Inside the barbed-wire walls of Korea's Demilitarized Zone, schoolchildren in the hamlet known as "Freedom Village" competed Tuesday in foot races and showed off their traditional drumming skills.
Taesungdong Elementary School opened up its schoolyard to guests on Sports Day, offering outsiders a rare glimpse into life inside the world's most heavily armed Demilitarized Zone.
Just 1 1/2 miles away, across a field of rice paddies, North Korea's DMZ village of Kijongdong was quiet, with few signs of life in apartment blocks as empty as an abandoned movie set.
The Demilitarized Zone bisecting the Korean peninsula was created in 1953 when the three-year conflict between north and south — a bloody, protracted war that claimed millions of lives — ended in an armistice. Running from coast to coast, the buffer zone is 250 miles long and just 2 1/2 miles wide.
Each side was allowed to keep a showcase town. Villagers from the farming community of Taesungdong stayed put, under strict conditions: Soldiers carry out a daily head count and residents must be home by 11 p.m. But there are perks. The men are exempt from South Korea's military service and Taesungdong families don't pay rent or tax.
Today, the town has just 198 inhabitants, all pre-Korean War residents and their descendants. The only outsiders allowed to stay are the wives of Taesungdong men. Daughters who marry outsiders must leave, Mayor Kim Dong-hyun said.
The verdant, yellow-green rice paddies look like those that dot the countryside across South Korea — but with a backdrop of barbed wire. The village has a church, an elementary school, restaurants and a few dozen homes.
But its most famous feature is the 330-foot-tall flagpole overlooking the schoolyard, built in the 1980s.
Not to be outdone, North Korea built an even bigger one. At 525 feet high, the flagpole is one of the world's tallest.
Viewed through a telescope, Kijongdong — known in the North as "Peace Village" and in the South as "Propaganda Village" — appeared nearly lifeless Tuesday. The rows of two- and three-story concrete apartment blocks with their sky-blue roofs looked empty.
Two people were spotted sitting by the fields, another riding a bicycle, but there was no sign of farmers.
On the southern side, Taesungdong's farmers grow prized organic rice, greens, beans and chili peppers in the shadow of the military and North Korea's towering flagpole. Villagers are well aware they are in a danger zone.
"They feel it. They can see it," said Lt. Col. John Rhodes, the American commander of the United Nations Command Security Battalion-Joint Security Area. "They can see KPA (Korean People's Army) soldiers (from North Korea) when they're out in the fields farming."
Recent speculation about the health of North Korea's Stalinist leader, Kim Jong Il, has trained even more eyes on the border. The 66-year-old leader has not been seen in public in more than a month, and South Korean and U.S. officials say he suffered a stroke. Some fear if Kim dies with no named successor, the regime could collapse, sending hordes of North Koreans fleeing.
Rhodes says his command's mission is to keep the village safe. But he said he also wants to bring a bit of the wider world to tiny, closed-off Taesungdong.
"I grew up in West Virginia, so this area's similar to me: It's country," he said.
Rhodes, who has been in Korea since 2006 and took over command of the Joint Security Area in June, has worked to help bring children from outside the DMZ to the school by bus, said councilor Jung Hun-mo of the Gyeonggi Provincial Board of Education.
Americans teach English
Rhodes said he arranged to send four Americans to the school twice a week to teach English — including his 17-year-old daughter, who spent last summer vacation teaching in Taesungdong.
Last year, the school had just nine students. Now there are 21, Rhodes said with a smile as students vied to hold his hand and jump on his back before the games — relays, volleyball, tug-of-war — began.
Teacher Kim Bok-hee, 47, said the school is "very different" — not only because the students have access to native English speakers but also because of the bond she's formed with her three second-grade pupils.
"I see the same three faces every day," she said. "I don't think of them just as students — I think of them as my children."