There is little to get excited about these days in the villages and crossings south of the inner-Korean border. But the surprise announcement of a summit between North Korea and the US has sparked a sense of optimism.
Jang Seok-kwon doesn't flinch at the sound of grenade explosions and machine-gun fire. "The army has a firing range on the other side of the hill, military exercises are a part of everyday life here," the 64-year-old says in a stoic manner.
Jang is the mayor of Myeongpa-ri, the northernmost village in South Korea. A few hundred meters farther north, the inner-Korean border lyrically winds its way through the mountains along the east coast.
Ten years ago, life was flowering in Myeongpa-ri. Fish restaurants lined the main street and curious visitors from all over the country traveled to the border outpost. But then the North Korean conflict intensified and tourists stopped coming.
Since then, military exercises have made life for the village's 300 residents all the more difficult: There are regular evacuation drills, a curfew after eight in the evening and tedious passport controls at checkpoints. "Almost all of the families have moved to the city. Only the seniors have stayed," says Jang. "Now we are pinning our hopes on the upcoming talks with North Korea. We are fed up with having to live with this tension."
Old connections with the North
Park Kyeong-suk's life is very much tied to the division of the Korean peninsula: She was born north of the 38th parallel but her family fled south — ahead of advancing Chinese troops — during the war. On this particular spring day the 72-year-old is sitting on a wooden bench in front of her restaurant. It serves a local specialty: Sundae, a kind of blood sausage.
Park lives in Abai Village (Village of the Fathers) on the east coast. Seventy years ago, some 4,000 North Koreans settled here so they could remain close to their homes. The far too narrow alleyways and the improvised style of the village's houses make it clear that no one intended to stay here for long. Only a couple dozen of the original residents are still alive.
"My parents talked about their home village with its surrounding mountains and streams until the day they died. I could literally feel how much they missed their homeland," says Park. She herself experienced the poverty of postwar Korea growing up. She and her friends foraged through trashcans at the neighboring US military base looking for food and sweets. "Even I dreamed of returning to North Korea from time to time. My home is really only a stone's throw away," she says. Her children's generation has no emotional ties to the North, however: "They know far too little, or simply aren't interested."
Southern optimism ahead of summit
"North Korea and the USA are deeply suspicious of one another. South Korea has regained an important position in the crisis by asserting its role as mediator," says Cheong Seong-chang, political advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Moon's administration has already announced that North Korea is prepared to completely dismantle its nuclear program. And that Pyongyang will not insist the US withdraw the almost 30,000 troops it has stationed on the peninsula. That is all good news, though the bitter truth is that North Korea's state media has made no such statements on either issue.
Still, Cheong is hopeful that political rapprochement will progress swiftly: "North Korean denuclearization should be wrapped up before [US President Donald] Trump leaves office," he says, adding that if, for instance, North Korea were to scrap half of its arsenal by next year, one could think about loosening sanctions. When it comes to the prospect of reunification, however, Cheong says: "It is far too early to talk about that. But strengthening trade and exchange is certainly possible."
The ghost station at the border
To get an idea of what that might look like, one need only travel to Dorasan Station, a railway transit point connecting North and South Korea. The glass building was constructed in the still topography of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in the early 2000s, during the era of "Sunshine Policy."
South Korean taxpayers forked over some $13 million (€11 million) for the spectacular futuristic building. In the evening, the sun illuminates the oversized waiting hall as its rays reflect off the tiled floor, and the walls smell as if they have just been painted. Yet the ghostly stillness of the place reveals a different truth: Hardly anyone — except the uniformed soldiers patrolling the station — has passed through the metal detectors installed at the border for years.
"Right now we are just conducting routine maintenance. But almost 2 million South Koreans passed through here on their way north between 2003 and 2008," says Dorasan Station Manager Woo Gye-keun. "Basically, everything still works. If we got the order to open, we could have trains running again within a month."