While tensions between North and South Korea rise to a fever pitch, it is life as usual for those living along the heavily militarized border. Fabian Kretschmer reports from the South Korean island of Ganghwa.
On a visit in the 1990s, then-president of the United States Bill Clinton called the border between North and South Korea the "scariest place on Earth." But Baek Seung-hyeon calls it home. The 42-year old runs a small donut shop on the island of Ganghwa, in the northwest of South Korea and not far from the North Korean mainland. Asked about the recent tensions between the neighbors, Baek offered a succinct reply: "For me, it is above all a matter of revenue."
Tourists have been keeping away from the island as a result of Pyongyang's rocket launches. Still, the recent political escalations have hardly changed daily life along the militarized border. "I practically grew up in a state of war," the businessman said. "When I think of the separation of the country, I don't feel anything. It's just completely normal."
A new saga in an old dispute
Between 1950 and 1953, the communist North and the capitalist South engaged in a bloody conflict that cost the lives of over four million civilians. The Korean War technically continues to this day, as no peace treaty has yet been signed. Every few months warning shots or war rhetoric momentarily reignite the feud.
These days the tensions are heading towards a new highpoint. Following the North's latest nuclear weapon test in January, the UN reacted by imposing its strictest sanctions against any country in over 20 years.
Last Monday, joint military exercises began south of the border, with 17,000 US troops joining a record 300,000 South Korean soldiers. And on Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced plans to test another nuclear warhead soon.
Living with (or without) the fear
But there is little evidence of the tense times on the sleepy island of Ganghwa. Birds migrate over foggy fields ringed by small huts. Old women chitchat by road-crossings. A smell of burnt leaves hangs in the air. Barbed wire fences block off the beach, monitored by watchtowers.
While editorials from Washington to Berlin write of the threat of war, South Koreans are facing the situation with nonchalance. Bryan R. Myers, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea, compares the situation to a sword that has hung over the heads of Koreans for decades. "At a certain point one learns to live with the threat and to act as if it wasn't there at all," he said.
Hwang, a 66-year-old resident of the island, is not worried that the conflict - playing out not far from his front door - could escalate into war. "If you live here, you're not living in constant fear," he said. If anything, he feels sad at the thought that, only miles north, people live in poverty and servitude.
A divided home
Many residents on the island's residents were once refugees from the Korean War. Though they have not been able to visit the North in over 70 years, they have at least settled as close as possible.
It is Hwang's job to demonstrate just how close, as he leads visitors through the Ganghwa Peace Observatory. From the fifth floor it is possible to see North Korea with one's own eyes. Bare ochre hills loom on the horizon between small towns of clay huts, between which schoolchildren stroll. Early in the year farmers can be seen tilling their fields with ox-carts.
One housing settlement stands out for its modern multistoried houses. But no one lives there. It is believed to be one of the many propaganda towns built along the border after the war by North Korea to boast its superior system and to encourage South Koreans to immigrate. North Korea was economically stronger than the destitute South up until the 1970s. Nowadays, however, the totalitarian state's gross national product (GDP) hardly amounts to a fourth of that of South Korea.
On thousands of small pieces of paper hanging in the ground floor of the Ganghwa Peace Observatory, visitors have written their wishes for a speedy reunification. "I want to finally have the homeland of my parents," one message reads. "My father could no longer visit it while he was still alive. If we are reunited, I can do it for him."