It is a futuristic, metal-and-glass complex that would grace any port, airport or city center in Asia, but the Inter-Korean Transit Office, set in the rolling hills south of the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea’s northeast, may just be one of the most forlorn places in the country.
Its dual train tracks and broad highway, heading north, are devoid of traffic. Inside, its metal detectors are turned off, its immigration desks empty, its telephones silent. Its cavernous interior is flooded with light, but it is almost eerily silent; only the tramp of two camouflaged South Korean soldiers , patrolling through, echo across the hall. The cutting-edge complex, built at a cost of US$13 million to the South Korean taxpayer, would today make an ideal set for a post-Armageddon zombie thriller.
It was not ever thus.
Between 2003 and 2008, amid the heady days of the “Sunshine Policy” of Seoul-Pyongyang engagement, the now-empty precincts were all a-bustle. Millions of eager South Korean tourists started their journeys here, heading through the DMZ for a resort nestled among the peaks and forests of Mt. Geumgang (also spelled Mt. Kumgang), just 27km away in North Korea.
In 2008, it all stopped. A South Korean, who had unwittingly strayed beyond the resort’s bounds , was shot dead by a North Korean soldier. Trips were halted. With the Hyundai-run resort in the North vacated, the once-clamorous Inter-Korean Transport Office fell into disuse. The final nail in the coffin came in 2010, when, after North Korea sank a corvette and shelled an island, Seoul sanctioned all tourism to North Korea.
This means that Woo Gye-keun, of South Korea’s Unification Ministry, has little to do. The cheerful official, who oversees eight staff assigned to the office, looked delighted to meet a visiting delegation of foreign reporters. “We just do routine maintenance,” he said when queried about his duties. “And welcome guests like you!”
His modest staff, and the troops who are ubiquitous across northern Gangwon, the divided province that recently hosted the Winter Olympiad are the only life animating the Inter-Korean Transit Office. (“We don’t call it an immigration office,” said Woo. “We are one country!”)
But there are hopes that now, after a decade of near-total disuse – a few thousand visits, such as divided families members heading for the infrequent reunions held in the North, have taken place since 2008 – the facility will jerk back to life.
The first inter-Korean summit since 2007 is scheduled for April 27. The first-ever North Korea-US summit follows in May or June. While Koreans have been disappointed by false hopes before, there are hopes that this time maybe – just maybe – things may change for the better.
“After the inter-Korean summit, South Korean sanctions could be lifted,” said Woo, referencing the 2010 halt on tourism north of the DMZ. Though conceding that “there are processes we need to follow,” he expressed hopes that many share. “Most UN sanctions are US sanctions, so after a summit between North Korean and the USA, things could move faster than we anticipate.”
Across Gangwon – the only divided province on the divided peninsula – Woo is far from the only one harboring similarly hopeful expectations.
South Korea’s northern-most village
Set in a pretty bowl of low hills just south of the DMZ is South Korea’s northernmost village: Myeongpa-ri. Here, some 300 people live in 152 little, orange- and blue-roofed houses, many fronted with South Korean flags. “A large number of elderly live here, one-third of villagers are senior citizens,” said Village Head Chang Sok-gwan, 63. “We have almost no children; almost all left for the cities.”
The village’s main street offers two BnBs, two shops, one restaurant – and that’s it. It used to boast a market selling local produce to those heading for the Inter Korean Tourism Office and Mount Geumgang. It has long gone.
“We are in a regrettable situation,” Chang said. As if on cue, a sound like thunder rumbled in the distance: Shooting practice from a firing range over the hills. “With the Olympics, we could see a communication channel that had long been severed re-open,” he continued. “As a resident, I find the inter-Korean summit very encouraging.”
If, cross-border tours restart, Chang anticipates local benefits. “We could develop some industry – accommodations, restaurants, farming experiences, and so on,” he said. If not, things will continue. Problematically, some village territory is military controlled, so can only be accessed between 6 am and 8 am, Chang said. “We need to find a way to co-prosper,” he said.
Chang’s sentiments were mirrored at a nearby tourist attraction: A hilltop observatory overlooking the DMZ. It boasts a war museum, mothballed aircraft, howitzers and armored vehicles, and observation decks overlooking a gorgeous coastline – completely deserted – and the mountains of North Korea.
“I hope to see South and North reunify peacefully and quickly,” said Lee Eun-kyung, a pretty 18-year-old visiting the observatory with a gaggle of friends. “We are afraid of war and nuclear weapons are very scary. We hope to live in peace.”
For some in this part of Korea, these hopes are more personal.
Village of emigres
The port of Sockho lies on Korea’s east coast, some 50 km south of the DMZ. At its center sprout the high-rise apartments of urban South Korea, but perhaps its most fascinating neighborhood is a little village on the beach. Here, the statue of an old-fashioned, elderly gent with barbed wire wrapped around the sculpture’s base, proclaims it name: “Abai Maeul.” (Literally, “Fathers’ Village.”)
In winter 1950, the Korea War was raging at apocalyptic intensity. US-led UN and South Korean troops, had been driven into a desperate winter retreat by China’s thunderbolt intervention. Some 700,000 North Korean refugees – Christians; anti-communists; desperate families fleeing the UN’s “scorched earth” policy – flooded south.
One group, from the country’s northeast, made their new homes as close to their old homes as they could. “We were supposed to go back to North Korea eventually,” said Park Kyung-soo, 72, who arrived from North Korea aged three. But the war never ended, and the DMZ entrenched national division. “My parents would say that they wished to go back,” Park recalled of the couple. who passed away two decades ago. “I could feel their yearning for their hometown.’
Some 6,000 persons settled in Abai, building shelters on the seashore and making a living as fishermen. Life was hard. The tide washed through the alleys; villagers climbed into mountains for firewood and rooted through US Army garbage for food. There was a sense of displacement. “My parents suffered greatly,” Park, who now runs a seafront restaurant, said. “They suffered stigma, they did not feel at home.”
The wartime poverty has been eradicated; South Korea is now the world’s 11th richest nation. Abai Village is today a tourist destination, noted for its higgledy-piggedly alleyways, low-rise architecture, and restaurants serving North Korean specialties. Exhibits recall the old days: a reproduction bullock cart; photographs of wartime refugees.
Still, many cottages are run down and its population has fallen to 4,000. Abai offers charm, but few visitors would want to reside here. At its rear, a highway overpass frames a poignant view of distant mountains – the “dragon’s back” that rolls across the DMZ, through North Korean and into Manchuria.
Residents are invested in the upcoming summits. “Villagers here have hope and have faith that [President Moon Jae-in] will do what he can,” Park said. Anticipation burns brightest among the last refugees from the war: barely 100, well into their twilight years, remain alive. “The first generation hopes to see reunification,” she said. “They hope to set foot in their hometowns before they die.”