The JSA, view from the South Korean side towards the north with the United Nations Military Armistice Commission (UNMAC) building on the left. Image by Dongsei Kim, 2011

Between North & South Korea: The demilitarised zone’s interstitial villages

About the Author
Dongsei Kim
Dongsei Kim is an award-winning architect, urbanist and educator. He is an assistant professor of architecture at New York Institute of Technology and founder of axu studio. His current research examines architecture and urbanism’s relationship to nation-state borders across multiple scales. His research on the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) has been recognised through notable international publications and exhibitions.
About Red Envelope
Red Envelope is a series of journals published by LWK + PARTNERS and is a collaborative project between the practice and Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae.

In July 2020, South Koreans were shocked to find out that a North Korean who defected to South Korea a couple of years ago fled back to North Korea through the impermeable demilitarised zone (DMZ) after supposedly committing a horrendous crime. This crossing was one of the very few known unauthorised crossings over the past 70-odd years, where a civilian transgressed the impenetrable DMZ.

The DMZ is a buffer zone between North Korea (DPRK) and South Korea (ROK). It bisects the Korean Peninsula near the 38th parallel north. The buffer was established after the Korean War (1950 to 1953) when North Koreans, Chinese and the United Nations Command signed the Korean Armistice Agreement on 27 July, 1953. The agreement established a 250-kilometre-long and four-kilometre-wide ‘demilitarised’ buffer zone (approximately 992 square kilometres) between the two Koreas. Although the entire area lacks any permanent inhabitants, and its rather narrow and long geometry is vastly different from dense cities such as New York City (784 square kilometres), Berlin (892 square kilometres) and Singapore (726 square kilometres), the land area of the DMZ is comparable to the mentioned global cities.

Contrary to its name, the demilitarised zone is one of the world’s most heavily militarised areas. It is notoriously known for its uninhabited surreal landscapes and peacefully migrating birds in the sky, which are juxtaposed with the extremely politicised propaganda balloons in the air, millions of recklessly scattered landmines and the concentration of soldiers stationed nearby.

Nevertheless – as reflected by the stated July 2020 incident – transgressions, breaches, contraventions and exceptions are always present at seemingly impermeable borders. The DMZ is no exception. One of the many things that make the notorious DMZ a unique space to study is the three interstitial villages located within it. These villages and their spatial arrangements within the DMZ can be considered as ‘exceptional’ spaces. What happens in these exceptional spaces and their operational logic draws affinity to Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben’s concept of State of Exception, where the sovereign North or South Korea’s rule of laws are suspended, making them exceptional spaces, places of ambivalences.

Illustration of Daesung-dong, courtesy of Dongsei Kim

Article I-8 of the Armistice Agreement states, “No person, military or civilian, in the Demilitarized Zone, shall be permitted to enter the territory under the military control of either side unless specifically authorized to do so by the Commander into whose territory entry is sought.” Nonetheless, this agreement’s Article II-25. A provides an exception where it states, “The Military Armistice Commission shall: a. locate its headquarters in the vicinity of PANMUNJOM (37’ 57’29” N, 126’ 40’00” E),” which is right in the middle of the DMZ.

The first exceptional space is the world-famous Panmunjom – also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA) – located within the DMZ, known for its United Nations-blue-coloured buildings where prominent political figures meet and shake hands. We can trace the origin of the current DMZ’s footprint back to when the Korean War’s parties chose Panmunjom as a location to continue their truce negotiations in 1951. The JSA, approximately 800 metres in diameter, is, as its name suggests, a jointly managed site with 20-odd buildings. At its centre, a series of small blue buildings sit on the border between North and South Korea. Sitting perpendicular on top of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the shared blue buildings and their interior spaces become undeniably interstitial spaces.

The prominent three blue buildings that sit on the MDL are used by the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC), Military Armistice Commission (MAC) and the Joint Duty Office (JDO). As these buildings sit on the border, they straddle both Koreas but technically remain within the in-between zone. For example, one of the shared blue buildings – the MAC building – temporarily transforms itself over time, making it a dynamic in-between space. The building, as a single volumetric space, is mainly used for military meetings. However, what is interesting is the building’s whole interior space’s ability to become an exclusive territory of the party who temporarily books the space and enters the room from their respective sides. This transformation also happens when tourists of the popular ‘security tours’ enter the building from the South Korean side, enabling the visitor to cross the invisible border within the building. The tourists effectively step into North Korea’s physical territory that is under a temporary ‘state of exception’.

The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) indicated on the centre of the meeting table within the UNMAC building. Image courtesy of Dongsei Kim, 2011.

Minutes’ drive away from the JSA, there are the two other exceptional spaces: the so-called ‘propaganda villages’ located within the DMZ. Sitting on both sides of the MDL, the two villages were allowed to remain within the DMZ according to the 1953 Armistice Agreement. North Korea’s village is called the Peace Village or Kijong-dong, also dubbed a Potemkin village. Located less than two kilometres away from this Peace Village is South Korea’s Freedom Village on the other side of the MDL, also referred to as Daesung-dong. According to the South Koreans, the Peace Village, populated with colourful modern-looking apartment complexes are mostly empty and dark at night. Many believe that the North Koreans built this ghost town to promote the regime’s superiority using buildings as props to win over the South Koreans, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when the two Koreas’ ideological competition was fierce.

On the other side, some 200 South Koreans, mainly farmers and their families, occupy the Freedom Village. Current inhabitants are either original inhabitants of Daesung-dong or their descendants. Ironically, outsiders cannot relocate to the village. The only way to move into Freedom Village is by marrying a male Daesung-dong resident. If a female marries an outsider male, she must leave the village as she becomes an outsider. Exceptions are made only if a male outsider is legally accepted to become part of the resident female’s family, but this is only possible if the female’s family does not have a son. Only two males have moved into the village through such rules since 1953.

As an exceptional space located close to the ‘enemy’, and situated within the in-between zone, the village operates under the United Nations Command (Armistice Agreement Article I-10) with high security measures such as midnight curfews, tightly regulated entry-exit checkpoints, and restrictive residency requirements. Simultaneously, the South Korean residents living in Daesung-dong do not pay taxes and are exempt from the mandatory military service because of the area’s exceptional status.

Both propaganda villages are interstitial spaces that are peripheral to the dominant identities of North and South Korea. They are neither typical villages of both Koreas. In particular, these propaganda villages are mutant exceptions that both Korean states have propped as their front facades, projecting their state legitimacies and idealised Korean identities.

All of these mentioned spaces are rather symbolic and amplify the vastly different state ideologies and the dynamic inter-Korean relationships. Furthermore, because of this eccentric ‘exceptional’ arrangement, these propaganda villages reveal the extent and limit of the state’s spatial instruments and their impact on the everyday inhabitants of these places and wider implications beyond.

Read more from Red Envelope.

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the second journal themed ‘In Between’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.

Volume I, journal 2 is available to read in digital format here.