Goseong, Sokcho, and Gangwon Province’s North Korea Connection

In the hazy distance we see granite mountains rise up on a peninsula. In between is a long stretch of sandy beach on the left, and blue waters on the right. In the center is a tiny green peninsula jutting out.

After writing about Chungcheong-buk Province, I will now proceed to write about Gangwon Province. Korean provinces are generally named after prominent cities, and in Joseon times, the two largest cities in Gangwon Province were Gangneung and Wonju. Gangwon is the least populated province in mainland South Korea – its mostly mountains and forest, and has a particularly harsh winter. Here is a map of Gangwon Province:

This map shows that part of Gangwon province in ins northeast South Korea, and part is in southeast North Korea

Do you notice anything odd?

Do you notice that this province is split between South Korea and North Korea?

Gangwon is the only province which is partially controlled by South Korea and partially controlled by North Korea. In the late 1940s, most of Gangwon Province was controlled by North Korea. The June 25th War (a.k.a. the Korean War) changed the borders, and now most (though not all) of Gangwon Province is controlled by South Korea.

The location of Sokcho city on the eastern coast of Korea

The location of Sokcho City

Both Goseong County and Sokcho City were part of North Korea in the late 1940s, but are not part of South Korea. In fact, part of Goseong County is still in North Korea – the DMZ runs straight through Goseong, splitting not just the province, but the county in two.

Goseong is in the very northernmost tip of South Korea

Goseong County (South Korea)

If you think about it, you can deduce that Gangwon Province experienced a lot of violence during the war.

The beach of Goseong right at the edge of the Demiliterized Zone, looking towards South Korea.

The beach of Goseong right at the edge of the Demiliterized Zone, looking towards South Korea.

Cheorwon, which is also in Gangwon Province and was once in North Korea but is now in South Korea, was once a significant regional city because it was surrounding by good farmland and was on a major raliway line. It is also part of the Iron Triangle – a route to invade Seoul – which is why the U.S. military completely destoyed the city. I did not visit the ruins of Cheorwon, but this blogger and this blogger did.

A brightly lit orange bridge over water at night

This bridge is in Sokcho

When people hear ‘North Korea’, they generally think of the Democratic People’s Repbulic of Korea (DPRK) … which is not actually democratic, but it is the official name. However, ‘Northern Korea’ has existed for as long as there has been a ‘Korean’ peninsula i.e. it is the northern part of the peninsula, and has cultural, historical, climatic, ecological, etc. distinctions which pre-date the division of the Korean peninsula after World War II. Thus ‘North Korean’ can mean either a citizen/resident of the DPRK, or it can mean someone who tied to the northern regions of the Korean peninsula by heritage, even if they have never lived under the rule of the DPRK.

A lot of ‘Northern Koreans’ and their descendents live in Gangwon Province.

The home of Hamgyeong refugees in Sokcho City

The home of Hamgyeong refugees in Sokcho City

If you don’t already know about the ‘Hungnam Evacuation’ I highly recommend researching it – it is one of the most dramatic and important events of the Korean War.

Here is the short version:

In December 1950, over 100,000 UN troops in South Hamgyeong Province were trapped by Communist Korean/Chinese forces on all sides on land, which meant they had two options: escape by sea, or die. Likewise, many civilians knew that, when the Communist forces recaptured South Hamgyeong, that they would probably be tortued and killed: these civilians included anyone who had helped the U.N. troops, Christians, and others.

After Wonsan was captured by Communist forces, it was clear that the only way to escape by sea was through the tiny port of Hungnam.

The commanders weren’t sure that they would be able to rescue all of the troops, so at first they refused to help civilians. However, Koreans working with the U.N. troops insisted that they do something for the civilians. Thus, the evening before the Communist troops recaptured Hamhung, the second largest city in North Korea, as artillery fire could be heard throughout the city, it was announced that an evacuation train would depart Hamhung at midnight and go to Hungnam. Over 50,000 people arrived at the train station. Not everyone got on the train. Many people who didn’t get on the train spent that night going to Hamhung on foot.

Hungnam port filled with over 100,000 civilians from all over South Hamgyeong Province. The very fact that they fled their homes meant that the North Korean Communists would consider them all to be traitors, and would kill them if possible.

More homes of Hamgyeong refugees

More homes of Hamgyeong refugees in Sokcho City

The civilians had to wait and wait, as troops were evacuated but no ships for civilians arrived, and they could see the lights of the ongoing battle at night. Finally, ships for transporting civilians arrived, taking about 4,000 civilians each, but it was not known whether enough ships would come before Hungnam fell to the Communist forces.

The SS Meredith Victory left Hungnam on December 23, 1950. It was the last ship carrying civilians. It was designed to carry 47 crew members and 12 passengers; it was carrying about 14,000 civilians, through waters filled with mines and enemy submarines, without escort. Not all of the remaining civilians got on board; some were left behind in Hungnam. Many families were split; parents who were unable to board themselves managed to get their children on the ship. Shortly after the SS Meredith Victory departed, Hungnam Port was demolished.

The blue sea.  There is a military ship, and behind the military ship wee see the blasts from large explosions on the shore.

Everybody abord the SS Meredith Victory arrived in South Korea alive.

Abai village, as seen from above

Abai village, as seen from above

Most of the refugees believed that the United Nations would win the war, and that after the war they could return to Hamgyeong and see the people they had left behind again.

That did not happen. They never saw their homes in Hamgyeong again.

At night, we see some water, and lit up buildings under a bridge on the other side of the water.

Looking at Abai village from the other side of the water.

Sokcho City had a camp for refugees from Hamgyeong. It was intended to be temporary, and the Hamgyeong refugees were to return to Hamgyeong after the war. Then the DMZ was established, and their temporary home became permanent. This place is now known as Abai village, and is connected to Sockho city by tugboat. Recently, Sokcho has been developing tourist attractions related to is ‘Northern Korean’ heritage.

While I was sitting on a bench by the beach of Abai village, a Korean woman tried to convert me to Christianity.

The tugboats which ferry people to and from Abai village

The tugboats which ferry people to and from Abai village

I also went to Goseong, and I went right up to the DMZ. You need a car to go there; fortunately, a group of Colombians let me hitch a ride with them. Colombia was the only South American country to fight in the Korean war. We visited the DMZ museum, and then went to the Goseong Unification Observatory, where I saw North Korea in the distance.

In the hazy distance we see granite mountains rise up on a peninsula. In between is a long stretch of sandy beach on the left, and blue waters on the right. In the center is a tiny green peninsula jutting out.

A view of North Korea from the Goseong Unification Observatory

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About Sara K.

Sara K. is an aromantic asexual from California who has previously lived in Taiwan. She blogs at the notes which do not fit, has previously been a contributor at Manga Bookshelf, and has written guest posts for Hacking Chinese. She enjoys reading, travel, live theatre, learning languages, and gardening.
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9 Responses to Goseong, Sokcho, and Gangwon Province’s North Korea Connection

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