Although this was my second feature article that I wrote back in June 2000 (my first one was an interview I had with Dr. Horace Underwood, the grandson of one of the first missionaries to Korea and an interpreter at Panmunjom), it was the first time I traveled somewhere in Korea to write an article for the Korea Times.
I don’t think it was one of my better articles, but it did help me to learn how to write feature articles.
War Anniversary Special
Symbols of War and a Divided Korea-A Trip to the “Triangle”
CHORWON, Kangwon-do-“Spring had come to Korea, with spring rains, and the countryside was briefly beautiful with grass and flowers. But the skulls of men killed during the winter snows, loosened by the thaw, rolled down the hillsides to rest among the azalea and forsythia just bursting into bloom,” writes T.R. Fehrenbach in his description of the fighting in and around the “Iron Triangle,” in This Kind of War.
About two hours northeast of Seoul lies the area known as the “Iron Triangle”-marked out by Pyonggang in the north at the apex, with Kumhwa (now Kimhwa) in the southeast and Chorwon in the southwest. It was aptly named the “Iron Triangle” because the steel rails connecting the cities formed a rough triangle on the map.
Since ancient times, the area had been the main invasion route to Seoul. Likewise, in June 1950, it had been one of the routes for the North Korean invasion. And in the spring of 1951, this area was the bloody scene of fierce fighting where a reanimated 8th Army and other ROK and U.N. units successfully turned back the Chinese Spring Offensive.
Today visitors can travel to a corner of the triangle and observe such historical (not to mention symbolic) landmarks such as “The North Korean Workers’ Party Office” as well as tours to the “Iron Triangle Observatory” and the “2nd Infiltration Tunnel.”
Likewise, areas of fighting during the spring offensive like “White Horse Hill” are also accessible to tourists desiring to explore some of the battlefields.
Despite the security and obvious military presence, the region is quite serene and idyllic especially as one crisscrosses the countryside between lush green fields of rice and other fields of produce bursting green. It’s still business as usual in the DMZ-in spite of the positive overtures from last week’s North-South summit. On the way to and from the “Triangle” humvees, trucks loaded with troops, and the occasional tank could be seen rumbling across the countryside. Likewise, troops along the DMZ and inside the security area still perform their normal, albeit, vigilant sentry duties.
When asked if the alert status has changed in anyway since the summit, a VI Corps spokesperson said that it hadn’t. On the North Korean side, though, the propaganda broadcasts have stopped.
One of the major (and more infamous) attractions in the Triangle (and one that is open to the public without a military escort) is the North Korean Workers’ Party Office. This three-story war-damaged structure was once the legal court of the Chorwon Province. In North Korean hands, though, it would become a place of torture and murder. After the war, the skeletal remains of two hundred victims were found in trenches behind the building. Visitors can still make out the bullet holes in the masonry.
Today, the building remains a symbol and a memorial to the war.
Not far from the North Korean Workers’ Party Office, vestiges of the once bustling Chorwon Railroad Station are visible. At the time of the Korean War, Chorwon Railroad Station had over 80 employees compared to the 50 employees at Seoul Station. According to the VI Corps spokesperson, the city was reduced to rubble during the war. Most of its inhabitants were displaced to other areas.
(A curious 71-year-old farmer from Wolchong-ri, who had lived his entire life in the area, approached me to inquire about my intentions as I surveyed the area where the station had once stood. Once he learned of the story I planned to write, he thanked me repeatedly for coming up here. “I’m sorry Koreans are not so talkative, (though),” he added. When asked what he thought about the North-South Summit, he said that if Korea were reunified, he would move his farm into North Korea.)
A short distance from the remains of Chorwon Railroad Station is Wolchong-ri Railroad Station, once a rest area for trains traveling the Seoul-Wonsan line. The bombed out, skeletal remains of a train-taken from the DMZ during a cease-fire-on display next to the station are another memorial to the Korean War and reminder of a divided country. (Another section of the train still lies in the middle of the DMZ, again symbolic of a divided Korea.)
Interestingly, on the day that I was there, workers were painting the station and sprucing up the area. Perhaps just a coincidence, but according to the VI Corps spokesperson, since the summit the number of visitors to the area has increased drastically.
Adjacent to Wolchong-ri Railroad Station is the “Iron Triangle Observatory.” Here visitors can get a glimpse of that scar tissue known as the DMZ as they look out across the fortified boundaries into North Korea. Although hazy the day I was here, North Korean observation posts were visible in the distance.
On a tour of the DMZ that day were some Korean War Veterans (Korean). A few of the veterans I talked to had fought not far from the observatory on White Horse Hill. When asked what they thought about the North-South Summit, the seventy-something veterans said that they couldn’t trust North Koreans. “North Korea has two sides,” said one veteran. “A side they show and a side they hide.”
Lee Kyu-han, another veteran whom I spoke to was not as outspoken on North-South relations as were his compatriots. Instead, he spoke more of the memory of his fallen comrades and those who had passed away since the war. “Many of my friends died in the war,” Lee recalled sadly.
Lee joined the Korean Army when he was 18 and had served with the ROK VI Corps until the end of the war. He too, had fought on White Horse Hill.
“I come here annually,” Lee said, “to take care of the mountain.” According to Lee, he belongs to a fraternal association of Korean War survivors who annually make a pilgrimage here to take care of the hill, especially a monument dedicated to those who fought on that hill.
Finally, visitors to this area can also see another grim reminder of the tensions (not to mention the obvious militarized presence) that have existed between the North and South with the “2nd Infiltration Tunnel.”
It was here, in 1973 that an ROK sentry heard the vibration from underground explosions. With U.N. support, permission was granted to conduct drilling to determine the possibility of a North Korean tunnel. From December 1974 to March 1975, 45 holes were drilled and seven of them punctured the tunnel.
After the South had dug a bisecting tunnel, the North Korean tunnel was discovered. Subsequently, eight ROK soldiers died in a firefight in the tunnel when they came across North Korean soldiers who had tried to block off the tunnel to avoid detection with concrete walls and mines. (A memorial dedicated to these soldiers is located outside.) Had the tunnel been used, it is believed that approximately 30,000 troops could have moved south in an hour.
Consequently, with the discovery of this tunnel, the DMZ boundary on the south was pushed in along this line. Visitors can go down into the tunnels and cross underneath the former DMZ line. On this particular day, four thousand visitors had gone down into the tunnel.
Despite its wartime legacy and memorial to the past, perhaps, today the Iron Triangle is also symbolic of its future. Observation Towers and tunnels may soon become memorials and landmarks for a country that was once divided. For the thousands of visitors who travel here each day to look out across the this fifty year old scar tissue, there is the hope that one day, they will no longer have to stand at the borders of a divided country.