Flowers Bloom on the Border

Kang Taehee

The Invisible Village

“It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption's gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo's accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites' gnawing.” — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Your Majesty, Khan, I will tell you about a small place called Freedom Village. This village was created when a war broke out almost 70 years ago and surrounding world powers joined the war. As a condition of truce, those countries created a demilitarized zone across the center of the country that divided the North and South. Freedom Village was formed by residents in the South of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), and it has remained until today, contrary to one in the North, which was closed earlier. As this area was a zone that an alliance of many countries had jurisdiction over, at first the village was not governed by the South’s government but by the Allied Forces who had stayed there for public order and security while in charge of civil affairs, which was not the right way to govern an area. Naturally, people’s residences were strictly prohibited here and even residents had to go through roll calls every day to go outside and come home again. As such, this village became an extremely closed area before a strange name, Freedom Village, was given to it. Even after the truce, there were big and small demonstrations of power and conflicts with the DMZ as the border, and the artificially drawn dividing line on the land became even more powerful. As a result, many people in this country became separated from their family members and relatives. They cannot know even whether their family members and relatives are still alive or not. Countless people were dispersed during the war, but artificial separation created by ideology and international power games has added to the number of separated families. To date, separated families in the North and South have anxiously experienced the short and futile moments of meeting their families through rarely realized political events of separated family reunion. Although you conquered so many countries in your life, you’ve never divided one country into two and separated families forever, right? Freedom Village has continued its life in seclusion with these absurd and harsh traces of the war. This is why I introduce this village to Your Majesty.

Without any connection to the area, I needed some stratagems to enter this crippled village, which was bleak from its birth, but I won’t tell you about the process in detail here. I went to the village without hesitation, looking around the cultivated land. I found the village of the midday quiet — very quiet — although I heard that over 200 people live there. There were dilapidated houses and rice paddies filled with rice to be harvested, but there was no hint of anyone around. In this village, which seemed to be so deeply asleep that it would not be easily awaken, the only moving thing was a large-sized flag blowing in the wind at the top of a high steel tower. At first, I thought it might be a pole signifying prayer for a bountiful harvest, but it was a flagpole for the national flag of the South. When looked at closely, there was also a national flag of the North, which was hung much higher than that of the South. All I encountered was a church, an elementary school, an octagonal pavilion, a senior citizen’s center and community hall with bulletproof glass. There were no ramparts, spires, pillared corridors, signboards, alleyways, markets, or an entertainment district that could be seen in other cities. Therefore, I have no stories to tell you as I have described foreign cities through such places. I feel frustrated about how to explain this village even though I have described unfamiliar cities around the world using the words such as “memory,” “desire,” and “symbol.” This is a place where outsiders’ memories suppress residents’ memories; outsiders’ desires replace residents’ desires; and the symbols of a war annihilate the symbols of everyday lives. As a result, this is a village that fits adjectives such as “hidden,” “invisible,” and “continuous.” Will you blame me for being too sentimental if I felt nameless sorrow and rage on the secluded field of the “peaceful” village?

While wondering around the village in search of people, I happened to talk with an elderly lady who spent her whole life there after she married a resident. As almost half of these villagers were separated from their families or lost some from the war, they are descendants of such people. It is said that there is a common law of not uttering the word “war” at all. Although they don’t think a war would break out right away, they still live in the middle of a war in a sense. The landscape of the village that seemed to be bound to the past and make time stand still was caused by the fact that residents have no right to extend or reconstruct their own houses. They also only have a right to cultivate farmland but they even need to accompany soldiers when cultivating some areas. As I told you earlier, this place is disconnected from the outside world and it is not free to enter the village or go out from the village. Amazingly, outsiders can become residents of this village when a man marries a woman without any male sibling and comes to live with his wife’s family here, or when a woman marries a man from this village. If a woman marries an outsider, she has to leave the village, which is a rule to prevent men of this country from taking advantage of marriage in order to be residents of this village. Your Majesty and I know countries maintain incomprehensible marriage systems according to customs, but how can we accept the application of such a pseudo-anthropology simply originated from a war? It is a relief that residents are given an opportunity to choose their own residential area at the age of 32. The benefit for this village may be that its residents are exempt from taxes and obligatory military service while they can continue farming with a certain degree of income guaranteed. In times of serious unemployment and competition, these may prove significant attractions, but unlike elderly people who were born here, grew up here and would die here, many young people have already left this village, they say.

As time went by, the village got the Internet, which was donated by the South government, while some descendants live in a nearby city and commute to do farming. Furthermore, most of the households came to own a car, so their condition got much better than before. However, the true nature of this village—where various regulations and suppression are internalized and people’s lives are reversed temporally and spatially—has not much changed from the past. That is the place where the situation that neither villagers nor people of this country ever wanted has continued for almost 70 years. A village with delayed peace and damaged freedom undoubtedly exists, and it seems difficult to guess its existence through any fable. However, what surprised me most behind all these stories is that the existence of this village is rarely known to the outside, so residents’ lives may still be considered to be a fiction or rumor. Still, there are some people recently who would like to interfere in such a situation. Next, I’ll tell you about tombs they would like to build.

