Home is where the heart is

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Home is where the heart is

SOKCHO, GANGWON - The first thing you notice about this village is that it appears to be frozen in time. Perched on the windswept edge of the Cheongcho channel at the easternmost edge of Sokcho City, "Abai maeul," or "a father's village" in the North Korean dialect, is a traditional seaside community of about 1,200 households. Seventy percent of the community are North Korean refugees from the Korean War and their descendants.

Five decades after the war, traces of the past linger in Abai. Every few blocks, you still see rows of squid and seaweed hanging on clotheslines, drying in the sun. On the streets, groups of old women bundled in silk scarves sell catfish and dried apricots. There are clusters of run-down houses along the channel, some with blue plastic signs hanging on their doors announcing the availability of cheap lodgings. A wooden ferryboat from downtown Sokcho to the village leaves every few minutes, carrying students on bicycles and merchants toting large, colorful bundles. Restaurant owners go to barbershops next door, leaving their businesses wide open, then saunter back perhaps an hour later.

Though some older residents complain that people in the village have become more coldhearted over the years, things haven't changed that much. Fifty years ago, Abai was a white sandbank. There was a temporary landing strip for combat planes during the war and a large fish factory nearby where 60 percent of the country's canned sardines were processed. But ever since North Korean families started arriving here, seeking temporary relief from the Communist invasion of their hometowns, the place has become one of the largest squid-producing villages in the country. Abai sundae, a mix of chopped vegetables and sweet rice stuffed inside a squid's stomach, is the town's famed speciality.

At first, only a few refugee families who fled on the same ship settled in Abai. They made temporary dwellings on the beach out of cardboard boxes that the American soldiers had thrown away, hoping to go back home as soon as the war was over. The war didn't end, however, for three cold winters. When it finally did end and the 38th parallel north became the armistice line, just a few kilometers away from Sokcho and south of their villages, they were forced to settle here for good.

"We didn't expect the war to last more than a week," says Park Im-hak, 75, the representative of the North Korean Refugee Elders Association and one of the first settlers in Abai Village. "In hard times, people become very precious. So when a few other families came after us from our old hometown of Sinpo in South Hamgyeong province, I asked them to stay with us. That way, we could depend on each other while we were here and go back to our old hometown together when the war was over."

As time passed, and the word spread, more people from Hamgyeong province came to the village. By the end of the war, the place had already become a "cluster of crab shells," Mr. Park says. "The houses were built together so tightly that we didn't even need walls."

Another elder sitting next to Mr. Park at the village's seniors center, says, "Back then, we were so poor that we could work for three days and hardly afford a bag of oranges."

During lunar New Year's Day, elders like Mr. Park gather at the village community center for a potluck dinner prepared by their children ?a generation whose feelings about returning home is not as desperate as their parents. "My kids are not that pleased when I say I want to live in my hometown before I die," Mr. Park says bitterly. "They wouldn't mind me visiting Mount Geumgang for a tour, but living there for good is a different issue. To them, Sokcho is their home." Mr. Park's eldest son came from Sinpo with his parents when he was 5 years old. Now 57, he teaches at a refugee family-only primary school in the village, but the school is on the verge of shutting down because young parents are leaving the town.

In another lunar New Year's Day tradition, some of the first graduates from that primary school throw annual reunions. People now scattered across the country return to meet old friends; but, for most of the second generation, the reunions are rooted in friendship rather than the pride of being a survivor or a descendant of Hamgyeong province. That common pride of heritage, in contrast, sharply defines the first generation of refugees.

But among that first generation, people have different thoughts about home. "Home is wherever you feel attached," says a hunched-over woman who has been selling seafood along Abai's wharf for 50 years. "I like it here. I don't want to go back to my hometown. Nobody would greet me there. My son sent me on a Mount Geumgang tour last year, but I like Seorak Mountain better."

Jo Byeong-hee, a first-generation refugee who came to this village in the mid-1960s, says, "When reporters from the BBC and Asahi Television came to the village, I said to them the same thing: 'I am against the sunshine policy. I think we are playing into the hands of Kim Jong-il. Ideologically speaking, they haven't compromised a bit.'" Like many refugees in the village, driven here to escape communism, Mr. Jo is uneasy about diplomatic relations between the South and the North.

Since the war, Abai village has been known as a symbolic place for Korea's reunification. Even now, whenever North-South relations show any signs of improvement, this is often where reporters gather to get interviews with older refugees, most of whom still dream of seeing their parted families before they die.

In the past, Mr. Jo sent complaint letters to Korean reporters who portrayed the village as "the most desolate place on earth." Such views reportedly created trouble for villagers' children when they tried to marry someone from other regions. The in-laws of the intended often did not approve of the marriage because of the images of the old, crumbling village they had seen on television. "We've had a turbulent past, but we are O.K. now," Mr. Jo says. "We are proud of being survivors and this town is part of that heritage."

by Park Soo-mee

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