Isolated DMZ village spots a glimmer of hope in meeting of the Koreas

Mayor envisions walking to the 'Northern town across the borderline."

SEOUL, South Korea -- Tucked in the middle of the Korean demilitarized zone, villagers in Taesung Freedom Village hold high hopes for Friday’s planned summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The village of 193 people, living in 47 households, has a strict limit on entering and exiting town. Under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Command in South Korea, even the residents are restricted from moving around freely during the night. The South Korean government provides villagers the right to cultivate land, which is located in the South Korean part of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). And to help compensate for such inconveniences, the village is exempt from military duties and national income tax.

Only direct descendants of the original residents can live in the special village, also known as Tae Sung Dong, where everyone engages in rice farming because there are no commercial facilities. A majority of villagers have lived in the village for generations.

The village dates back to July 1953, stemming from a ceasefire agreement between the two Koreas in which both sides kept a single village in the demilitarized zone. The village on North Korea’s side of the DMZ is called Kijong.

Taesung Freedom Mayor Kim Dong Ku, elected in 2012, was born and raised in the border town. Kim, 50, has two children who attend the village’s only elementary school, where DMZ also stands for the “Dream Making Zone.”

“I’m glad to see peaceful atmosphere building up,” Kim said. “I want the townspeople to live in a stable status, farming like they always have. The military broadcast towards North stopped since yesterday evening and we appreciate this silence.”

There were days when villagers felt anxious as military tensions rose between Pyongyang and Seoul. But since a recent mood of reconciliation, the village, too, has become more jubilant than before.

The two leaders from the North and South are scheduled to meet Friday at the demilitarized zone's "Peace House" in Panmunjom, less than a mile from the Taesung Freedom Village.

Mayor Kim is looking forward to the inter-Korean summit, he said, adding that the atmosphere has improved dramatically since the past two summits.

“I have not experienced the Korean War firsthandedly,” he said. “But the ancestors who lived in this area even before the war said they used to take a walk to the Northern town across the borderline. If there is a chance in the future, I would do the same.”