GOSEONG, South Korea – A former seaside villa for North Korea’s ruling Kim family. A captured North Korean spy submarine. A front-line observatory that allows curious visitors to peer at parts of a picturesque North Korean mountain across the heavily-mined Demilitarized Zone.
These are bitter reminders of the seven decades of the Korean division as they play out in South Korea’s Gangwon province, whose three towns, together, are hosting the ongoing Winter Olympics.
As the games turn into a place for a flurry of rare reconciliation steps by the two at-odds Koreas, many Olympic fans and others are visiting these North Korea-related sites to learn more about the rivals’ turbulent history.
A look at some of the most famous North Korea-themed attractions in Gangwon, the only Korean province divided along the world’s most heavily fortified border for decades.
Kim Il Sung’s villaOnly a few miles from the DMZ, this stone villa near South Korea’s scenic Hwajinpo Beach was once a holiday home for the late North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un.
Formerly called “Hwajinpo’s Castle,” it belonged to North Korean territory before the 1950-53 War, but it wound up in South Korea after a border was redrawn slightly after fighting end.
A black-and-white photo displayed in the villa shows a childhood photo of Kim Jong Il, the late dictator father of Kim Jong Un, sitting on the stone steps. Then a 6-year-boy, Kim Jong Il was photographed with his younger sister Kim Kyong Hui, an unidentified Soviet playmate and two other North Korean friends.
South Korea had first let military generals use the villa as their vacation resorts, but turned it into a tourist site in 1999. Each day, it now normally draws about 5,000 visitors during a summer season and 500 during a winter season. But the Olympics have temporarily boosted the number of daily visitors by a couple hundred, according to villa instructor Yeum Sang Bae.
“While looking at this villa, I thought about our wish for South-North unification and became a bit emotional,” said Keum Hyo-kil, a 77-year-old visiting this week with his family after watching an Olympic bobsled competition the previous day.
“I hope North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would completely give up his nukes on the occasion of this Pyeongchang Olympics,” he said.
Many visitors say South Korea should preserve this villa as a historical site for younger generations. But in the past, an anti-Pyongyang activists’ group threatened to blow up the villa, and others scratched out Kim Jong Il’s face from the photo fixed on the wall near the steps. The photo displayed this week showed no scratches.
In 2000, when then South Korean Culture Minister Park Jie-won visited North Korea, he handed Kim Jong Il an album of photos from the villa. Park, now an opposition politician, said Kim first pretended not to recognize his time in the villa but later reminisced about playing there as a child.
Kim Jong Il ruled North Korea for 17 years after Kim Il Sung died in 1994. He died in late 2011, handing over power to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un.
North Korean submarineA North Korean submarine is on display at the seaside “Unification Park” in Gangneung, where the Olympics’ skating, hockey and curling events are held.
This 35-meter submarine ran aground in 1996 during a spying mission in the area. After determining their submarine’s damage was too serious to repair, its 26 crew abandoned the vessel and went into nearby rugged, heavily wooded mountains to find a land route back north.
But a taxi driver soon detected the stranded submarined and reported it to South Korean authorities, triggering a 49-day manhunt that included shootouts with fleeing North Korean soldiers. Eventually, 24 were either shot to death or found dead, one was captured and a 26th was unaccounted. The manhunt left 17 South Koreans dead.
Visitors are required to wear yellow safety helmets before entering the submarine’s cramped, low-ceilinged inside parts. Those interviewed seemed mixed about the Olympic-inspired rapprochement mood between the Koreas.
“I hope we would get unified soon and live together with the same mind,” said Hong Sun Kee, a 47-year-old office worker who was mobilized in the 1996 manhunt as a reservist. “It’s too cramped inside the submarine. I don’t know how they stayed here.”
Yu Kyung Hee, a 47-year-old housewife, was a bit skeptical of the North’s recent outreach and said she believed it was aimed at easing international sanctions. “I think North Korea agents could come here again aboard another submarine.”
Also at the park is a wooden motor boat that 11 North Koreans used to defect to South Korea by sea in 2009. A retired 3,471-ton South Korean warship is also on display.
The Olympics have brought an increase in the number of foreign visitors to the park, but there are fewer locals coming this month. That’s due mostly to a driving-restriction measure aimed at reducing traffic congestion during the games, according to park guide Kim Nam Hee.
Unification observatoryLocated just south of the DMZ, it’s one of northernmost points in South Korea where civilians can travel to get a glimpse into North Korea.
Along a coastal highway leading up to this observatory, you can often see on your right side a long-line of barbed wire fences aimed at preventing infiltrations by North Korean agents.
Parts of the North’s Diamond Mountain are seen from here, where the two Koreas once ran a joint tourism project during a past era of detente. The project stalled after a North Korean soldier fatally shot a South Korean tourist visiting the mountain resort in 2008.
While this observatory sits near the eastern portion of the 154-mile-long border, a more famous DMZ tourist attraction is on the western section and actually inside the DMZ.
The border village of Panmunjom was a place where North Korean troops sprayed fire at a colleague who was making a daring dash for freedom last year. The defecting soldier was hit five times but survived. He is now in South Korea.
At the eastern coastal observatory on Monday, many visitors were having their pictures taken with Diamond Mountain in the background after they tied onto guard rails colorful ribbons with messages calling for inter-Korean peace, a successful Olympics and their families’ health.
“It’s sad because we cannot go to North Korea although it’s just right there,” said Ha Go Eun, an 18-year-old student who came to Gangwon with her friends to watch the Olympic Games.
“I wish South-North Korean relations would be a little better following these Olympics,” she said. “I really, really want to go and see the Diamond Mountain. It’s such a beautiful place.”
Nearby, a lone dancer staged a performance that symbolized a bird trapped in colorful ribbons and camouflage net.
“I’d like to express a bird who wants to fly wherever it wants without having any boundary,” said performer Doyu, 48. “Why can’t we walk to the Diamond Mountain? I feel like it would take less than five minutes by car to go there. Isn’t this situation ironic?”
Hyung-jin Kim, a Seoul-based correspondent for The Associated Press, is on assignment in Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Games. Follow him on Twitter at @hyungjin1972. More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org