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(Yonhap Feature) Gangneung hopes to promote peace through Winter Olympics

All Headlines 09:00 January 19, 2018

By Kim Eun-jung

GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Jan. 19 (Yonhap) -- If you plan to visit Gangneung for ice events during the 2018 Winter Olympics next month, an exciting surprise awaits you at this coastal town with the nation's best waterfront cafes.

Over 400 North Korean athletes, art troupe members and cheerleaders are expected to visit Gangneung, some 240 kilometers east of Seoul, for the Winter Games, which are slated to run from Feb. 9 through Feb. 25 in PyeongChang and two other cities in Gangwon Province.

The rare visit by North Koreans will not only be a boon for Gangneung's ice events but will also provide an opportunity to reckon with a darker past when tensions flared between the two Koreas.

Gangneung Olympic Park, the main venue for ice events at the 2018 Winter Olympics, is shown in this photo taken on Jan. 11, 2018. (Yonhap)

In September 1996, Pyongyang sent a group of commandos in a submarine to infiltrate the South Korean east coast and spy on naval installations. Their mission failed after the submarine suffered mechanical issues, causing 25 North Koreans to land near Gangneung.

During a 49-day search for the men, 18 South Koreans, including four civilians, were killed. Thirteen North Koreans perished, and 11 others were found dead, while one was captured alive.

"I still remember the days after the North Korean submarine was found in the East Sea. Gangneung was like a war zone with so many soldiers and police officers involved in the operation," Kim Jong-seop, a 52-year-old taxi driver in Gangneung, said.

"It feels a little weird that North Koreans are coming here for the Winter Olympics. That would be something to see."

With just 20 days left until the sporting event, this city with a population of 210,000 is making the final touches on ice arenas, a new train station and brand new hotels to welcome athletes, journalists and visitors from around the world.

With talks currently underway to determine the size of the North's delegation and their visiting schedule, Gangneung plans to prepare accommodations and transportation for the special guests.

A 140-member orchestra will stage a performance, and 30 North Koreans will demonstrate the Korean martial art of taekwondo, while 230 others will come as members of a cheering squad. The two Koreas also agreed to form a joint women's ice hockey team, which awaits final approval from the International Olympic Committee on Saturday.

A coffee-themed artwork stands in front of Anmok Beach in Gangneung, a city along the eastern coast famous for its trendy cafes, in this photo taken on Jan. 15, 2018. (Yonhap)

As decent hotels in town are already fully booked, the city government is considering opening a Korean traditional house village to the North Korean delegation during the games. The Gangneung Ojuk Hanok village, which can accommodate up to 300 guests, is located less than a 10-minute car ride from the Olympic Park and athlete's village.

"We are willing to provide Ojuk Hanok Village to the North Korean delegation. It is secure and is located a short distance from the arena and athlete's village," Choi Myung-hee, the mayor of Gangneung, said in a briefing last week. "Hanok, the Korean traditional house, would provide warmness and intimacy for the North Korean delegation."

Gangneung Art Center, a newly built facility that can accommodate about 1,000 people, is expected to provide the performance stage for the North Korean orchestra, and an ice arena in Olympic Park will be the venue for the joint women's ice hockey team.

The good thing about the city is that all of the sports venues are located within a quick drive of picturesque beaches, including Gyeongpo, one of the most popular tourist spots on the east coast.

While some parts of the scenic coastal line had been blocked by barbed-wire fences, a 5.6 kilometer beach running from Gyeongpo to Anmok is now open to civilians as military installations were removed in the runup to the winter games.

"Many parts of the beaches were not accessible when I visited here a couple years ago, but now it's open," Jung Hae-jin, a visitor from Wonju, said. "Unlike other famous beaches that are too crowded and too commercialized, this part of the coast is perfect for a leisurely walk."

Those who want to immerse themselves in the natural environment can opt for a hiking course in the pine tree forest behind the white sand beach. Military trenches are visible intermittently, reminding onlookers of the area's proximity to the eastern border.

If the cold breeze from the sea makes you want a warm cup of coffee, head to the "Coffee Road" at Anmok Beach. Trendy cafes and franchise coffee shops with wide terraces offer excellent views, attracting young travelers and couples with selfie sticks.

The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic mascots and the Olympic flag welcome passengers to Gangneung Station in this photo taken on Jan. 15, 2018. (Yonhap)

"The nice wind and relaxing sound of waves make this cafe a great healing place," Kim Hye-yeon, a college student from Seoul, said while sipping hand-drip coffee at one of the waterfront cafes. "I heard that if you serve mediocre coffee on this street, you'll soon go out of business because of the fierce competition."

Seafood lovers can pick from restaurants along the beaches, which offer a wide variety of selections, including sashimi, spicy braised seafood and noodles.

For those who want to try traditional cuisine, restaurants in the Chodang tofu village serve simple, handmade tofu along with other side dishes and makgeolli, a traditional liquor made of rice.

Near Gyeongpo beach lies Gyeongpo Lake, which was formed when the mouth of a bay was closed by sand and pebbles brought in by the sea currents. It is famous as a destination site for migratory birds.

The lake is surrounded by many cultural assets and memorial sites, including Ojukheon, a traditional house that shows the lifestyle of people during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Ojukheon is the house of Shin Saimdang (1504-1551), who raised the Korean Confucian scholar Yulgok Yi-i (1536-1584). Shin, herself a renowned writer, artist and calligrapher, appears on the 50,000 won note, and her son is on the 5,000 won note.

Seongyojang, the house of a high-class family in the Joseon Dynasty, also gives a glimpse of life in the past through a well-preserved hanok with wooden beams and a tiled roof, antique furniture and other art. It is a filming site for SBS's 2017 drama, "Saimdang, Memoir of Colors."

Hikers walk through a pine tree forest along a beach in Gangneung on Sept. 28, 2017, after barbed-wire fences were removed. (Yonhap)

Gangneung is accessible by KTX high-speed train from Seoul, with the trip taking some 90 minutes. During the Olympics, the bullet train will link the city to Incheon International Airport, the nation's main gateway. This will allow visitors getting off their planes to reach the city in a little over two hours.

By express bus, Gangneung can be reached in three hours from Seoul. The closest airport is Yangyang International Airport, located 45 kilometers north of the city.


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