HAEAN, South Korea – Along the border with North Korea lies a town where the sad legacy of war is perhaps best understood by looking at the crops on the ground.
Standing on a windswept plot on a hill, Han Gi-taek, 69, scanned the land and remembered the hard work, cold nights and stray landmines that made it difficult for his family to cultivate the land. ground under his feet. They did it first with their bare hands and a shovel, he said. In recent years this has been done with the help of tractors, with the piles of stones surrounding the field testifying to decades of family work.
Mr. Han arrived in this mountainous basin on the eastern border with North Korea in 1956, when military trucks unloaded 160 families as new settlers from the war-torn territory. The families, mostly from Korean War refugee camps, were told by the southern government that they would be allowed to keep the land if they farmed it for 10 years.
“We were landless peasants who lost everything in the war,” Han said. “We came here with the dream of owning our own land.”
When the first families arrived, they saw only the desert. The nearest bus stop was 11 km away. The winding dirt road leading to this ancient battlefield was dotted with checkpoints where armed sentries stopped anyone traveling without a military pass. A dusk-to-sunrise curfew was imposed, and families had to live in tents for months before the military built them wooden and mud huts.
“The military ruled everything here,” Han said.
Now this five-mile-wide basin, better known by its wartime nickname, “Punch Bowl,” grows ginseng, apples and radish greens that are shipped to cities in South Korea. Military passes and checkpoints are long gone. This year, the South Korean government will finally deliver on its promise to the settlers, more than six decades after it began to repopulate Haean’s ravaged post-war landscape.
The hold-up was caused by a thorny legal issue. After the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union split it in two. Haean fell in North Korea.
During the Korean War, American-led United Nations forces fought some of their fiercest battles in the hills surrounding Haean. Thousands of American, South Korean and North Korean soldiers have died in the region. When the guns fell silent during a truce in 1953, Haean was in South Korea’s hands.
The government quickly began to repopulate the hard-won territory, allocating plots of land abandoned during the violence to new settlers. Eighty percent of the original landowners were in the North. The rest were in the south.
Shortly after the settlers arrived, the first landowners in the south began to claim their right to the land. Endless legal wrangling ensued, but the courts often sided with the original owners, forcing some settlers to abandon the plots they had cultivated for years. This posed an uncomfortable question: Did the original owners who were in the North also have a claim to the land?
This issue kept the government from keeping its promise to the settlers for decades.
“On the one hand, we had to protect the rights of the original residents who were evacuated to the north during the war and who still cannot return home,” said Jeon Hyun-heui, chairperson of the Anti-Commission. corruption and civil rights, which oversees the government’s efforts to resolve the dispute. “On the other hand, we must also protect the post-war settlers who believed in their government’s promise and devoted their lives to turning abandoned nature into fertile farmland.
“The problem in Haean is a tragedy created by the division of Korea and the war,” Ms. Jeon said.
By its constitution, South Korea must treat the entire Korean peninsula as its territory and the northerners as its own citizens. As lawyers and government officials debated the case, some settlers were forced to pay rents to the original landlords or continue farming on plots technically owned by residents of North Korea.
South Korea solved the problem last year by enacting a new law that allowed the government to declare Haean State lands and sell or lease them to settlers at special rates, from that date. year. The proceeds of the transactions will be saved to compensate the original landowners, if they return home from the north to the remote possibility of reunification.
For the settlers, the deal was long overdue and did not go far enough to recognize the sacrifices that had been made to ensure Haean’s prosperity after the war.
Survival was not guaranteed for those who were among the first to arrive. The winters were ruthless. The armed commandos from the north were a pervasive threat. There was no middle school until 1980 and for many children formal education ended in primary school.
“Some families lifted their stakes and left,” said Jang Seong-bong, 59, who arrived during the second wave of settlers in the 1970s. “But we were poor and uneducated and had no homes. alternative.” He remembers collecting 16 buckets of water each morning from a frozen stream 500 meters away.
Villagers supplemented their difficult income by scavenging the rocky hills in search of the wreckage of the war – empty shells, rusty bullets, anything that contained metal – which they sold for scrap. Twenty-one settlers were killed and 14 others paralyzed by the explosion of landmines in the Haean Hills. A woman has lost a leg, a son and a grandson.
“I was kicked out of the hospital in the nearest town after two weeks because my family couldn’t pay the bills,” said Seo Jeong-ho, 66, who lost his right eye, his hand. left and most of the fingers of his right hand in a Landmine Explosion in 1967.
Today, Haean has become a destination for so-called national security tourists, fascinated by its war history. Tourists watch North Korea from the Ulchi Observation Post or descend into Invasion Tunnel No.4, which North Korea has dug below the border.
Just as these landmarks remind visitors of the dangers North Korea still poses, the Punch Bowl villagers’ decades-old struggle for land has become a symbol of the unfinished business of war.
Highways and tunnels connect nearby towns to the sleepy city of 1,300 residents. Ginseng hibernates under pretty rows of black plastic blinds. At his war memorial, the flags of the United States and 15 other countries that fought for South Korea flutter in the wind.
It wasn’t until 2016, when Moon Jae-in, who would become president the following year, visited Haean and listened to villagers’ grievances that the land issue had been taken up by South Korea.
Under the new law, the government and settlers negotiate how much settlers should pay for the land now that it has been turned into state property. Since the government’s initial pledge was never recorded, officials could not find any legal grounds to give the land away for free, said Jeong Dong-rule, an official with the civil rights commission.
The settlers insisted that the government offer them cheap prices that could be paid over many years. Otherwise, they fear losing the land for good.
“They didn’t lift a single stone for us when we cultivated the land, and now they’re telling us to buy from them,” Han said. “If we have to borrow to do this, we fear we will end up losing the land to the rich in the big cities.”