GYEONGGI (경기) and GANGWON (강원), South Korea’s northernmost provinces, couldn’t be much further apart in character, despite both being bounded to the north by the Demilitarized Zone, often described as one of the most dangerous places on Earth. In the small northwestern corner of the country, Gyeonggi (officially known as Gyeonggi-do) is a busy rabble of eleven million people much cut up by roads and buzzing with industry. It encircles the two cities of Seoul and Incheon; though these are administratively separate, the combined urban mass of 24 million people – around half of the country’s population – makes little Gyeonggi one of the world’s most densely populated areas.
Seoul functions as the province’s beating heart by providing work to the masses, though most of Gyeonggi’s surrounding cities are commuter-filled nonentities, whose sights are few and far between. However, Incheon to the west of the capital and Suwon to the south, with its UNESCO-listed fortress, merit a visit; the former sports the country’s most thriving Chinatown and was the first city in the country to be opened up to international trade; it remains Korea’s most important link with the outside world thanks to its international airport and ferry terminals. The airport squats on an island, Yeongjongdo, one of many, just west of Incheon in the West Sea, better known internationally as the Yellow Sea. A residue of traditional Korean life can be found on these West Sea islands, from whose shores fishermen roll in and out with the tide as they have for generations. Some of the more notable isles are Deokjeokdo, a laid-back and refreshingly unspoilt retreat from Seoul, and Ganghwado, an island within spitting distance of the North Korean border (not that you’re allowed even to see North Korea from its army-controlled shores, let alone spit at it). If you want to catch a glimpse of the neighbours, head to Panmunjeom, a village inside the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. With security so tight, access is understandably subject to the conditions of the time, but most visitors should be lucky enough to take a step across the world’s most fortified border to what is technically North Korean territory. Alternatively you can make do with a view of the empty “Propaganda Village” on the opposite side of the DMZ, or a scramble through tunnels built by the North in readiness for an assault on Seoul.
By contrast, Gyeonggi’s rugged next-door-neighbour, Gangwon (or Gangwon-do) has managed to remain the country’s most unspoilt mainland province and exerts a magnetic pull over Koreans. Enclosed by Gyeonggi to the west, Gyeongsang to the south, North Korea and the East Sea, it’s a lush green land blessed with beaches, lakes and muscular peaks, whose rugged topography ensures that it remains the least-populated part of the country: despite being Korea’s second largest province, it has a smaller population than many of its cities.
Chuncheon is Gangwon’s capital and major city and is unhurried enough to allow for some pleasant bike-riding. The other region’s other two major cities are also very relaxed: Gangneung is home to a wonderful Confucian shrine, while salty Sokcho on the east coast has enough on its periphery to keep you occupied for a few days. There are four national parks in the province, each differing in topography and popularity, and whose acknowledged champion, Seoraksan, contains some of the highest peaks in the land. Odaesan is a similar but much less touristed national park just down the coast. Elsewhere around the province it’s possible to raft down whitewater rivers, go skiing, laze on unspoilt beaches, or fire down a rural valley on a specially built rail-bike.
Despite the natural attractions, Gangwon hasn’t always been a paragon of serenity. Its historical boundaries actually extend far into North Korea, but since the end of the Korean War the province has been divided by the twin perimeters of the Demilitarized Zone. During the war, the mountainous terrain that for so long preserved Gangwon’s tranquillity became a curse, with ferocious battles fought for strategically important peaks. Even today, the tension is palpable – much of the region’s coast is fenced off to protect against attacks from the North, and even some of the most popular beaches are fringed with barbed wire and military installations – from the end of the Korean War until the signing of the armistice in 1953, all land above the 38th Parallel (which hits the coast at a point roughly halfway between Sokcho and Gangneung) came under North Korean control, and was eventually exchanged for an area almost equal in size north of Seoul. Tunnels under the DMZ were found in the 1970s, and a spy-filled North Korean submarine crashed on the Gangwon coast in 1996; the latter can still be seen, next to an old American warship, near the small village of Jeongdongjin.