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How dangerous is life near the Korean DMZ?
02:11 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Residents of Jung Myeon were evacuated during the last spat between North and South Korea

A North Korean anti-aircraft shell landed near the small village one afternoon

Both countries appeared to be on the brink of armed military conflict

Jung Myeon, South Korea CNN  — 

At the edge of the world’s most heavily militarized border sits a village so small and isolated you can hardly hear a sound on its main street.

A rooster crows at the rare vehicle that makes its way along the narrow road, while nearby homes lie neglected and overgrown with weeds.

But at noon, an unmistakable sound punctuates the bucolic valley – patriotic South Korean military songs and the army chanting in nearby hills as soldiers run through midday drills.

Some 210 people live in Jung Myeon, a town barely two miles (3.2 km) from the North Korean border.

The southern edge of the demilitarized zone, or the DMZ, is even closer. Few in the town seem to know the exact distance and they don’t seem to care to find out.

That information would make little difference to Kim Shin-je’s life. “I hear ‘boom’ sounds all the time,” says Kim. “Even when the military tanks go by, I’m not afraid. I’m immune to it.”

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Kim and her husband, Park Chum-se, have tolerated the ever-present threat from their northern neighbor for 40 years, marrying and raising three children here. But Pyongyang intruded on their lives on August 20, when North Korea launched a 14.5mm anti-aircraft shell across the DMZ, landing near Jung Myeon in the middle of the afternoon.

The DPRK was aiming at a giant speaker South Korea erected near the town that was blasting propaganda messages from the free world: news about capitalism and democracy and playing South Korean pop music. South Korea responded minutes later, firing multiple shells into the North.

Evacuation order

Jung Myeon’s township leader, Park Yong-ho, heard the North Korean shell land near the village as well as his country’s response. “We heard South Korea fire the retaliation shots,” he says. “Then came the evacuation orders.”

Park then tells us how he headed to the village’s emergency broadcast center, where speakers positioned across the valley projected his voice: “Evacuate immediately. Head to the bunkers.”

Kim Shin-je knew exactly what to do, because she and the other Jung Myeon residents drilled the evacuation an innumerable amount of times. “But this is the first time we’ve actually evacuated,” she says.

Kim and her husband helped her 95-year-old mother to the township office, home to one of two underground bunkers in the area. They navigated down the two dozen concrete steps into the purpose-built shelter.

The government built the bomb shelter in 2011, pledging it could withstand most direct hits from North Korean artillery fire. The windowless room holds 100 people, and is temperature controlled and ventilated thanks to a generator.

The storage area holds enough water and food for a few days, and there are two toilets for the bunker’s inhabitants. There’s also a television so the evacuated can watch news broadcasts from the outside world. It’s comfortable but would quickly become difficult to remain inside.

North Korean threat

Sitting on plastic tarps laid on the bunker’s floors, they watched the news bulletins on the shelter’s only TV, craning their necks around their neighbors.

The reports were alarming – Kim Jong Un declared his troops prepare for “all-out war” with South Korea and the U.S. North Korea’s military followed the order, doubling its forces on the northern side of the DMZ, just miles from Jung Myeon.

South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye said her country would not back away without an apology from Pyongyang for planting land mines in the DMZ that seriously injured two South Korean soldiers. Both countries appeared to be on the brink of armed military conflict.

They eagerly watched as the two Koreas met at Panmunjom – an abandoned village in the DMZ where the 1953 armistice that silenced the guns in the Korean War was signed, hopeful that it meant the evacuation order would soon lift.

But these were not just ordinary talks. It had been eight years since the two Koreas sent in their highest-level envoys for negotiations. The talks stretched into days.

“For five days there was an emergency,” gripes Park Chum-se.

“My entire family evacuated to the shelter. We were there that entire time.” Park says his wife’s 95-year-old mother’s health deteriorated while he worried about his crops.

Park and his wife are like most in Jung Myeon, farmers. They own a small field in these lush hills, growing peppers and green vegetables. They also run the town’s only market.

Park kept imagining the insects eating away at his crops, as he watched the news bulletins repeating old information, hour after hour.

Among the evacuated residents, irritation was mounting at the town’s evacuation order and the government’s ease at letting reporters into the bunker to take pictures of them. Park and his wife tired of how North Korea’s young leader could throw their entire livelihood into jeopardy.

“Kim Jong Un is surrounded by older people,” says Kim. “And they’re bowing in front of him. How can they yield to such a young person?”

Tiresome pattern

“North Koreans and South Koreans share the same blood,” says Park. He doesn’t finish the thought, distracted by the years of skirmishes he’s seen and the hopelessness of the unending strife between the two Koreas.

“Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, the North Koreans have all been saying they’re going to start war,” says Kim. “I’ve always heard this. It’s been decades.”

The repetition of the pattern – threats, a military skirmish, then a temporary truce – has gotten so tiresome to Jung Myeon that when the Koreas announced an agreement was reached, ending the current conflict, Kim and Park didn’t celebrate.

As soon as the evacuation order on Jung Myeon lifted, the couple immediately returned to their fields to spray pesticides on their crops.

Life quickly returned to normal in Jung Myeon, says the village’s township leader, Park Yong-ho.

If there was any change, says Park, the shell landing close to his town and the evacuation into the bunkers elevated his sense of determined nationalism. “If there’s an clash where north and south exchange fire near here, I am ready to fight back as a South Korean resident. I’m not anxious and I won’t leave this area because of a threat.”

Youth drain

For the rest of the town, nationalism doesn’t prevail.

Their focus is more on survival. After tending to their fields, Kim and Park returned to their store, taking in a shipment of soju, Korea’s popular distilled rice liquor.

The shelves Park stocks are dusty, neglected and completely bare except for the liquor, some eggs and dry packets of ramen noodles. There’s a reason why – most of the residents of Jung Myeon, especially the young, have left. The town’s population has only dwindled over the decades. The town bears few signs of youth, for barely any children live here.

The shelling and the evacuation are over, says Kim. “It ended that day. We can’t think about North Korea. We think about what we have to do today and tomorrow.”

The couple stays here because for them, it’s home. They and their neighbors are also under no illusion what life next to North Korea means, unlike the 10 million city residents of Seoul, who live 35 miles (56 km) south of the DMZ, riding out these skirmishes with seeming indifference.

“People in Seoul ask me how I live here,” says Kim. “If the North Koreans are going to hit anything, it’s gonna be Seoul, not here. If the North really does attack, we’ll probably all die.”

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