Korea’s spine has long been a site of conflict

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Korea’s spine has long been a site of conflict

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GIMCHEON, North Gyeongsang province ― Vines of arrowroot and wisteria are entangled in a forest that seems long unvisited by humans on an old pass on Baekdudaegan, the spine of the Korean Peninsula. Baekdudaegan is the name of a series mountain ranges that run nearly the length of the peninsula, from Mount Baekdu in the North to Mount Jiri in the South. The word meaning conflict in Korean is galdeung: Gal means arrowroot and deung, wisteria. Unless the branches are untangled, neither the arrowroot nor wisteria last long, just like human relationships.
Recently, the road to the Baekdudaegan opened to hikers again, when the government lifted a ban on walking the mountains. Some paths have been blocked during the last few months in order to prevent forest fires.
One of old passes on Baekdudaegan is Sammagoljae in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang province. The pass is located at the northern skirt of Hwajeon Peak where three provinces ― North Gyeongsang, North Chungcheong and North Jeolla ― meet. Among hikers, Hwajeon Peak is better known as Samdo Peak, (samdo means three provinces). It also gained fame from a rite that residents of the three provinces hold there every Oct. 10 wishing for harmony in the three provinces.
The top of Sammagoljae is 0.9 kilometers (0.6 miles) away from Hwajeon Peak. The east side of Sammagoljae is Haein-ri, Gimcheon, and if you cross the hill from Gimcheon, you’ll get to Mulhan-ri, in Yeongdong, North Chungcheong province.
On the way to Haein-ri, one passes a stone tunnel named Najetongmun, meaning a door that links Silla and Baekje. There are many stories about the origin of the tunnel. One says that right after Silla defeated Baekje, it made the tunnel in order to foster harmony in the region. There are no historical records to back up that idea. Another tale says the tunnel was made at the same time as a road that connects Muju of North Jeolla province and Gimcheon, during Japanese colonization. Some insist that their fathers were mobilized on the tunnel construction by the Japanese. There are some who believe that the tunnel was first formed in ancient times, but got bigger as time passed, and was enlarged under Japanese colonization.
Whatever its origin is, one thing is for sure: Najetongmun was the border of Silla and Baekje. The area administratively belongs to Seolcheon-myeon, Muju. But people living on the two sides of the tunnel speak different dialects. Residents living west of the tunnel speak the Jeolla dialect and those on the east speak the Gyeongsang dialect. At the market in Seolcheon-myeon, you can tell by listening who lives where.
From the tunnel to Haein-ri, Gimcheon, I drove 24 kilometers into the heart of the mountains. After parking at a mountain cottage, I started hiking up a small path on the right of the entrance to Sammagoljae. The sound of running water is constant as water runs from the valley to Buhang Stream in Gimcheon and then to the Nakdong River.
On the path, mountain lodges for slash-and-burn farmers can be seen here and there. Beside a stone fence that still exists, apricot and persimmon trees are thick with leaves.
The slash-and-burn farmers who settled here after the Japanese colonial period made their living by selling the charcoal they made. More people who came to South Korea around the time of the Korean War later joined them.
As with other villages on Baekdudaegan, this was a neutral zone located between national defense forces and partisans from the North during the war and for quite some time later. At the time, the mountain’s occupants changed on a daily basis.
After the war ended, charcoal didn’t sell for much. The farmers switched to growing potatoes and corn on the steep mountain slopes. They made, grew or gathered nearly everything they needed except for items such as salt. After several incidents with North Korean spies who had hidden themselves in the deep Baekdudaegan, the farmers had to leave the mountain in the late 1960s under orders from the South Korean government.
It takes about an hour to hike to the saddle of Sammagoljae where the surrounding area looks like a virgin forest. The vines of arrowroot and wisteria are thickly entangled. Baekdudaegan has embraced the conflicts of people and the land.


by Sung Si-yoon

How to get there from Seoul:
Take the Gyeongbu Expressway, and transfer to the Daejeon-Tongyeong Highway. Exit at Muju, and take national road No. 30 toward Muju Resort. It will lead you to Najetongmun. From there, go to Mupung-myeon and take a left turn at the Hyeonnae intersection on to regional road No. 1089. After passing the tunnel of Samdo Peak, you will arrive at Haein-dong.

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