“If the reunion of the separated family could be held on the day of two anniversaries, it would pave the way for a meaningful start for communal respect between two Koreas,” said President Moon Jae-in on July 6 during his visit to the German capital to attend the Group of 20 summit.
Tenth anniversary of a watershed Inter-Korean Peace Declaration coincides with the Chuseok holiday, Korean Thanksgiving Day, this year. Ten years ago on Oct. 4 in 2007, the two Koreas reached a deal to realize peace on the Korean Peninsula and were able to lead the 16th reunion ceremony to success in the same year as a result of the second Inter-Korean Summit.
President Moon proposed to reunite the separated families on the significant day. However, it is not easy to process because of mounting tensions between North and South Korea. North Korea has remained silent over proposals for both military talks and the Red Cross talks, with Pyongyang’s latest test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Additionally, there is a dwindling number of members of separated families who have survived.
In this trying time, there is a place where the Korean War left people both in pain and in hopes for reunification over the Korean Peninsula, and it is commonly referred to as Abai Village. The Argus visited Abai Village to discover this vestige of the Korean War.
Internally Displaced Person (IDP)
IDP refers to someone who has experienced forced displacement and cannot go back to his or her home within the same country. The International Organization for Migration defines a forced migrant as any person who migrates to escape persecution, conflict, repression, natural and human made disasters, ecological degradation, or other situations that endanger their lives or freedom.
According to the Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, the term generally denotes the refugees who can no longer visit their hometown due to the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953) and the division of the Korean Peninsula.
Located in Cheongho-dong, the city of Sokcho, Gangwon Province, Abai Village is now the hometown to many people of North Korean ancestry who were separated from their home and families during the Korean War, according to the official site of Abai Village. The word “Abai” comes from the dialect of Hamgyeong Province, one of the provinces of North Korea, meaning “an old man” or “a family leader,” as a large number of elderly people fled to Cheongho-dong from North Korea during the war.
Abai Village, which has a narrow strip of land between Cheongcho-ho, the lake that is surrounded by the two villages, and the East Sea, got its reputation as a residential area for North Korean refugees, and is one of the number one places to visit among tourists.
Visiting Abai Village required a keen eye to catch every details of the lives of IDPs. Having been accompanied by Lee Seung-san, a culture tour guide of Sokcho, The Argus looked around for places that indicated the tragedy of the Korean War and moved on to visit the people of Abai Village to see how IDPs lived with over 67 years of separation.
The Gaetbae Boat
The Gaetbae Boat is operated by a man and passengers using a metal hooked stick to pull the boat along and make it move across the lake, which generally takes less than two minutes, as it is 50 meters away from both docks. The Abai Village was full of visitors on vacation waiting for the Gaetbae Boat to come.
“I am a 1.5 generation IDP, and I arrived in South Korea in my teens,” said Kim Sang-ho, a volunteer worker for the Gaetbae Boat, whose hometown is Bukcheong County, South Hamgyeong Province, North Korea. The 76-year-old man added some more stories that he had witnessed back in the Korean War.
According to Kim, the Gaetbae Boat, in fact, had a very sad story. Kim saw a lot of Abais for whom much in their life was traumatic. They had begun a new life in Cheongho-dong while their family was still in North Korea since it was nearly impossible for them to go back to where they had belonged. To earn a living, they needed to go downtown, for which taking the Gaetbae Boat was a must. Born around the early 1900s, they spent most of their life missing those that they could not see any longer while taking the boat for their family in the South.
Just a few short blocks away from the dock, The Argus found some of the residents neatening a fishing net. The Argus stood up and watched them for a long time do the work that their ancestors might have done several decades ago as well.
Shacks and alleys
Sokcho was a small city before the inflow of North Korean refugees, and Abai Village in particular, was set up on the harsh and barren sandbank. The reason a multitude of North Korean refugees came to live in Cheongho-dong village was the hope to return home as soon as possible, since it was near the border with North Korea. They made shacks with a loose slate roof so that they could leave this place whenever the war began to end, but nobody knew that it would take an eternity to head back home.
