Gyodong Island, South Korea – Soldiers toting assault rifles watch residents and visitors as they pass through a military checkpoint to get onto Gyodong Island.
North Korea is just a few kilometres away – separated only by a calm stretch of water – as they approach on a long bridge that connects Gyodong to mainland South Korea.
Despite the proximity to North Korea and the near-constant chatter about the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, once on the island visitors don’t find a community bracing for conflict. Instead, longtime residents are busy learning to deal with growing numbers of newcomers, while seeking ways to get by in what is still a low-income, rural place.
South Korean media sometimes refer to Gyodong as a “land where time stopped”. Since the first bridge connecting the island to the mainland was built in 2014, tourists have been coming here to see a place that still looks like typical South Korean villages did in the 1970s. Others visit seeking a breather from the stressful life of South Korea’s bustling cities.
And at a time of rising concern over the possibility of conflict with North Korea, people are also coming to Gyodong for an up-close peek at the totalitarian state just a stone’s throw away.
Lee Young-jin, 48, moved here seven years ago to take a job as a schoolteacher. A part-time translator and avid reader, she had longed for a quieter life. In choosing to move to Gyodong with her young son, Lee says she didn’t worry about the possibility of war with North Korea, adding she still lives without fear.
“People on the island think that if there was war, North Korea would attack Seoul or some other big place. Gyodong is too small to have any symbolic importance,” she says. “Ironically, like being in the eye of the storm, it’s actually safer here.”
A few factors have combined to isolate Gyodong. One, it is located far off the beaten path, in the northwest corner of South Korea, in an area that has seen more than one deadly naval skirmish between the South and North. Also, during the Korean War in the early 1950s, large numbers of North Koreans fled to Gyodong seeking safety. In the tense post-war period, people from the North were suspected of being communists or spies, and many South Koreans avoided them.
Those North Koreans set up what is still the island’s main commercial area, which is little more than a few decrepit alleyways lined with old shops. Ji Gwang-shik was among them. In 1952, he heard that fighting was nearing his hometown in North Korea, spurring him to take the boat across to Gyodong – unaware that he would never return.
He and others from North Korea cut down trees to build small wooden huts to live in and, since they couldn’t find jobs, began to set up their own businesses. Ji got by doing menial tasks such as sweeping floors.
“I was hungry. I was willing to do anything,” he says.
A few years after arriving in Gyodong, Ji found steady work in a barber shop, which he eventually took ownership of and still operates. The interior looks mostly like it did when it opened decades ago, with a decor that includes campy floral print wallpaper and beige linoleum floors.
Recently, Ji chose to make one change that is more than just aesthetic: He replaced the shop’s transparent windows with frosted glass. Ji wanted the translucent windows to prevent tourists from lurking outside his shop, gawking at him and his customers.
Outside of the small commercial area where Ji’s shop is located, Gyodong is a place of unspoiled open space. The island’s physical isolation means that, unlike most areas in South Korea, there is almost no industry here. The lack of cars and constant sea breeze mean the air is clean and fresh. Swallows gather at ponds and reservoirs throughout the island, which has a network of scenic trails for hiking and cycling.
Lee Ghang, a 54-year-old man, moved here from the mainland three years ago, part of a small movement in South Korea of people leaving behind city life to start again in the countryside. He works as a manager of a small Confucian temple and has become something of a local amateur historian, maintaining a blog with photos of Gyodong and essays on the island’s history.
“My dream was to live in a small house on an island, having time to think and write,” Lee said. He doesn’t earn much money in his current vocation but says the benefits of life on Gyodong are worth it.
“I could survive off of nothing but this island’s sunshine.”
Lee Young-jin has enjoyed her experience on Gyodong enough to put down roots. Two years ago, she purchased land and built a cafe and guesthouse, which opened in September.
Still, Gyodong is like other South Korean communities in that education is the factor that shapes the trajectory of life. South Korean families often choose where to live based on access to quality schools. Her son, her only child, will enter high school in a few years, and she would like to get him into a more competitive school in a big city. In South Korea, a young person’s high school can affect what university he or she can get into, which then has a significant effect on job prospects.
Employment opportunities are limited for young people living on Gyodong. The island has plenty of fertile rice-growing land, but almost no industry or any other source of well-paying jobs.
Ji says his barbershop business is doing well nowadays, that he is busy enough to employ two staff. On most days he has so many customers that he doesn’t have time to take a lunch break. But he worries once he and his colleagues retire, the shop will close.
“Nowadays young people don’t want to do this kind of work,” he said on a cold November afternoon, two glowing heaters giving his shop an amber aura.
When asked about the island’s growing connection to the mainland, or the possibility of war with neighbouring North Korea, Ji says he doesn’t expect any big changes in the future.
“This is still just a simple island where people grow and sell rice,” says Ji.