20. December 2011 / Jessica Bridger
Kijong Dong – Potemkin Landscape
Oddities in the built environment as the result of political forces underline the power of the landscape. North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il recently passed away in mid-December 2011. The eccentric leader of the world’s only communist “monarchy” – Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung was leader before him, and his third son Kim Jong Un will succeed him as the leader of North Korea. The village of Kijung Dong is one example of the reliance of the North Korean state on appearances that deviate sharply from reality.
Kijong Dong is located in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea and it is one of these oddities created by politics. “Potemkin” is the term given to buildings erected for the purpose of deception, to create a certain impression. Built by the North Korean government, Kijong Dong looks like an ideal town from afar, but all accounts point to it being a hoax of a place, with empty buildings that are merely shells made from poured concrete. Kijong Dong is a Potemkin landscape, as it exists in the DMZ for the purpose of propaganda. Kijong Dong was constructed to show the neighboring South Koreans the wonders that a communist state can bring even to the ordinary farmer. It is a utopia of sorts, in a country full of empty four-lane highways and monolithic concrete buildings cracked and crumbling even in the capital city Pyongyang, seen below.
In 1953 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly known as North Korea, and the Republic of Korea, commonly known as South Korea, signed an armistice treaty to end the armed conflict in the Korean War. (Technically the two countries are still at war as no peace treaty was ever signed) The treaty established the 250-kilometer long, 4-kilometer wide demilitarized zone. The DMZ is lined with extensive military forces from either side, as well as neutral peacekeeping forces from the United States, Switzerland and Sweden. Both North and South Korea were allowed to maintain one settlement each in the DMZ. The south chose Desung Dong, an existing rural village. In the north, the North Korean government created a wholly new village, Kijong Dong, directly across from Desung Dong.
Kijong Dong was erected in the 1950s as a showpiece for the marvels of a communist state, and the bright blue roof over each of the central buildings reinforces this image. These roofs, striking in the Google satellite map below, were a long-standing status symbol in Korea. Even in the 1950s blue tiles were expensive, more so than earthenware ones, and even more than a simple village style thatched roof. The relative effectiveness of this surface treatment is evidenced by the echoed color on the roofs of Desung Dong. More recently, blue roofs have become much more commonplace across South Korea with modern materials and paints, but at the time the sight of the blue roofs of Kijong must have been impressive at first glance.
That the Kijong Dong also had electricity and modernized concrete buildings was exceptional. The map below, from the US Department of Defense, makes it clear that North Korea is still largely dark in comparison to surrounding countries.
North Korea is completely unmarked on Google maps, aside from the Pyongyang, the capital. Photos of Kijong Dong come from photographers equipped with long-range zoom lenses shooting from the South Korean side of the DMZ. In May of 2011, the photographer behind dailypropaganda.com, the source of our photos of Kijong Dong, noted:
“I took these shots with a 300mm Nikon lens about 100 feet from the actual border, in the company of the US military. The official position of the North Korean government is that the village contains a 200-family collective farm, childcare center, clinic, and primary and secondary schools. US and South Korean observation has noted that the village is basically empty.”
The construction of Kijong Dong is a political move at the scale of the landscape. A neighboring city looks to be half destroyed or simply crumbling through neglect. North Korea is completely blank in Google Maps "map" function, with nothing marked aside from Pyongyang. Other map sources have scant and possibly inaccurate information, adding to the confusion over names and locations of even the most basic things.
North Korea has one of the worst human rights records in the world, and it is also one of the most secretive and repressive countries. Hundreds of thousands (and possibly a few million) people have died of starvation in North Korea over the last decades. With a huge population living in extreme poverty, completely isolated, living with only a state-mediated version of the outside world, North Korea will surely change with the significant transference of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. If this means that the deception, repression and deprivation of North Korea’s people, in structures both built and unbuilt, will lessen is unknown.
Thank you to Joonhyun Kim and Leena Cho for their assistance with this article.
Photo of Pyongyang from The Big Picture's excellent collection of international press photos of North Korea
More information about the US Department of Defense’s mapping of nighttime light sources in North Korea can be found here: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/dprk/dprk-dark.htm