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Despite the Tensions: Baengnyeong Island is Calm and Beautiful

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

When the TV camera crews and ravenous press scrums packed up their bags and moved on, the inevitable void that followed was palpable. Several months on and into the summer, it was starting to feel like an unavoidable scar plastered all over the otherwise pleasant face of Baengnyeong Island.

Tiny and on the frontline of the North-South Korea conflict, the outcrop was thrust to center stage when the South Korean navy corvette, the Cheonan, sunk on March 26.

Before, the thoroughly isolated island off the western coast of South Korea was the bearer of a brisk tourist trade. As the warship went down amid mysterious circumstances in the often troubled waters of the West Sea, it not only suddenly reentered the common parlance of Koreans for less peaceful reasons, but it also made its way into the pantheon of journalists and even ordinary members of the public around the world.

Now, though, tourists are turning away – apparently in big numbers. Ostensibly, the theory is that there is a malignant fear associated with the proximity to the troubles. Yet, this island is a diamond in the rough of a tense stand-off, a misplaced gem of paradoxical tranquility and natural beauty.

Surrounded on two sides by arch political enemy North Korea – just 17 kilometers away from its northern shore – Baengnyeong Island is probably the most exposed place in the South. From its other two coastlines, it can call upon only the mercy of the West Sea – with the city responsible for its jurisdiction, Incheon, 228 kilometers away. Its troubles started in earnest when the Cheonan exploded, split in two and sank just a few kilometers off its shores and close to the hotly dispute maritime border between the two countries.

The island and its nearly 5,000 civilian residents were suddenly besieged by the world’s media. Its conspicuously sleepy villages were thronging with reporters hoping to catch a glimpse of the rescue and recovery work visible from its southern coastline.

As matters quickly turned to who was responsible for the blast that ultimately claimed the lives of 46 sailors, fingers began pointing at the country just off its northern front.

Suddenly, Baengnyeong’s apparent vulnerability was brought into sharp focus. Acasual glance at a map of the Korean peninsula will show that the island lies tightly inside the North Korean geographical sphere, the U.N. unilaterally drawn maritime boundary between North and South Korea wrapping around its coast to the north, making it part of the territory controlled by Seoul.

But living side-by-side with the enemy is nothing new for the people of Baengnyeong: That’s been their lot since the Korean War ended nearly 57 years ago.

The realities of their existence are visible throughout its 51 square kms: beautiful beaches lined with tall barbed wire clad walls; scores of military bases covering the army, navy and air force; a key air radar station for detecting en-emy fighter jets; elite assault rifle-totting commandos patrolling its rice paddy-lined country roads. Its population is more than doubled by a 5,000-strong permanent military force.

Other aspects are less visible. According to local military sources, forested mountainous areas and off-the-beaten-path locations are laced with land mines – one senior soldier recalls a junior enlisted soldier losing a foot after veering off established trails. Others strongly suspect a presence of spies in their midst. As if to illustrate its proximity to the North, a North Korean defector made it over the maritime boundary and was picked up by the South Korean military on Baengnyeong in early June.

Islanders take the situation in stride. While South Koreans in general – often flippant toward the perceived threat posed by the North – have been spooked by the sinking of the Cheonan and the alleged involvement of Pyongyang, Baengnyeong residents continue to exhibit a willingness to brush off the threat from their erstwhile countrymen and blood brothers.

“I don’t care about them,” says Lee Chae-gun, whose family owns a restaurant and motel in Jinchon, the island’s main town. He says tourists shouldn’t be put off by the belligerence: come and enjoy the copious wildlife – spotted seals among them – and an array of natural wonders.

Indeed, the list of attractions for an island so small is long. Gourmands can tuck into island specialties such as blue crab, sea cucumber, Baengnyeong wild sage and black goat.

The unification wish tower, near Dumujin, a port town boasting a pebble beach and located inside a wide mountainous bay that looks out to North Korea, is a prized asset. It features two stone structures built in a cone formation, representing the two halves of the divided peninsula. Natives gather here to beseech their union once again.

Nonetheless, the uncertainty on the mainland appears to be having a savage ripple effect this time around. The island’s tourist trade continued to suffer the consequences well into the summer months; this for a plank of its economy otherwise reliant on farming and fishing, locals say. Away from the barbed wire and mooted land mines, there are also some of South Korea’s most pristine beaches, dynamic hiking trails and a reputation for a bio diverse natural landscape and wildlife. Sagot Beach, National Monument No. 391, is famous for its diatomite sand, reportedly one of only two places in the world where diatomite sand exists along the shoreline.

Arguably the most stunning wonders are the Dumujin rocks. Tall, jagged splinters of coastline cut off from the mainland, they are the work of mother nature and time, their arrangement a testament to the power of the sea, the wind and the rain to create works of natural art. The name Dumujin emerged because the rocks resemble heads of generals gathered at a meeting, a military reference not out of keeping with the island’s reality today.

For those based on the island with the military, it is business as usual. Master Sergeant Jung Mu-woon, of the South Korean marines, predicted tourism, along with farming and fishing, would continue to buttress the local economy. “Tourists will come for the nature and walking trails,” he said.

Part of the island’s attraction is a rare chance to gawk at the North from an unnerving vantage point, something the local tourist board promotes. “Baengnyeong Island is the most northwesterly island of South Korea,” its tourist literature states, “and is located closer to North Korea than South Korea. From the island, visitors can see North Korea very clearly, perhaps feeling saddened by the division of the Korean peninsula.”

Local government worker Han Chae-yeon, who was shipped in to work at the island community center, enjoys the natural environment aspect of living here. “It is quiet here,” she says. “There is good walking and nature and local wildlife.”

Still claimed by North Korea as its territory, the links between Baengnyeong and the North run deep. According to Jung, the marine, North Korean fishermen regularly drift across the disputed maritime boundary, unaware of where the invisible line actually rests. “Until about 10 years ago, Iheard North Koreans used to come across to visit their cousins on the island,” he said. “Back then, the island was not so well controlled.”

These days, the beaches are off-limits after dark. “We must close the beaches because we have to watch for the enemy,” said Jung. There is a realistic possibility, locals warn, that anyone drifting onto them at night could be shot out of fear that they are part of an enemy incursion.

If a certain tranquility persists on the island despite the military presence, getting to Baengnyeong is a precarious exercise. The four-hour hydrofoil ride cuts a deliberate path around the maritime border at speed, with North Korean weaponry within range not far away from its course. It is the only way to get there.

The initial scene that awaits civilian visitors is one of unmistakable militarization. Those young conscripts both starting and finishing their mandatory military service can be seen arriving and departing in numbers. Like the island itself, the looks on their faces, solemn yet serene, belie the realities of the existence here. Elsewhere, armed patrols are, of course, not an uncommon sight.

While some South Koreans remain unaware of the extent to which the island is militarized, at least one recent newcomer is convinced of his safety on Baengnyeong. Seoul native Park Tae-won, 38, an English teacher at the local middle school, said: “Since the war ended (57 years ago), we have had no serious fighting with (North Korea), so Ihave no worries.”

The message here seems to be: for a pleasant seaside holiday, sprinkled with equal measures of nature and North Korea, come to Baengnyeong Island. Just don’t forget a hard hat.

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