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Constructing Frontier Villages: Human Habitation in the South Korean Borderlands after the Korean War

Alex Young Il Seo

Year submitted: 2019
Supervised by: Prof Wendy Pullan

The inter-Korean border is often considered to be purely a politico-militaristic problem which renders the space of the border static, homogeneous, and empty of human habitation. However, a closer examination reveals a highly dynamic border full of discrepancies which is, in fact, inhabited by people from both sides of North and South Korea. The 65 years of military division has, despite the ongoing hostility, spawned distinctive forms of architecture and village planning in the South Korean borderlands called the frontier village. Constructed within visible proximity from North Korea, the frontier villages have become an image of the state, portraying South Korea’s political aspirations across the length of its border. This dissertation examines how the frontier village is used by the state and at the same time by the villagers as a critical instrument to achieve, administer and negotiate certain outcomes.

The research focuses on the frontier villages in South Korea’s Cheorwon county since their creation after the Korean War until the last year of their construction in 1979, and in further villager initiatives since. As the region has experienced a territorial shift from North to South, it is particularly informative for frontier dynamics. The first half of the dissertation looks at the nature of borders, borderlands and the South Korean frontier in general, while the second half of the research examines the frontier village’s complex role in South Korea. On the one hand, it explores how the state used the frontier village to facilitate political and territorial objectives, and, on the other, how the villagers used it as a platform for their struggle against the authoritarian vision by developing, augmenting, and enhancing their houses and spaces around them in their everyday life. 

Alex Young Il Seo photo