Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Lost Villages of the DMZ

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas takes its shape from the battle lines that existed at the time of its creation in 1953 as part of the Armistice, which froze the Korean War but didn't officially end it.

During three years of war, North Korea was heavily bombed and the area that became the DMZ was turned into a veritable wasteland. 

DigitalNK map showing the concentration of US B-29 bombing targets during the Korean War.

But, of course, the area that became the DMZ had previously been home to villages, families, and farms. According to the International Institute for Asian Studies the areas encompassed by the DMZ had 466 villages and 20 townships, all of which were destroyed either during the course of the war or permanently emptied as part of the creation of the DMZ in 1953. 

This rural expanse across the peninsula was where life played out for the thousands of people who had worked the land for centuries. It crosses coastal terrain, plains, wetlands, forests, and mountains, and was also home to thousands of plant and animal species.

The DMZ with 1969 map overlay.

Using a 1969 Central Intelligence Agency map of the DMZ as an overlay, I began to mark the general locations of former villages on satellite. I then referred back to the original maps from the 1953 Armistice agreement to help me improve the accuracy of each location placement, using river bends, bridges, known hills, and coastal features to keep each of the nine map sections aligned as accurately as possible.

Map overlays from the 1953 Armistice. 

The scales of the two maps differ and the CIA map is 1:250,000, meaning it could only serve as a general guide in the initial process. But the 1953 maps are scaled at 1:50,000, and so I am fairly confident that, for the purposes of this article, I was able to locate each village within 50-70 meters of their center.

Geolocated former villages along the DMZ.

In total, I was able to mark 139 of the larger former villages and towns (on either side of the Military Demarcation Line). After 71 years, very little to anything still remains. Wooden structures would have been torn down or burned and stone foundations would have likely been removed to be used on buildings elsewhere; sporadic fires are also lit to help clear the land and maintain lines of sight for the military.

Additionally, as noted by IIAS, although the original DMZ stipulates an area 4 km wide, the firm boundaries have shifted over the decades leaving today's DMZ approximately 40% smaller than what was first envisioned. In the areas that were cleared for the DMZ but that do not lie within the fenced-off "no man's land", the land that once held many of the lost villages is still used in agriculture for reeds, pasture, and crop cultivation.

This means that on top of erosion caused by time, the villages have been subjected to farming activities that further degrade their ruins, slowly erasing any traces left.

An example of this can be seen at the former villages in an area called Sasi-ri (38.006801° 126.785957°), which, despite being within the 1953 DMZ boundary, some lay nearly 1.5 km outside of today's DMZ fences. The only manmade structures now visible are North Korean military sites.

The area of Sasi-ri. The vegetation shows up very clearly on this Oct. 26, 2016 satellite image. The white line is the original DMZ path as laid out in the Armistice. The yellow line is the secondary fence, and the black line is the primary DMZ fence on the North Korean side.

At the far end of the DMZ, along the East Sea, the former town of P'ooejin now serves as a garden plot for a North Korean guard post. And the village of Kangjong has been replaced by the south-north Mt. Kumgang highway.

P'ooejin and Kangjong. 

There are also examples of what are possible reminders of the war itself - a series of bomb craters in the hillsides at 38.043244° 126.831477°. Four villages were within 1 km of the site, Hagomil-tong, Sanggomil-tong, Padaul, and Polmal. Other such sites exist elsewhere along the DMZ.

Several craters have been highlighted in this image. Given their location within the DMZ, they would not have been caused by artillery exercises.

One of the largest former settlements is on the South Korean side and was called Tongjang-ni (37.900293° 126.689618°). Today, the road built as part of the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex runs along the northern outskirts of the former town. Hints of the town's main road may still be visible but without direct exploration of the area, the image is open to interpretation. 

Location of Tongjang-ni.

The war also resulted in the destruction of historic places, and the creation of the DMZ has prevented further archeological study of some. Based on the 1953 maps, this site is an ancient fortress. It is the only one I know of that still retains clear remains within the DMZ itself, but there are several other historic forts on both banks of the Han River estuary; access to which is limited due to the border security situation.

Outline of the fort's walls.

Despite the passage of time, interest in these lost villages remains and the South Korean Ministry of Unification re-created several of the larger villages virtually within the Metaverse in 2022.

As the last former residents pass away, the living memory of these places may vanish. But with modern tools like satellite archeology, they can remain within our collective memory. 

For those interested, I am making the Google Earth file with the 1953 overlays and the 139 village locations available to all paid Patreon supporters upon request.

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters who help make all of this possible: Alex Kleinman, David M., Amanda Oh, Donald Pierce, Dylan D, Joe Bishop-Henchman, Jonathan J, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, and Squadfan.

--Jacob Bogle, May 21, 2024