four-kilometer-wide buffer zone that bisects the peninsula.
Life is quiet, but not quite normal. Village households, largely engaged in the cultivation of their unique “DMZ Rice,” are exempt from national tax; males are exempt from military conscription. But they are subject to the onerous entry and travel issues, and a sunset-to-sunrise curfew.
The village hall’s roof offers binoculars trained on North Korea. Its cinema is defunct, but its school is lively. Boasting the highest ratio of teachers to students in Korea – 10:35 children – its eight local pupils are joined by 27 children from the nearby town of Munsan. US troops from Camp Bonifas volunteer to teach English.
“Since Daeseong Dong is very close to North Korea, there is sometimes a nervous atmosphere,” headmaster Jin Young-jin said. “We do drills once or twice a year to go into the shelter.”
Close is right: Daeseong Dong lies less than 400 meters from the Military Demarcation Line, the actual border that runs through the DMZ, and just 1.6 kilometers from the only North Korean village in the DMZ, Kijong Dong. South Korea claims Kijong Dong is uninhabited, a propaganda village notable only for its 160-meter flagpole.
Residents don’t seem unduly excited about upcoming prospects. Friday’s summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in will be held in the nearby military truce village of Panmunjeom, whose only residents, unlike Daeseong Dong, are soldiers. Asked about his hopes for the summit, Mayor Kim Dong-gu’s response was simple. “I anticipate a more peaceful atmosphere,” he said.
Excited signage, surging hopes, achievements
He is not the only one. If signage springing up around Seoul, around Gyeonggi, the province surrounding Seoul, and Paju, the county just south of the DMZ, is any indication, South Korea has gone summit mad.
A giant banner draped over Seoul’s City Hall reads, “As South and North make peace, Seoul City goes together.” In the city’s Foreign Press Center, a huge sign proclaims the summit’s branded tagline: “Peace, a new start.”
Beyond the capital, expectations are even higher.
“End of separation, beginning of unification” reads a slogan on a camouflaged observation post south of the DMZ. A sign beside an army position guarding the Han River bank some 20 miles north of Seoul – wired off to prevent North Korean amphibious infiltration – reads “Gyeonggi Province, toward reunification.” And the slogan on an arch over the checkpoint that leads into the DMZ reads, “Reunification-preparing Paju County.”
Many are excited. “I think South Koreans will be able to visit Pyongyang very soon!” a Seoul citizen, vacationing in Europe, texted a foreign reporter. Currently, South Korean tourism to North Korea is illegal.
Much of this is coming from the top. One of Moon’s key pre-election promises was upgrading relations with the North, but even he must be elated at developments since January. Even seasoned Korea watchers are surprised by the speed at which events are moving.
Developments, thick and fast
Kim has promised a missile and testing moratorium; said he will discuss denuclearization; agreed to hold Friday’s inter-Korean summit, and – critically – offered to meet US President Donald Trump. North Korea attended the Winter Olympics in the South, and high-level envoys crisscrossed the DMZ.
Inter-Korea telecommunications, severed in 2016 amid high tensions, have been reconnected. A first-ever direct hotline between the leaders of the two Koreas was connected last week. Also last week, a plenary meeting of the North Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee heard of plans to cease missile and nuclear tests and shutter the nation’s underground nuclear test site. In a televised announcement, Moon hailed the moves. Yesterday, the Koreas agreed to halt propaganda cross-border broadcasts.
In their Panmunjeom summit on Friday, Kim will be offered the photo-op of a lifetime as he crosses the inter-Korean border. Moon has said that a peace treaty to finally end the 1950-53 Korean war – which was halted by an armistice – will be on the table. Both sides’ definitions of “denuclearization,” the process to reach it, and preparations for the crucial Kim-Trump summit, are likely to be discussed.
Parts of the summit will be televised live, and post-summit, the two leaders will cap their negotiations with a dinner, Seoul’s presidential Blue House has announced.
Pragmatism, cynicism and dire warnings
But some urge caution. While the inter-Korean summit looks set to go swimmingly, major question marks hang over the Kim-Trump summit – the first-ever meeting between a US and North Korean head of state.
In an editorial column on Tuesday, the Korea Times warned that the failure of the two previous inter-Korean summits – in 2000 and 2007 – to entrench positive change should caution against over-expectations, and that denuclearization “…is far from reality. The North has never committed itself to it.”
The column warned that both Seoul and Washington seem to be suffering from confirmation bias, “seeing only what they want to see and what they want to hear.”
Such thinking indicates that Moon and Trump could be hoodwinked. Both certainly seem eager for success with North Korea: Moon to reduce peninsula tensions, Trump to create a historic legacy where his predecessors failed.
The critical question is what Kim means by denuclearization. North Korean media wrote last week that national efforts “to gain the strong treasured sword for the preservation of peace has been brought to a stellar conclusion.” With the “treasured sword” being nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely Kim will abandon them in toto, even if he makes some concessions.
Washington’s demand, however, is unequivocal: complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).
Pyongyang has offered moratoriums before and abrogated them. Its shut-down of its nuclear test site is an acceptance of geological realities: the site is collapsing. And anyway, after six detonations, Kim’s arms have been suitably tested.
Extreme critics of Moon, the architect of the current process, go far beyond The Korea Times in their critiques.
“I am very pessimistic, I think it is very dangerous to have this kind of ‘pseudo-pacifism,’” said Cho Young-hwan, a conservative rally organizer and right-wing activist. “Moon is not a [South] Korean president, he is a kind of servant of North Korea – a nation destroyer!”
Back in Daeseong Dong, inside the silent DMZ, Jin is calm. He has no apparent ideological leanings, but also seems indifferent to the high expectations affecting many of his countrymen. “After the summit, there will be no change,” the headmaster said. “The children know about the summit, but don’t expect much.”