Gyodong Island: Life on the frontline with North Korea

Gyodong Island: Life on the frontline with North Korea
From Al Jazeera - November 29, 2017

Gyodong Island, South Korea - Soldiers toting assault rifles watch residents and visitors as they pass through a military checkpoint to get onto Gyodong Island.

North Korea is just a few kilometres away - separated only by a calm stretch of water - as they approach on a long bridge that connects Gyodong to mainland South Korea.

Despite the proximity to the North, and the near-constant chatter about the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, once on the island visitors do not find a community bracing for conflict. Instead, longtime residents are busy learning to deal with growing numbers of newcomers, while seeking ways to get by in what is still a low-income, rural place.

South Korean media sometimes refer to Gyodong as a "land where time stopped". Since the first bridge connecting the island to the mainland was built in 2014, tourists have been coming here to see a place that still looks like typical South Korean villages did in the 1970s. Others visit seeking a breather from the stressful life of South Korea's bustling cities.

And at a time of rising concern over the possibility of conflict with North Korea, people are also coming to Gyodong for an up-close peek at the communist country just a stone's throw away.

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Lee Young-jin, 48, moved here seven years ago to take a job as a schoolteacher. A part-time translator and avid reader, she had longed for a quieter life. In choosing to move to Gyodong with her young son, Lee says she did not worry about the possibility of war with North Korea, adding she still lives without fear.

"People on the island think that if there was war, North Korea would attack Seoul or some other big place. Gyodong is too small to have any symbolic importance," she says. "Ironically, like being in the eye of the storm, it's actually safer here."

A few factors have combined to isolate Gyodong. One, it is located far off the beaten path, in the northwest corner of South Korea, in an area that has seen more than one deadly naval skirmish between the South and North. Also, during the Korean War in the early 1950s, large numbers of North Koreans fled to Gyodong seeking safety. In the tense post-war period, people from the North were suspected of being communists or spies, and many South Koreans avoided them.

Those North Koreans set up what is still the island's main commercial area, which is little more than a few decrepit alleyways lined with old shops. Ji Gwang-shik was among them. In 1952 he heard that fighting was nearing his hometown in North Korea, spurring him to take the boat across to Gyodong - unaware that he would never return.

He and others from North Korea cut down trees to build small wooden huts to live in and, since they could not find jobs, began to set up their own businesses. Ji got by doing menial tasks such as sweeping floors.

"I was hungry. I was willing to do anything," he says.

A few years after arriving in Gyodong, Ji found steady work in a barber shop, which he eventually took ownership of and still operates. The interior looks mostly like it did when it opened decades ago, with a decor that includes campy floral print wallpaper and beige linoleum floors.

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