No, I didn’t visit North Korea — but I went pretty close to it recently.
After our recent trip to Sokcho Beach, we headed north along the Gangwon-do coast. The rural highway bent and curved somewhat, which kept the ride bumpier than expected. Don’t eat a full meal before getting on the bus unless you like feeling queasy. Even after getting off the bus, it’s a two-kilometer walk to the first villa, and some more walking to the second. The reward, however, is a beautiful rural countryside, replete with a calm lake, an interesting beach, a modern marine museum, and quite a bit of history.
화진포 해양 박물관 (Hwa-jin-po hae-yang bak-mul-gwan) — the aforementioned marine museum, or the aquarium if you’re reading the English sign. We had a limited time in the area, so we passed this up. Not pictured just past this building is Hwajinpo Beach — a pleasant, if remote, area to set up a tent and play in the sand. After two kilometers of walking from the bus stop, we reached our first destination — Syngman Rhee’s (이승만) presidential villa. The authoritarian first president of South Korea following the Korean war had his home-away-from-home built here in 1954. After being destroyed in 1961, it was restored in 1999. The house itself is quite simple, and decorated with the man’s possessions (roped off of course, although pictures were allowed).
The president’s office — even at a summer house you’ll still have to work. Note the Western touches. The house itself is quite small — living / sitting room, bedroom, and the office pictured above — and the only explanations are in Korean. It’s only when you walk to the nearby memorial hall that he comes to life. The exhibits are again entirely in Korean, although a smattering of exhibits are English-based:
A B.A. from Harvard, a B.A. from George Washington, and a Ph.D.from Princeton — nothing to sniff at, regardless of the political beliefs. I’d rather not get into the political implications or the historic portrayals of the man — especially when I admittedly know so little of both fields. Since most of the text is in Korean, it’s difficult to say how much is propaganda, the re-writing of history. Instead, I’d encourage you to read this eight-page Time article from 1953, just after the Korean war ended. The Wikipedia article on Syngman Rhee is also an interesting read.
Part of Hwajinpo Beach — the barbed wire serves as a reminder that North Korea is a mere 15 kilometers away. You’ll pass by this on the way to the next stop — Hwajinpo Castle (AKA Kim Il-Sung’s summer villa).
It’s an interesting story how the castle got here. First built in 1937 by a German architect to house missionary couples on vacation, Kim Il-Sung took over the castle after World War II provided Korea’s independence from Japan. It was used as a vacation house for the family — and a picture of a young Kim Jong-il sitting on the stairs is prominently seen. After the Korean War, the border between North Korea and South Korea was redrawn, and a land swap complete. North Korea received land around the Gaeseong area, while South Korea received the land along Gangwon-do’s east coast. That left this villa in South Korean territory, and was used by the South Korean military as a summer house. After being restored and opened to tourists in 1999, more than a few South Koreans took issue with restoring a North Korean leader’s childhood vacation spot.
The current picture on display (Kim Jeong-il is second from the left) — you’ll see this as you walk up the stairs, along with an engraved plaque on the step itself. If you’re a history buff that can read Korean (or if someone in your group can), you’ll get a kick out of this historic trio. If you enjoy getting away from it all and don’t mind the 1 1/2 hour bus ride and 2 kilometer walk, you’ll love the scenery. Otherwise, the curiosity seekers will travel a long way for a pretty mundane time.
Directions: (take a bus to Sokcho (from Seoul, buses leave about every half hour and cost 17,000 won). Buses only seem to arrive from Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal, the Dong Seoul terminal near Gangbyeon station, Incheon, and a few other smaller places. Once at the bus terminal, face the main road and turn right (walk away from the beach). Walk about 100 meters to the bus stop. Get on bus 1–1 or 1 (with bus 1, ask first to make sure it goes to Daejin, otherwise it won’t take you all the way!). Fare is 4,320 won — not bad for a 1 1/2 hour bus ride, but it’s only payable in cash. Make sure you have enough small bills. Tell the bus driver you’re headed to 화진포 해양 박물관 (Hwa-jin-po hae-yang bak-mul-gwan — the marine museum is an excellent landmark) and he’ll let you off at the Daejin High School bus stop (대진고등학교). From here, follow the brown road signs for the two kilometer walk, passing by the marine museum and the beach along your way. WARNING: there are no convenience stores or restaurants nearby the villas. Stop by the beach for drinks and snacks if you need them.