The Hidden Village

“Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.”

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Generous Majesty, Khan, first of all, I have to tell you that these tombs do not actually exist. Although this place will be formed as a large-sized underground family cemetery for all the displaced people in both the North and South, it does not actually exist but is a paper architecture as if it reflected the condition of Freedom Village. In addition to building this cemetery, these people discovered faded photographs and clips of news films to make fake documentary photos and films through image composition and animation. Just as the history of the village is shaped like fiction based on bizarre reality, they are trying to twist it in a weird way by blending reality and virtual reality to interfere in those historic scenes. By recreating the process of producing the existing archive, which was the fruit of power and ideology, they may ask how realistic the history we remember is when compared to this fake documentary. Of course, it is in the same context that they present a cemetery as a virtual architecture.

Here it doesn’t seem necessary to explain the structure of the cemetery to Your Majesty. First, I just let you know that it is an underground burial site, which responds to the ridges and course of a river in DMZ, and an “invisible village” that is not easily revealed to the outside. Including the large-sized oculus at the center, sunlight and wind come in through holes in the ceiling. If you go down underground along the low-ridged lamp, tombs are placed around circular space with different levels. On the floor of the bright interior added with artificial light, there is a lake filled with water around which an underground park is prepared for mourning and rest. The builders hope that this cemetery will become a resting place for people who were dispersed and destroyed due to the war so that they may gather again to stay together; a meeting place for reconciliation and understanding for both the dead and the alive. They dream that visitors coming down to find their separated family members will face the next-life residences of their ancestors and neighbors and then will reunite with them crossing the border of life and death beyond physical existence for a moment.

According to Jean-Luc Nancy, communities are inextricably linked to death. Because we are awake to the finitude of existence only through the death of others. I will translate his ideas. He insists, “Only communities reveal my birth and the impossibility of my overcoming death. Therefore, communities are maintained at the height of power of death. Being together revealed through death means that a community takes shape as it goes through its member’s death.” If the emotional element that makes people obsessed with common existence is death as he insisted, this cemetery would be an optimal site for people to open their eyes to a community. Of course, this community is not a place or territory but a venue for communication. It is “a community without a community” that appears by getting away from the existence of one’s self to be together rather than a fusion of people who share a certain object or goal. It is essential to become an “idle community” that is neither fixed in a systematic frame like ideology, people, and country or structuralized according to a certain goal or plan.[1]

Residents of Freedom Village are literally marginal men as their place for living is on the geopolitical border. It is not very different from the case of people of a divided country where the North and South confront each other. In this context, a scholar, who had left for a faraway foreign country, newly defined a marginal man as a “guide who provides experience of learning others’ language and resolving social conflicts” and he appeals everyone to become a marginal man and to enter the inside of each other. He said, “A border is a militant idea. It is the front line where the enemy and our army confront. However, if this line becomes a plane and a plane becomes a space, the ‘third space’ opens. The border is not the matter of selection between one or the other but it can be one and the other at the same time. Without a creative third space where the North and South can discover each other, [this country] would just be a huge room without an exit.”[2] We have to wait and see whether this cemetery for separated families can become a “creative, third space” or not. However, I wanted to ruminate over at least one poetry line “On every border flowers bloom” as I left the imaginary cemetery. While I am at it, I convey the state of my mind when I was leaving the village, by reading a piece of poem to Your Majesty. 

This autumn morning, you're fast asleep, as precious dew evaporates.

As sunlight shines down further off, the grass tips gleam.

And near the place of early spring easter-lilies, wild chrysanthemums

cluster now, blooming for just a few days.

All you once treasured has vanished, but occasional

tombstones live on, amazed.

Though your bones cry out in this autumn like a rook's feathers,

here in the world where you once lived it may not be so very sad.


You've completed your lives in this world, left only a small death-anniversary behind,

and now there's no time-past in the world; you alone bring time-past into being.

Close to the earth, a yellow butterfly flies by, by chance perhaps, or perhaps by mistake,

and all autumn long keeps repeating over a tomb that there are graves in heaven, too.

No one comes visiting you now, you simply lie here in your graves;

your descendants will be coming soon.[3]

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, La communauté désœuvrée, Park Sang-joon (trans.), Goyang: Ingansarang, 2010.

[2] Song Du-yul, Ice on Fire, Seoul: Humanitas, 2017.

[3] Ko Un, “Song of a Cemetery, ” translated from Korean into English by Brother Anthony of Taizé.