As time has passed, shacks from the 1950s do not remain intact anymore, but The Argus discovered some of the spots where shacks used to be, which empathizes the North Korean refugees’ loss for their hometown.
When passing by the alleys, The Argus heard that residents in Abai Village still spoke with a broad Hamgyeong Province accent, which got The Argus thinking that the division of the Korean Peninsula is still ongoing.
“I wandered all the neighborhoods to beg for a meal at the age of 12 when I came here,” said Kim Jin-guk, who is also a 1.5 generation IDP and the president of the Cheongho-dong Branch of the Korean Senior Citizens Association.
The alleys of Cheongho-dong village are narrower than any other alleys in Korea. Residents living in Abai Village said that it was a place where they got over the rough times and strengthened the ties between themselves and the other refugees.
Kim Song-soon, a first generation IDP who originally came from Bukcheong County, South Hamgyeong Province, North Korea, said “Abai Village had more than 20,000 residents who came from all over Hamgyeong Province. Needless to say, this group of people created a friendly, welcoming community and a special way of life by making the alleys narrow.” According to Kim, they got together for a meal and for a drink sometimes, and the alley enabled them to create a bond.
Off the shore
The seashore lies spread out before the eyes of The Argus after coming out of alleys. The majority of the IDPs in the 1950s and 60s worked in the fishing industry, and they used East Sea as a main source of living.
The leader Kim, looked back on the past, noting that it was not a rare sight to see pollock, squid, and sailfin sandfish air-dried on the roof of every house or empty building. Abais would gather seaweed when the wind blew over the sea. Then, an Amai, the term that refers to an old woman in Hamgyeong Province, went to the market and sold them. “I just sold them at the market,” said Kim who is a first generation IDP.
However, what they thought to be natural in the past is unusual nowadays. Fish are now getting scarce, and there are increasing numbers of raw fish centers and fish factories that have sprung up near the docks.
Cheongho-dong Senior Welfare Center
Cheongho-dong Senior Welfare Center is a place that can offer the elderly living in Cheongho-dong an atmosphere that makes them feel at home. Some of the IDPs were enjoying their idle afternoon on Saturday watching TV and playing Go, an ancient Chinese board game.
The President Kim showed The Argus a photo album of first generation IDPs who have been based in Cheongho-dong, Sokcho. ‘Dead’ was written in red over most of the names and pictures of IDPs.
Kim pointed out Kim Dong-yul among the IDPs, whose name had been already crossed over with a red pen, and said that he was the only person who was fortunate enough to have the chance to reunite with his separated family for the first time after the division. But he died shortly after he got back from the reunion event, stating, ‘It is better not to meet them at all.’ Later it turned out that he had not gotten enough time with his family, and that got him to the sickbed.
Art Platform Gaetbae
Art Platform Gaetbae is an art exhibition as well as the office of the “Asamo,” a group of people who love Abai Village.
The Asamo is a group that the second and the third generation of IDPs organized of their own will. The role of the Asamo is to actively promote Abai Village by working for the good of the community since it was established in 2000. Since the spring in 2006, the Asamo have rented bicycles to visitors for free, and have been taking part in, and even sponsored every single event held in the village. With the residents running the community, volunteers are involved in all aspects of village life as well.
Jung Sung-su, who is a second generation IDP and the chief of the Asamo, has a dream that the Asamo can make the village a better place to live, as well as console the first generation on their misfortune.
“It is a shame to think about how full of random restaurants the village is from the entrance onward. We [Asamo] are doing our best to support the village and not to forget the identity we have as a representative village of IDPs,” said Jung. What they are doing is very small, but it is a positive change for Abai Village.
Time has flown. So many things have changed in Abai Village in accordance with the passage of time. Plenty of Abais and Amais have passed away, and the streets of the village have become hectic with the restaurants wanting to draw more customers. That was the biggest reason the village felt like it was far away from pain or sadness, but having walked the streets and met IDPs, it became clear that Abai Village hid one of the sad sides of Korean history. Abai Village is not only a place where displaced people live in a group, but a place where they live strongly without losing hope.
Reporter of National Section