One more on North Korea. Have you ever heard of Kijong-dong? Most people haven’t, which is unfortunate. Kijong-dong is a town situated within the North’s half of the Demilitarized Zone. It’s one of only two towns that was allowed to remain in the DMZ when the zone was established in 1953 (the other being Daeseong-dong, on the South Korean side). Domestically, Kijong-dong is known as the “Peace Village.” Internationally, it’s usually called “Propaganda Village.”
The North would have us believe that Kijong-dong is a thriving, normal agrarian community. A state-published guidebook provides the following description:
In this village located in the Demilitarized Zone is the Panmun Cooperative Farm embracing over 200 households. The village has a kindergarten, creche [day care], senior middle school and a people’s hospital.
Oh yeah, and the world’s largest flagpole. That’s right. This patriotic plinth is 525 ft tall and carries a flag that weights 595 pounds! To put this into perspective, the flagpole is 150% taller than Big Ben, and just 30 ft shorter than the Washington Monument. When it rains, the water-weight of the flag is so great that they take it down to prevent structural damage. Anyone who knows anything about the DMZ and North Korea probably isn’t surprised to find this flagpole here. Not only is this the most heavily militarized border in the world, it’s also a hotbed for Korean Peninsula grandstanding. Until very recently, the North would broadcast propaganda 24/7 via megaphone to South Koreans living along the border. Guards are known to engage in hours-long staring matches with counterparts across the DMZ (usually a few hundred feet, but at places just a window away). Why not have the world’s tallest flagpole?
In fact, the world’s second largest flagpole (323 ft) is just a mile away from Kijon-dong, in the South’s DMZ village of Daeseong-dong (translation: “Freedom Village”). When the South Korean pole went up in the 1980s it actually surpassed its northern neighbor to take on the title of “world’s tallest.” Kim Jong quickly responded by adding some height to his own structure. This is popularly called the “flagpole war.” Both are visible in the image below.
The North Korean government presents Kijon-dong as a “typical” community – a model of the decent, industrious living that all citizens of this communist state enjoy. If only that were true. Kijong-dong is, in fact, a Potemkin Village designed in the 1950s to taunt the (then poor) South Koreans and encourage defectors. Nobody lives there. The buildings are structural shells – some are just facades! All are conveniently oriented to face the border. None of the windows have glass in them. There is a skeleton staff who maintain the facilities and the surrounding fields, but that’s it. Lights can be seen at night in some windows. But they’re always the same windows. At the same time. Every night.
Architecture has always been used as a form of political propoganda. Hadrian’s Wall was built to be a psychological barrier, not a physical one. Nazi monumentalism was meant to inspire, overwhelm, and enforce aryan superiority. Even Washington DC monuments act as physical reminders of American hegemony (along with, yes, memory and honor). The existence of Kijon-dong is unusual, though, because it fails to successfully convey a propagandistic message. Everybody knows that it’s empty (unlike the original – and mythical – Potemkin villages). It is so close to the South that this reality was known practically from the start. So why build and maintain it? Probably for the same reason that the Pyongyang Expressway was (needlessly) built, or that the capital has a subway system so uneconomical that it is only fully-engaged (and, some speculate, populated by actors) when foreigners are visiting. Image means a lot to North Korea, and projecting the right image along the DMZ is therefore important to them, even if the rest of the world sees right through it. In a way, Kijon-dong is a rural manifestation of three bedrock themes in Stalinist architecture: conservatism, monumentalism, and potential of extreme functionalism, if only it were properly occupied.
There’s much more to the DMZ than these two villages. Despite being the most militarized border in the world, it’s actually become a sort of nature preserve, harboring many endangered birds, the Amur Leapord, Korean Tiger and the ridiculous looking Asiatic Black Bear. Tourists can go there too. For a nice op-ed on visiting the DMZ, check out this Salon article.