Tug of war: the legacy of conflict with N Korea is now a tourist attraction in the South

14-Feb-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

North Korea’s scenic Mount Kumgang can be seen far off in the west behind rolling hills, but a South Korean soldier has his sights set on the opposite direction. “This is the so-called Anchor Hill where Kim Jong-un conducted the artillery exercise in July 2014,” another soldier explains, as the screen from a surveillance camera shows a low hill and the beautiful white sand of a beach where Kim oversaw a massive live-fire drill involving hundreds of heavy weapons.

Welcome to the Kumgang Observation Post, from which visitors can see the military outposts of both Koreas in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) a misnomer for the heavily fortified 250km border dividing the Korean peninsula into communist North and capitalist South.

The rivals’ closest military outposts are located just 580 metres from each other, in Kosong. Both sides had been moving their fortifications closer and closer over the decades despite the 1953 armistice, under which they are meant to preserve the 4km-wide DMZ as a buffer zone.

Now the screen shows a two-storey barracks flying a North Korean flag, a tunnel dug into a hill to conceal a cannon, and a lake near the beach where soldiers from the hermit kingdom can be seen swimming in the summer.

A few kilometres from the lake are a road and a railway leading to Mount Kumgang, though once-lucrative tours to the resort area have been suspended since 2008 when a tourist was shot dead by North Korean soldiers after straying into an area off limits to all but military personnel.

Last year, the two sides demolished 10 such outposts each, allowing inspections from the other side for verification, as part of an agreement to reduce tensions along the border where an accidental exchange of fire could turn into a major conflict.

Critics argue the move was disadvantageous for South Korea which had 60 such facilities before the demolitions began, while the North had 160 even though the South has electronic surveillance tools.

As access to restricted areas along the border have eased following the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, tours near the border have become popular, attracting 1.7 million tourists in 2017 alone.

The number is believed to have increased considerably last year due to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, in which the North took part, heralding a diplomatic thaw that led to multiple summits with the South and its first summit with the United States.

The South Korean government last week announced a plan to spend $2.7 billion from 2019 to 2022 on 108 projects to develop “eco-friendly” tourism in regions along the border, where economic development has been seriously hamstrung due to military security restrictions.

This include a project to construct a 456km walking track the “Route for Reunification” that will cross 10 cities and counties from the western to eastern coasts, which authorities hope will become like the popular pilgrimage route to the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in Spain.

Governor Choi Moon-soon of Gangwon Province, which houses 150km of the 250km border, said the presence of heavily armed soldiers and restricted passage in border areas had hampered their growth.

“There is no such a place as the DMZ in the world as a tourist attraction. When problems with access and security are solved, it will emerge as one of the world’s most popular tourist sites,” he told journalists last week.

At the DMZ Museum in Gosung county, the legacy of conflict between the two Koreas are on vivid display. The South’s various propaganda tools, including floodlights and leaflets with pictures of scantily clad women, are now used to draw tourists to the museum instead of attracting potential North Korean defectors.

The first thing to pique visitors’ curiosity is the huge square panels containing hundreds of light bulbs evoking floodlights at sports stadiums, which stand on an embankment outside the futuristic museum building.

Such panels were installed at 11 different places along the border, where they displayed weather forecasts and even soccer scores during the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea.

They also showed messages urging North Korean soldiers to defect, and served as guiding lights for defectors as the 8-metre letters could be seen from up to 3km away in the electricity-deprived North.

Irritated, the North Korean military repeatedly threatened to shoot them down. The two sides’ military authorities agreed in 2004 to dismantle the panels, one of which was moved to the DMZ Museum.

Standing next to this cluster of light bulbs and above a slogan reading “Peaceful Reunification” are gigantic loudspeakers which once blared propaganda messages as well as K-pop and news into the North.

We did not come here to infuse my kid with anti-communist ideology

DMZ Museum visitor Kim Jung-sub

Such loudspeakers, installed in 94 places along the border, were turned off following the 2000 inter-Korean summit and were torn down completely after South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North’s leader Kim Jong-un agreed in April last year to cease all acts of hostility toward each other and turn the DMZ into a peace zone.

Inside the museum are other monuments to pain, including a plastic replica of a mini-mine nicknamed the “ankle blaster” for its devastating effect on the legs of many innocent farmers; a cannon shell that landed on the South’s Yeonpyeong island in 2010 when the North bombarded it in retaliation for an artillery exercise conducted by the South’s navy; and a rickety wooden boat used by North Koreans fleeing poverty and repression.

Kim Jung-sub, a 45-year-old company employee, was visiting the museum with his son.

“We did not come here to infuse my kid with anti-communist ideology,” he told the South China Morning Post. “We are here to give my son a chance to learn history first hand.”

The Kims carefully inspected mines, personal belongings of war dead, and taxidermied animals but they scurried past a glass showcase displaying scores of leaflets of beautiful women in bikinis with messages encouraging North Korean soldiers to defect to the South.

These leaflets were scattered across the border in the 1970s and 1980s. One of them bore a picture of a woman in a black bikini with messages reading “I’ll give you my love” and “I want to live with you forever”.

Since opening in 2009, the museum attracted an average of 170,000 visitors every year till 2017 a number that grew to 200,000 last year thanks to rapprochement with the North, according to museum guide Eum Young-ran.

Kim’s 11-year-old son Ki-tae had the last word. In a corner where visitors can put up letters with messages of hope on a “tree of peace”, he wrote a message reading: “Please help us reunify the fatherland.”



Category: Korea

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