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(Yonhap Feature) 'Operation Chromite' sheds new light on historical sites in Incheon

All Headlines 09:00 August 30, 2016

(Editor's note: This article is the 13th in our feature series on South Korea's lesser-known tourist spots.)
By Kim Eun-jung

INCHEON, Aug. 30 (Yonhap) -- Bordering the Yellow Sea shared with China and located west of Seoul, Incheon has long served as a major strategic point and trade hub in modern Korean history since opening an international port in 1883.

The port city has served as not only a gateway for new culture, ideology and religion but also a critical battle site during the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and the 1950-53 Korean War.

Among them, it has become famous for an amphibious landing operation, known as "The Battle of Incheon," launched in the early stage of the Korean War to reverse the tide of conflict in favor of the U.N. forces against the North Korean troops.

After liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Korea was bisected along the 38th parallel line by U.S. and Soviet forces. But the shaky status quo didn't last long because North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, and pushed all the way down to the southern region in the first two months of the conflict.

Looking for a chance for a decisive counterattack, U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who led U.N. forces in Korea, chose Incheon to cut off the North Korean supply line at the waist of the peninsula despite strong opposition from more cautious generals.

Overcoming the scarce probability of 1 in 5,000 due to extremely unfavorable terrain, the offensive codenamed "Operation Chromite" was launched in September 1950, involving some 75,000 troops and 261 naval vessels. Through the risky operation, U.N. forces recaptured the capital city of Seoul two weeks later and saved South Korea from the brink of the defeat.

While younger generations mostly learned about the dramatic moment in history textbooks, a Korean blockbuster war movie has recently renewed interest in the former battle sites and a secret Korean intelligence unit that spied on North Korea to prepare for that historic battle. Since its release on July 27, "Operation Chromite" directed by Lee Jae-han has drawn about 7 million audiences.

For those who want to dig deeper into the history, Wolmi Island located near the Port of Incheon is a good place to begin.

Amphibious forces first landed on the northern side of Wolmi Island, called "Green Beach", in the predawn hours of Sept. 15, 1950, and support troops waited for high tides to enter the inner areas in the evening.

Since the war, the island had housed the South Korean Navy 2nd Fleet command until 1999, but it was opened to civilians two years after the military base was relocated to Pyeongytaek in 1999.

Wolmi Park, which surrounds a 23-meter seaside hill covered in lush trees, was once barren after a napalm bombing conducted before the operation burned out its forests to clear the way for troops. Decades later, people flock to the park in the spring to enjoy cherry blossom trees that bloom later than most other regions.

Hidden treasures in the park are seven trees that survived the incendiary attack and tell of a painful Korean history, with some of them older than 200 years old. An observatory tower atop the hill offers a panoramic view of Incheon and its surrounding islands.

"Wolmi Island is the witness of the tortuous modern Korean history through Joseon Dynasty and the Japanese colonial rule to the Korean War," Bae Chang-ho, the director of Wolmi Park, said. "As this park formerly belonged to the Navy, its ecosystem is relatively well preserved, frequented by hikers who want a break from city noise."

Another must-see place for the movie fans is Palmi Island, located about 16 kilometers west of the port.

The island has the nation's first light house, which played a guiding role for U.N. naval ships that took part in the operation.

It was a sensitive military zone off-limits to civilians for more than a century, but tourists have been allowed to enter the island since 2009 while South Korean Navy personnel are still stationed there.

Currently, there are two light houses atop the 60-meter hill -- an old one that dates from 1903 and a new, much bigger one built in 2003.

An hour-long cruise to the island with Incheon's cultural guides explaining the light house's history and Battle of Incheon could inspire thoughts about the secret agents who desperately tried to turn the light on in a moment of life-or-death.

The round-trip ferry ticket is 22,000 won (US$20), and those who bring their movie ticket stubs can get a 5,000 won discount until Sept. 14, according to cruise officials.

"As Palmi Island was featured as an important place in the movie to commence the operation, more people got curious about the light house and have visited the island over the past month," said Kim Jae-chun, CEO of Hyundai Marine, an Incheon-based cruise company. "We have been collecting quite a bit of movie tickets from passengers."

For those who want to pay respects to the revered general who said "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away," the next stop could be Freedom Park, Korea's first Western style park built in 1888.

MacArthur's bronze statue stands tall on the top of the hill, looking out to the Yellow Sea with binoculars in his hands. Hollywood star Liam Neeson, who played the general in the movie, also paid tribute during his visit to the country in January to shoot the film.

The park has several other sculptures, including the Centennial Monument, which was built in 1982 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of forging relations between Korea and the United States. Down the hill lies a memorial for 200 student soldiers who fought in the conflict, without glorious badges or decorations.

Next to the park is Chinatown, which has become the port city's major tourist attraction with diverse culinary delights and historical architecture.

It was created in 1883 for Chinese traders, and the other section of the town housed Japanese residents when Korea was under the Japanese colonial rule in the early 1900s.

Chinatown is the birthplace of jajangmyeon, a Chinese-Korean fusion dish of noodles in black bean sauce, welcoming weekend tourists who want to have the popular noodle and other Chinese dishes.

For dessert, you can try small cafes and galleries in another part of town where Japanese-style houses and colonial-era banks are lined up along the narrow streets. Cafes in the old Japanese houses sell Nagasaki-style castella sponge cakes as well as patbingsu (Korean ice desert made of red bean) to help tourists recharge.

Another place tourists can visit for diverse culinary experiences is Shinpo Market close to Chinatown.

Shinpo Market opened in the 1890s when the Port of Incheon was forcefully opened to foreigners by the Japanese for trade with merchants and sailors.

The traditional market sells a variety of food ingredients, snacks and deserts, including Korean style popcorn chicken (dakgangjeong) and spicy chewy noodle (jjolmyeon), which both originated in Incheon.


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