South Korea: War-torn border with North Korea draws nature tourism

In Chorwon, where battles between North and South Korea once raged, tourists are taking to verdant beauty and rusty tanks.

Donald Kirk
Former Communist Party headquarters in Chorwon.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

CHORWON, SOUTH KOREA – From the desolation of war, this district of craggy ridges, wooded valleys, and verdant farmland near the border with North Korea is rising again as a tourist destination for nature lovers.

Where battles once raged, rafters brave rocks and boulders, visitors ease into hot springs, hikers wander by mountain streams, and worshipers pray at ancient Buddhist temples, many now restored. Relics of fighting compete with the rugged landscape for the attention of visitors eager for reminders of history – and a vision of nature’s ability to renew itself.

The rusted, twisted remains of a locomotive and two passenger cars lie on abandoned railroad tracks that once ran through the district into North Korea before the division of the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel at the end of World War II.

Since the signing of the Korean War armistice in July 1953, both nations have stayed on separate sides of a demilitarized zone (DMZ) that stretches 155 miles across the Korean peninsula. From a hill overlooking the DMZ here, one glimpses South Korean soldiers at a guard post in the barbed wire on the southern side.

In 1975, South Korean soldiers discovered the North Koreans had dug a tunnel for infiltrating troops into the South. Today, visitors can walk 150 feet down a long stairway to view it. In the town, the skeletal remains of a Workers’ Party headquarters, once a stolid three-story office, dominate the scene. Markers in front tell of the torture of South Koreans in chambers inside.

“This town had many buildings,” says the guide. “They were completely destroyed in the war.” Years later, the natural beauty of the region springs anew. As the two Koreas move haltingly toward reconciliation, a small museum contrasts war and peace.

“Here you can compare and contrast the lifestyles of North and South Korea,” says the guide. “Lots of material are on exhibition about the vision of a reunited Korea.” Outside, old airplanes and tanks rest peacefully on the grass.

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