Hundreds of destitute families moved to a town bordering North Korea after the war. Six decades later, their dream of owning the land they helped cultivate may finally come true.
Along the border with North Korea is a town where the sad legacy of war is perhaps best understood by looking at the crops in the field.
Standing on a wind-swept plot on a hillside, Han Gi-taek, 69, peered over the land and recalled the hard labor, cold nights and stray land mines that made it difficult for his family to cultivate the ground beneath his feet. First they did it with their bare hands and shovels, he said. In more recent years, it has been done using tractors, with the piles of rocks that ring the field bearing witness to the family’s decades of labor. Mr. Han arrived in this mountain basin on the eastern border with North Korea in 1956, when military trucks unloaded 160 families as new settlers of the war-torn territory. The families, mostly from Korean War refugee camps, were told by the government in the South that they would be allowed to keep the land if they cultivated it for 10 years.
“We were landless peasants who lost everything during the war,” Mr. Han said. “We came here with a dream of owning our own land.”
When the first families arrived, they saw nothing but wilderness. The nearest bus stop was seven miles away. The winding dirt road to this former battleground was studded with checkpoints where armed sentries stopped anyone traveling without a military-issued pass. A dusk-to-sunrise curfew was enforced, and the families had to live in tents for months before the army built them wood-and-mud huts.
“The military ruled everything here,” Mr. 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 across South Korea. The 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 landscape after the war. The holdup was caused by a thorny legal issue. After Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule at the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union divided it into two halves. Haean fell to North Korea.
During the Korean War, American-led United Nations forces waged some of their fiercest battles in hills surrounding Haean. Thousands of United States, South and North Korean troops died in the area. When guns fell silent in a truce in 1953, Haean was in South Korea’s hands.