Freedom Village in Korea's Demilitarised Zone
Freedom Village. Photograph by Park Chaerin, 2020.
Korea has been a divided nation since the ceasefire of the Korean War on 27th July 1953. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) are still separated by the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), a barrier defined by the Northern Limit Line and the Southern Limit Line, each approximately 2 kilometres offset from the Military Demarcation Line in the middle. Although this border works as an effective buffer zone to prevent armed conflicts, the DMZ is also one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world, thus almost uninhabited by anyone other than military forces. However, there are two exceptions.
Between the Military Demarcation Line and the Southern Limit Line there is an old village called Daeseongdong Maeul, also known as ‘Freedom Village’. On the northern part, there is another old village called Gijeongdong Maeul, or ‘Peace Village’. Although the distance between these two settlements is only 1.9 kilometres, their inhabitants are strictly separated. Retaining these two villages within the DMZ was covered by a specific clause of the Armistice Agreement signed in July 1953.
Freedom Village is located within the western section of the DMZ, only about 65 kilometres away from Seoul. As of 2018, there is a total of 193 villagers in Freedom Village. Most villagers are engaged in agricultural productions of rice, beans and peppers. Although Freedom Village is still administered by the UN Command as stated in the Armistice Agreement, the villagers are the citizens of South Korea; however, they are exempted from paying tax and obligatory military service. Instead, there are some restrictions and regulations in place to maintain its population and keep villagers safe. Villagers are required, for instance, to reside in the village for at least eight months per year. There is a curfew between midnight and 5 a.m., and at 7 p.m. everyday, the ‘civilian control’ army officers take a roll-call in every house. Moreover, all visitors must go through strict background identity checks.
Since its reformulation after the Korean War in the mid-1950s, Freedom Village has been the test bed for South Korea boasts of success over North Korea. The large-scale government-led redevelopment projects during the Park Chung-Hee administration from 1963 to 1979 – a time of dictatorship characterised by maximum state intervention and authoritarianism – transformed the settlement into an attractive modern rural village. Government records of these projects in the 1970s clearly reveal a deliberate strategy to establish a village of propaganda. Many efforts were geared to beautify Freedom Village into an extraordinary place that could sustain itself within the DMZ. Its traditional dwellings were substituted with Western-style architecture painted in bright colours, alongside public facilities as well as the tallest national flagpole in South Korea: the largest national flag supported, paradoxically, by a steel structure painted in light blue symbolising the colour of the UN Command. Farmlands and paddy-fields were reorganised and distributed among the villagers. The main objective of such projects were displays of a free liberal state over North Korea, whose economic status was deemed better than that of South Korea until the mid-1970s.
However, governmentality in Freedom Village shows several features that are not in line with the principles of a ‘free’ liberal state. Severely censored by military command and political power, its villagers could not exercise the same rights as other citizens outside the DMZ. Captivated by fear and the danger of living near the frontline, the inhabitants conduct were under constant supervision by the South Korean government. Therefore, unlike other rural villages in South Korea, Freedom Village was not encouraged to exercise mechanisms of self-regulation as promoted by the Park regime in the 1970s under the New Village Movement. As a result, the economic prospects, architectural forms and indeed the population of Freedom Village have changed little since the completion of the 1978 redevelopment plan. Various restrictions and regulations have prevented major transformations promoted by the villagers. Today, however, its overall population is rapidly ageing, and the villagers seem to be content with their current lifestyles, mainly due to the generous subsidies.
In this sense, the stagnation of Freedom Village is half-involuntary and half-voluntary. However, since the 1980s, when the South Korean government stopped prioritising this kind of propaganda activity, Freedom Village was gradually forgotten. Thus, the special circumstances of Freedom Village initially legitimised by its role as a propaganda village ultimately deprived its inhabitants of opportunities to cultivate their own built environment.
In terms of achieving Foucault’s idea of an equilibrium between the techniques of domination and of the self, Freedom Village exemplifies the advanced level of governmentality associated with the adoption of neoliberalism could not be exerted. In other words, governmentality of Freedom Village has lingered on the pre-modern notion of governmentality, whereas other villages in South Korea were encouraged to vigorously cultivate a 20th-century idea of governmentality by practicing self-regulating and self-sustaining technologies.
In Freedom Village, governmentality was based on apparatuses of fear, danger, economic benefit, exemption from military service, anti-communist sentiment and patriotism. Despite the governmental support, the current status of Freedom Village raises the question of how to substitute the space for political initiatives implemented by authority. Freedom Village substantiates the observation that the exercise of strong state intervention and censorship might succeed in the initial advancement of a community, yet it also shows us that the authentic knowledge exchanged between those who are governing and those who are governed is essential in achieving the equilibrium required by modern governmentality and by extension the success of all contemporary communities.
 “Visiting the Only Village in the DMZ,” Policy Briefings Website, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Department of Public Communications, http://www.korea.kr/news/policyNewsView.do?newsId=148849511.
 United Nations Command Regulation 525-2 states that the residents of Freedom Village are South Korean citizens residing in an area under the operational and administrative control of the UNC Commander (5. Policies a-(1).
 Hee-Yeon Cho, 'The Structure of the South Korean Developmental Regime and Its Transformation' Inter-Asia Cultural Studies vol. 1, no. 3 (2000), 408–26, https://doi.org/10.1080/14649370020009915.
 Michel Foucault and Mark Blasius, 'About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,' Political Theory 21, no. 2 (May 1993), 203, https://doi.org/10.1177/0090591793021002004.
Copyright of image: © Park Chaerin, reproduced with owner's permission.