Yeoncheon (South Korea) (AFP) – The way to rice farmer Choi Ki-joong’s paddy fields goes through a military checkpoint where soldiers stand guard against nuclear-armed North Korea only a few kilometres away, a legacy of the war that stopped in 1953.
Declaring a formal end to the Korean War, when hostilities ceased with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, will be on the agenda when US President Donald Trump and the North’s leader Kim Jong Un meet next week in Singapore for their unprecedented summit.
Although residents living along the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean peninsula have grown indifferent to the propaganda broadcasts and gunfire that punctuate their daily existence, they still hope the diplomatic drive will lead to peace.
Choi lives in the northernmost border village of Samgotri in Yeoncheon county, alongside the DMZ. The 75-year-old is only allowed to access his fields during daylight hours, and at times of high tensions cannot do so at all.
“We just put up with it and live our daily lives,” he said. “We can live like this, in peace with no war, or if both sides want it we can hold hands and live together as Koreans and go back and forth.”
Yeoncheon county saw heavy fighting during the war, including the ‘Battle of Pork Chop Hill’ which killed thousands of US and Chinese troops.
US Vice President Mike Pence’s father was among the Americans who took part and received a Bronze Star for his service — which now sits on Pence’s desk in his White House office.
The rural farming area, only 60 kilometres away from the capital Seoul, brims with the legacy of a war that never technically ended.
A group of soldiers patrolled Samgotri’s empty roads on a weekday afternoon, where a fading wooden sign read: “If you want true peace, be ready for war.”
In recent years, the residents have been forced to evacuate twice after the North fired gunshots and artillery rounds to protest the South’s propaganda activities along the border.
The holes made by North Korean bullets in 2014 are on display in front of the district office as a glaring reminder, with a quote: “The war has not ended. We are still in a truce.”
– ‘Used to gunshots’ –
But the villagers’ sense of fear has diminished.
“We are quite used to gunshots and artillery rounds,” one man told AFP, loading bags of cucumbers onto his truck.
His indifference is shared by other South Koreans along the border.
“I actually feel safer” with Seoul’s armed forces nearby, said Lee Kyung-ae, who runs a cold noodle restaurant in Myungpari, at the eastern end of the DMZ.
The sound of the South’s artillery drills has become so frequent she has “stopped paying attention”, Lee said.
Her village, on the way to the North’s scenic Mount Kumgang resort, prospered when South Korean tourists flocked across the border until Seoul banned the programme 10 years ago after a Northern soldier shot dead one of the visitors.
The recent peace-making efforts on the peninsula could bring travellers back to her village, Lee said, and to her restaurant, named after the North Korean capital.
A formal declaration to end the conflict could gradually reduce the number of troops stationed along the Korean border.
For Heo Beom-koo, who has sold backpacks, face paint and other military goods to soldiers in Yanggu county for around 40 years, that would mean a major setback in business.
“That’s my problem,” Heo said. “As a South Korean … I think an improvement in relations between the US and North Korea is necessary.”
If things go really well, the 63-year-old imagines he could even relocate his store to the North, “since the military is vital for defending the Korean peninsula”.
But if conflict erupts again he has a different vision for his future.
“If a war breaks out, I will take all these goods to the military and fight the war with the army.”