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State propaganda and human habitation tango at Korean DMZ

Alex Young Il Seo

Shortlisted for the President’s Awards for Research, this study reveals how inhabitants of South Korean frontier villages, created as showcases to North Koreans just across the border, have found small ways to subvert and humanise their built environment

Yugok-ri Unification Village shortly after its completion in 1973.
Yugok-ri Unification Village shortly after its completion in 1973. Credit: ROK National Archives

For its long continued spatial division symbolised by the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), heavy presence of military and war time ruins, the Korean border is often portrayed as being in stasis: hegemonic, highly rigid, well-defined, reductive and empty. A closer examination of the South Korean border, however, reveals a small but particularly interesting group of people called subokmin, who have come to occupy the length of the complex border in distinctive forms of architecture and village planning called the frontier village.

Nonetheless, what truly makes the border particularly interesting is that, despite the harsh living conditions imposed on subokmin by the highly hostile and restrictive border, the frontier villages continue to exist, while large-scale, politically-motivated projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex (a cross-border venture employing workers in the North at a South-owned factory) have been short-lived. Considering how even such grand initiatives and expansive infrastructures fail to last, what other aspects of the border can we consider as helping to lessen its limited and one-dimensional configuration? This question resonates throughout this research, which forms an exploration of human habitation at the South Korean border centring on the spatial phenomenon of the frontier village.

Focusing on Yugok-ri Unification Village, a South Korean state village abutting the DMZ, the research examines how the space of the frontier village, despite the harsh living conditions, is exploited by the villagers as an important political platform. In particular, it analyses subokmin's seemingly discursive construction of insignificant spaces and the ways in which they undergo different modes of survival, resilience and resistance depending on the ever changing spatio-political situation. This involves critically interrogating the everyday life of its residents and using spatial changes in the village’s architecture (in comparison to its initial design) as a lens to study how its residents cope with the border condition. In certain circumstances, even the state-led architecture imposed with high levels of control plays no less significant a role for the villagers as a critical instrument to achieve, administer and negotiate certain outcomes.

A family unit in Yugok-ri and its spatial changes: vinyl-greenhouse (left), house with veranda extension (centre), vegetable garden (centre), extended storage unit (right).
A family unit in Yugok-ri and its spatial changes: vinyl-greenhouse (left), house with veranda extension (centre), vegetable garden (centre), extended storage unit (right). Credit: Alex Young Il Seo

Consisting of a uniform grid, radically simplified houses, a watch tower and an armoury, the design of Yugok-ri is a product of high-modernist ideology characterised by rigid functionalism and efficiency. As an outcome of the state's twofold attempt to showcase its cultural and economic superiority over the border while creating a highly legible society, the rigid design of the village is colluded with curfew, control of access, and other spatial restrictions such as the 'building freeze' that severely restricts subokmin's everyday life. For its close proximity to the DMZ and the restrictions imposed on them, the village is largely considered as a depoliticising space of de-subjectivation and subokmin as passive receivers: those stripped of any potentialities.

On the contrary, the study reveals a highly intricate and discrete ways the residents use the space of the frontier village as a platform for their struggles against the authoritarian vision by developing, augmenting and enhancing their houses and spaces around them in their everyday life. The first example is the addition of a veranda to an existing house: a popular trick achieved by closing off the two corners of the house in ways that avoid visual protrusions that might draw attention. This provided subokmin with rooms to manoeuvre its interior that better suit their needs.

In other occasions, subokmin ploughed the gardens that were designed specifically to be looked at (by external observers and those on the other side of the border) into food producing vegetable gardens. Arguing that such methods could help boost crop yield, subokmin, overtime, began to construct vinyl greenhouses that could not only help with year-round production, but also provide a visual barrier from the streets for an added benefit of privacy.

The third but less obvious example is found on the streets. Instead of keeping the tidy look of the grid as intended by the planners, subokmin decided to use it for other uses deemed more spatially and economically beneficial: drying chillies. The wide, flat, cement paved streets provided consistent heat, an ideal proportion of shade, and unobstructed ventilation.

Map showing Yugok-ri's change in building footprint between 1973–2019.
Map showing Yugok-ri's change in building footprint between 1973–2019. Credit: Alex Young Il Seo

Instead of the villages serving as a regulated and orderly space which users are expected to operate in passively within its ready-made design, the subokmin's actions challenge the state authority and those who benefit from such order (figure 3). Their veiled acts of spatio-political struggle, found in tiny aspects of daily life, show that subokmin are not passive in relation to their difficult reality, but resist and act politically in order to change it. While many aspects of frontier villages are indeed spaces of discipline and de-subjectivation, seen from the perspective of the residents, frontier villages also appear as spatio-political platforms where new political subjectivities emerge.

Alex Young Il Seo is postdoctoral fellow at the department of architecture, National University of Singapore, and affiliated researcher at the department of architecture, University of Cambridge

Constructing Frontier Villages: Human Habitation at the Korean Borderlands after the Korean War by Alex Young Il Seo was shortlisted in the President's Awards for Research

See the winners of President’s Medals and President’s Awards


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