GOSEONG, South Korea – Deeply marked by the war and the division of the two Koreas, the South Korean province of PyeongChang is relieved that their northern neighbor is participating in what has been dubbed the “Peace Games.”
Listeners of the South Korean President’s speech on Monday in the coastal city of Gangneung would find reason to be optimistic about regional peace when he said North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics shows that sports can help countries overcome political differences.
But the bars and the barbed wire that begin to frame the beaches a little further north from Gangneung, one of the venues of these Winter Games, might temper the optimism of some observers.
These are just some of the details which remind us of the fact that the province of Gangwon – to the east of Seoul – borders North Korea, a country with which the South has technically been at war for more than 65 years, and has been the target of repeated infiltrations by agents of the Pyongyang regime.
In the same Gangneung in September 1996, a North Korean spy submarine, which is now on display in a park in the city, ran aground and its crew tried to reach the border, some 90 kilometers (56 miles) away, on foot.
This led to several of the North Korean infiltrators being executed by their fellow members for failure of responsibility, and a manhunt was launched by the Southern army which ended after almost two months, when the last few North Korean agents were killed in firefights.
The further one travels from Gangneung, the more wired fences one spots, along with sentry posts and anti-tank defenses, until they reach the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the border that separates the two countries.
In a recent meeting with the media, provincial governor Choi Moon-soon – who has been in power since 2011, when PyeongChang was selected as the host city – said that until now, Gangwon has been a dangerous place, and hence no one wanted to invest there.
Thus it has been his responsibility to invest 11 billion won ($10.1 million) to modernize the second largest of the South Korean provinces by size, although the least populated.
It is also the only province which was literally split in half during the division of Korea in 1945, something which was a bitter pill to swallow for the people of Gangwon.
Choi said that he was happy for several reasons due to North Korea agreeing to participate in the Games, mainly because it means greater security for the visitors and participants, adding that he and the rest of the residents of Gangwon perceive the threat of war daily since they live next to the border.
The threat is both seen and felt at the DMZ Museum in Goseong.
From the megaphone used to shout out propaganda at the North, to anti-personnel mines, or fragments of artillery rounds with which the North bombarded the island of Yeonpyeong in 2010, killing four – the museum displays a wide range of artifacts connected during the seven decades of war and division.
Noh Yeon-su, 45, in charge of the collection of the museum, said that he was born in Gangwon and has seen North Korea every day, without being able to go there, thus, the division is not history but something that he experiences daily.
The museum keeper said that he is very excited that the two Koreas were going to participate in the Games together and that he was confident that there are more areas where the two countries can coordinate in the future, in order to become closer.
He said that he dreams about watching a Berlin Wall-like moment in Korea before his death.
Postgraduate student Jeong Hong-yeon, 27, who is visiting the museum, is less enthusiastic and is not sure about buying a ticket to any of the events.
In any case, Hong-yeon said, the new government of liberal President Moon Jae-in is more open to holding talks with the North, and that can only be a good thing.
Not too far from the museum and the adjoining observatory, there lies an old summer house belonging to Kim Il-sung, grandfather of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un and the founder of the country.
When the border was displaced barely a few miles toward the north upon the conclusion of the Korean War (1950-1953), the villa was left on the South’s side as yet another silent witness to the tragic tale of division.