North Korea's creepy fake civilian village fools no one

Alastair Bonnett welcomes you to a fake place. The lights go on and off, and the roads are periodically swept clean, but the windows have no glass and there are no residents behind them. Kijong-dong, also called Peace Village, was built in the 1950s to lure potential defectors to North Korea, a display of the communist state’s progress and modernity. The question is, what remorseless logic keeps it going?

By Alastair Bonnett at 4:00 am Tue, Jul 8, 2014

Full-scale simulated cities are rare. They are sometimes called Potemkin villages, after the Russian minister who supposedly had fake villages built, complete with glowing fireplaces, in the recently conquered lands of the Crimea. It is said that he hoped to convince Catherine II that this was a prosperous and well-populated land. Unfortunately, there seems to be little truth in this legend. Better examples come from the Second World War, when decoy towns were quite common. One of the largest was a fake Paris, built to attract enemy bombers away from the real city. But this was a hasty job, gimcrack in comparison to Kijongdong. The idea of a permanent fake civilian village, deployed to make people across the border think things are going well, seems to be uniquely North Korean.

Peace Village is a product of the armistice treaty signed in 1953 between North and South Korea. A 4-kilometer-wide demilitarized buffer was established between the two nations and each was permitted one settlement within this 250-kilometer- long no man’s land. The South decided to retain the rice-farming village of Daeseong-dong. The North Koreans chose to build Kijong-dong directly opposite it, about a mile across the frontier. It was a much larger place, and images from Google Earth show a sprawling town comprising three main centers, interspersed with farmland. Each of the centers has rows of what appear to be very large houses or public buildings, many with large gardens. Although it does not feature on many maps of the country, Kijong-dong was built to impress. The costly blue-tiled roofs on many of the concrete buildings and the electric power supply proclaim an anachronistic vision of luxury and success. In the context of the thatch-roofed peasant buildings typical of the area in the 1950s, Kijong-dong must have looked like the future. At the time, mass housing and electrification were symbols of communist progress, but it is unlikely that observers from south of the border find them impressive today. They know that North Korea is poor and that it is one of the least illuminated countries in Asia. Nighttime satellite photographs show it as a pitchy emptiness surrounded by brightly lit neighbors.

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The official North Korean position is that Kijong-dong is a thriving community; that it contains a large collective farm (run by two hundred families) and many social services, such as schools and a hospital. Yet Kijong-dong is so close to the border that, with the aid of binoculars, people can see it is empty. And plenty of people do. During lulls in the level of hostility between the two countries, the border crossing draws a steady flow of tourists. They are eager to step across the demilitarized zone into the rarely visited nation to the north. Visitors, who are warned not to make eye contact with North Korean soldiers or gesture at them in any way, are taken to the nearby village of Panmunjom, from which Kijong-dong is even closer, clearly visible in the distance, though it is still very much off-limits. Panmunjom’s only attraction is the pleasure of straying into a forbidden zone. Tourists may also thrill to the official South Korean warning that their little journey across the border “will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.”

Other, newer propaganda tools also compete for the skyline. A nearby 525-foot North Korean flagpole, erected in retaliation for South Korea’s putting up a 323-foot flagpole in Daeseong-dong, was, for a while, the world’s tallest. Yet Kijong-dong remains a potent and, until recently, noisy symbol. Until 2004 loudspeakers on its empty buildings pumped out denunciatory speeches and patriotic operas across the fields almost every hour of the day and night. After a few years of silence, in 2010 the speakers went back on, not long after the North Koreans had sunk a South Korean submarine, killing forty-six of its crew.

Kijong-dong may seem like a novelty, but it is part of a twentieth-century tradition of hollow architectural spectacles. Communist regimes from Moscow to Beijing often indulged in monumental and monumentally useless buildings. They were built as expressions of revolutionary zeal and the permanence of the new order. What are we to make of the 1,100 rooms of Bucharest’s Palace of Parliament (a.k.a. the House of Ceau˛sescu), the second-largest building in the world, which was still being furnished when Nicolae Ceau˛sescu was thrown from power in 1989? Or Bulgaria’s Buzludzha Monument, a vast spaceship-shaped tribute to communism, filled with garish murals, that sits, remote and inaccessible, on the top of a mountain? Kijong-dong is part of a long tradition of clumsy architectural propaganda. It is a tradition that celebrates symbolism over utility, gesture over substance. It seems desperate for everyone to admire it but only at a distance — it’s a psychopolitical complex that doesn’t just spawn fakes but lovingly maintains them.

Across North Korea, monuments to prosperity and progress abound. The country is home to an Arc of Triumph, the largest arch in the world, which stands over a mostly empty highway. Built in 1982, the arch is inscribed with the “Song of General Kim Il Sung” and made up of 25,550 bricks, one for each day of Kim’s life. There are also the vast stone women that make up the span of the Three Charters for National Reunification monument, which yawns over another empty road. High above the capital, the 170-meter Juche Tower commemorates the seventieth birthday of the man who brought the country to its present parlous state, Kim Il Sung. It looks down at military parades during which fake missiles are trundled out for the benefit of an admiring world.

As part of their unsuccessful efforts to cohost the 1988 Olympics, held in South Korea, the North Koreans also built cavernous and little-used sports arenas. In the capital, Pyongyang, Chongchun Street is lined with a huge table tennis stadium, a handball gymnasium, and a tae kwon do hall. Most spectacular of all is the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, one of the world’s largest hotels and the tallest building in North Korea. Its colossal pyramid shape dominates the capital. Building started in 1987, but it is still not finished, and it is unlikely that the hotel will ever attract the foreign tourists or investors it was supposedly designed for. It is another fake, a nostalgic ruin of the future that pretends, like Kijong-dong, to want to lure us in but actually doesn’t want anyone anywhere near.

Excerpt from Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies.. Copyright © 2014 by Alastair Bonnett. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Published 4:00 am Tue, Jul 8, 2014

About the Author

Alastair Bonnett is Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University. The author of numerous academic texts, he served as editor of the avant-garde, psycho-geographical magazine Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration.

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