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Yes, It May Be the Scariest Place on Earth. But It Has a Great School and 5G


TAESUNG FREEDOM VILLAGE, South Korea — For decades, a village of 188 people has enjoyed perks that few others in South Korea have, with its men exempted from mandatory military service and its 46 households getting special tax cuts.

These are the rewards for carving out a life in what has been called the scariest place on Earth.

Taesung Freedom Village is the only place inhabited by South Korean civilians inside the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone that separates the South from North Korea.

In recent weeks, villagers have been given another reward: South Korea’s main mobile phone carrier, KT Corp., has installed a fifth-generation, or 5G, ultrafast communications network, one of the first such systems installed for any South Korean town.

“This is more useful than my own children, who all live outside,” said Go Geum-sik, 73. “Outside” is how villagers refer to the world beyond their constricted boundaries.

With the 5G service, Ms. Go demonstrated how she can now simply push a button on a hand-held device to instantly alert the village mayor, as well as the community center, if she or her husband have a medical emergency. “There is no use calling 911,” Ms. Go said, “because they can’t come here.”

As South Korea raced to build one of the world’s first nationwide 5G networks, Taesung emerged as an attractive candidate where the country could show off its high-tech prowess to both the world and its bellicose neighbor.

When the Korean War was halted with an uneasy truce in 1953, the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, was created to keep the warring armies apart.

Almost all villagers were cleared from the two-and-a-half-mile-wide buffer zone, which became one of the world’s most heavily fortified frontiers, dotted with minefields and sealed off with barbed-wire fences, tank traps and legions of battle-ready troops on both sides.

Any attempt to defect across the border could trigger a hail of gunfire.

Only two villages were allowed to stay inside: Taesung in the South Korean half of the DMZ, and a mile away across the borderline, North Korea’s Kijong “Peace Village.”

No communication has since been allowed between the villages that had been neighbors for centuries, making it impossible for Park Pil-seon, 82, a Taesung villager, to find out whether his elder brother in Kijong is still alive.

In the postwar decades, Taesung and Kijong became pawns in a propaganda war between the two Koreas, with both sides investing in their own model village to extol the virtues of their respective political systems. Today, Kijong is mostly empty, with its once-bright pastel paint on its apartment buildings fading, according to South Korean soldiers.

But South Korea’s determination to keep Taesung populated comes with challenges; villagers are expected to forgo much of the freedom and services other South Koreans take for granted.

Whenever villagers venture to their rice paddies near the borderline just 1,300 feet away, they are shadowed by South Korean soldiers. They also live with a midnight-to-sunrise curfew and a door-to-door roll call every night.

When they invite friends from outside the DMZ to visit, villagers have to apply for approval two weeks in advance. Once a car enters the DMZ, its navigation map goes blank. Soldiers must escort all visitors.

Taesung has no gym, no hospital, no supermarket, no restaurant. If a villager orders Chinese takeout, the last military checkpoint outside the DMZ is as far as the delivery vehicle can come. The dish must be left there for the villager to pick up.

A bus comes to the village four times a day.

“Transportation is the biggest headache, especially if you, like me, don’t drive,” Ms. Go said.

The new 5G services are intended to ease some of the burdens.

Before 5G arrived, rice farmers had to ask for a military escort to go to a reservoir a mile away to use a water pump. Now, they can do it from their homes through an app on their smartphones. With the same app, they can also control the sprinklers in their bean patches.

For years, women wanted to take yoga classes but no instructors would come. Now, yoga lessons are streamed onto large screens at the community center.

At the village’s only school, Taesung Elementary, students can now play interactive online games. On a recent visit, they could be seen having fun hurling actual balls at virtual targets streaming down a wall.

Such amenities are important for the survival of the school. Like other rural villages in South Korea, Taesung has lost many of its young couples to big cities in recent decades. Today, only seven of the school’s 35 students are Taesung natives. The rest are bused in daily from Munsan, the nearest town outside the DMZ.

At the school, students benefit from personalized attention, with as many as 21 teachers and staff members for the 35 pupils. This and other incentives at the school make it popular among Munsan parents. For one opening in the first-grade class this year, 16 Munsan children applied.

“Here, you get a lot that you don’t get in outside schools,” said Heo Ye-rin, a sixth grader who commutes daily from Munsan. “When we go on an extracurricular trip outside, we pay none of the expenses because the government takes care of them.”

A United States military officer, part of the American-led United Nations Command, which fought in the Korean War and stayed to enforce the armistice, gives a free English class twice a week.

“We hope that when the children grow up, they will have some good memories of U.N.C. soldiers,” said United States Army Lt. Col. Sean Morrow.

The troops Colonel Morrow commands are responsible for guarding the Joint Security Area within the DMZ, which includes Taesung and nearby Panmunjom, a village now uninhabited by civilians that straddles the border. It’s where the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, met with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in April last year, and with President Trump in June this year.

Such high-level diplomacy has helped ease tensions along the border. Today, Taesung looks like any other rural village in South Korea, with its golden rice paddies sparkling under the autumn sun.

But “don’t let appearances fool you,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean Army general, noting that North Korean soldiers watch every move of outside visitors. “It’s not your average place. It’s a place where all the peace is secured by dedicated soldiers.”

Villagers here often find themselves front-seat witnesses to the ebb and flow of inter-Korean tensions.

Decades ago, villagers stepped on stray mines from the war and even were abducted by North Korean soldiers. When the tensions were high, they were frequently evacuated from their fields into underground shelters, said Kim Dong-gu, 50, the mayor.

Despite the recent thaw, villagers still conduct an evacuation drill twice a year. North Korea’s propaganda broadcasts, once a daily nuisance here, finally faded last year when both Koreas agreed to switch off their loudspeakers on the border.

“Despite political leaders talking about easing tensions, we still live with them as the militaries face off with each other,” said Kim Yong-sung, 49, a village bean farmer.

When the two Korean leaders met at Panmunjom, two Taesung Elementary students greeted Mr. Kim with flowers.

”I was scared but also curious about the North Korean dictator,” said Sin Jae-hyeok, one of the students. “After meeting him, I think his image in my mind has improved just a bit.”


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