Video produced and narrated by Ryan Thompson. Camera by Ryan Thompson and Aziza Kasumov
TONGIL CHON, South Korea — It’s Sunday, so Rev. Gang Suk Jin gets up at 4 a.m. to prepare for the morning service. Shortly before dawn, he steps outside, walks to a metal tower that resembles a radio tower, pulls on the white string dangling all the way to the bottom, and looks up. The bell rings.
Its sound travels over the surrounding muddy land, across the bean fields and empty roads, through barbed wire fences and around military vehicles.
This is Tongil Chon, a village a mile away from the most heavily guarded border in the world, the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Nowhere in South Korea is the threat of war with the North more imminent, more physically present than here – but the residents of Tongil Chon, which means “unification village” in Korean, have learned how to keep their calm over the years.
While tensions have loosened on the Korean peninsula in the aftermath of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the inter-Korean summit, access to the area remains limited. Journalists need to request permission to access Tongil Chon in advance, leave their passports at a military checkpoint, and are escorted by an officer from the South Korean military throughout their reporting, which, too, is limited to a few hours.
“The people who come here for the first time, they think it’s kind of a scary place, a different place,” says Lee Won Bae, a farmer and the village leader, through a translator. His family has lived here for centuries, long before the Korean War forced Lee’s parents to leave the area for a new home farther away from the border. But in 1973, 20 years after the armistice agreement between North and South Korea was signed, the government in Seoul allowed Lee and 79 other South Koreans – half of them civilians, half of them members of the military – to move back to Tongil Chon.
Most of the 490 people who live in the village work as farmers in the surrounding fields or in the tourism industry. They serve coffee at the DMZ Café, offer tours of the Tongil Chon museum, sell snacks and cigarettes at a convenience store in the middle of the village and show visitors from all over the world around – all while North Korean propaganda is blasting through the town from radio speakers set up on the other side of the border. (In the days before last week’s historic inter-Korean summit, both sides ceased their propaganda broadcasts on the border.)
“You hear something outside from the radio, and it just becomes part of the daily routine. It just feels normal,” Lee says. “The people who live here think it’s very peaceful.”
And to a certain degree, they’re right: Tongil Chon is a one-hour drive, interrupted by a military checkpoint, from the Seoul metropolitan area, where half of South Korea’s population lives. Out here, there are no flashing neon signs shining through the bedroom windows all night. There’s no traffic noise, except from the occasional passing military vehicle. “And we’re not really worried about North Korea,” Lee adds.
So when villagers attend Rev. Gang’s Sunday morning service, they don’t necessarily pray to be spared from war. “It’s a meaningful place, a very symbolic place, close to the border,” Gang says through a translator. He has been the pastor at the village’s only church for more than 10 years. “Everyone’s praying for the reunification of the Korean peninsula. We pray more, we pray hard.”
Gang says many of the elderly villagers were separated from their families when the country was divided. “Their hometown is 20, 30 kilometers away, but they just can’t go there because of the situation,” he says. “So they are passionate to pray more to reunite with their lost families.”
When South and North Korean leaders announced at the beginning of March, during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, that they planned to meet in April for the first time in decades, many residents here saw the news as a glimpse of hope for reunification. “I think it’s the beginning. There’s a good chance, but it’s only the beginning,” says village leader Lee.
To prepare the summit in April, high-ranking officials from the North and South Korean governments held talks in the DMZ, just a couple of miles away from Tongil Chon.
“The approach is so different this time,” says Sang Sin Lee, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank sponsored by the South Korean government. Lee points out that, while in 2000 and 2007 – the last times South and North Korean leaders met – both sides were only taking smalls steps toward each other. “Now, they’re trying to solve the big things first.” Lee correctly predicted that, at the summit meeting in April, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un might formulate an agreement on a denuclearization of the North and strike a deal for a peace process. For now, Lee says, that’s probably as far as it will go.
The current climate of reconciliation is much different from what villagers in Tongil Chon have known in the past, when tensions were high between the two Koreas, and they were told to be ready for evacuation at any time. When North Korean soldiers killed two U.S. army officers with an axe in 1976, all villagers were told to go back to their homes and get ready. “We were one minute away from getting evacuated out of this area,” village leader Lee says. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, all adults living in Tongil Chon were trained in shooting and encouraged to carry guns. “If there was an emergency, or drills, we’d do our duty,” Lee says.
Today, the guns and heavy tensions are gone, but the drills remain. Once every while, villagers still practice evacuating into one of the underground shelters around town. In there, they keep gas masks, food supplies, a TV and gray plastic chairs ready at all times. In one of the shelters, situated right across the Tongil Chon City Museum, stickers in the shapes of trees cover the white cement walls, serving as a grim reminder of the world above ground that seems incredibly far away in the fluorescent light illuminating the austere bunker furnishings.
Still, Rev. Gang, too, says most villagers don’t lose their calm. “People all over the world think there are serious things happening here because of the war between North Korea and South Korea, but in fact, people here don’t really think it’s that serious,” he says. “We just live our daily lives. We don’t worry much.”