War and peace

World Sunday 21/May/2023 16:02 PM
By: Times News Service
War and peace

A visit to Camp Greaves, once an army base for American soldiers in South Korea, today epitomises peace as reflected in the stunning collection of artworks that wows tourists from across the world. The Times of Oman reports from this historic facility, located in the DMZ on the border between the two Koreas.

Muscat: The itinerary for nearly 55 journalists from 50 countries at the World Journalists Congress in South Korea recently included a visit to the Demilitarised Military Zone (DMZ), the place where North Korea and South Korea peace talks can take place.

While the itinerary included tours of Samsung headquarters in Suwon and Busan, the  candidate city for 2030 World Expo, I, somehow, was intrigued by the visit to DMZ, a first for me, despite visiting South Korea couple of times in the past.

An early morning bus took us from Hotel President in Seoul to Imjingak where the DMZ is  located along with its main
attractions - Camp Greaves and Dora Observatory.

A strange feeling arose as we approached Imjingak as armed guards manned the checkpoints and armoured vehicles stationed with alert soldiers keeping a close eye on anything in motion.

We were advised by our local guide to avoid clicking photos from the bus but were promised that photographs could be shot at Camp Greaves and Dora Observatory.

Access to the DMZ, which stands witness to war and has so much meaning for separated  families and people that fought there, opens with an amusement park in Imjingak.

While we were provided a tour by the organisers, Journalists  Association of Korea, there are today regular shuttle bus tours from Seoul to DMZ and is arguably the top must-visit attraction for tourists in South Korea.

Located north of Seoul, Camp Greaves is tucked away in the Paju Civilian Control Zone in Gyeonggi Province.

Visitors must take authorised transport from the Imjingak Resort area, although our bus had prior permission to visit.

At Imjingak, which was developed in 1972, we can see the historical ‘Bridge to Freedom’ on Imjin River where Koreans seeking the south crossed after the signing of the Armistice Agreement.

Flags, relics and banners decorate the entrance to the bridge that is now closed. The Freedom Bridge, formerly a
railroad bridge, remains a symbol of the Korean War.

It’s a sombre space and yet just behind on the other side of the parking lot is an amusement park. Another part of Imjingak is the Nuri Peace Park, also in stark  contrast to the historical bridge side. Families from the area and tourists come to the park to picnic and enjoy the space.

Our driver took us to the parking area of the Nuri Park from where we were escorted to the main checkpoint on the way to Camp Greaves.

The whole area is deserted, and farms dot either side of the road.

While accessing the civilian control line, our passports were checked by military police and once again we were advised not to take any photos of the personnel and the surroundings.

Camp Greaves
Sitting along the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea is Camp Greaves, a former US Army base which is now a large interactive gallery for local artists. One could see army installations while travelling towards Camp Greaves.

Once the largest base for Americans, it contains various structures with a variety of American architectural styles from 1950’s into the 1990’s.

Camp Greaves housed the 506th U.S. Second Infantry Division from 1953 to 2004. After their withdrawal, Greaves was returned to Korea in 2007, becoming the only U.S. army base given back within the Civilian Control Line.

A guide took us in couple of groups around from building to building and ensured that we don’t wander to places off-limits to visitors.

Between the bunkers and buildings that held artistic works that brought both hope and sadness to mind are buildings that offer more explanations on the Korean War.

One hall is a room of numbers or key statistics for the Korean war and is a reminder of the significance of that war on the peninsula.

There are spaces that hold memorabilia, films, and photographs from Camp Greaves when it was in use between 1953 and 2004. These spaces were interesting to me and definitely more along the lines of how I appreciate learning about such history.
Camp Greaves is not far from a massive and deadly array of firepower currently directly by the two Koreas at each other across the frontier.

One of the most arresting images at Camp Greaves that made an impression on me was the work of renowned South Korean artist Kim Myeong-boom.

Behind a heavy metal door is the interior of a powder magazine ammunition storage area. Staring straight at you is a model of a deer with huge antlers that extend and interlace to become a tree.

We were told that the skin is from a real deer brought in from the United States. This is a reference to the home of the US personnel who served here and alludes to how the site has been returned to nature.

Artist Kim Myeong-beom listens to «the whispers of objects and their intimate conversations», a plaque explains, looking to juxtapose both man-made and natural objects and representations of life and death.

Another work was of an artist who collected clothes from the area and stuffed them into the front of one of the many overgrown huts of the 506th Infantry Regiment.

On the floor of one of these huts you can still see webbing, belts, pouches and packs that once belonged to US soldiers and have been left strewn across the floor.

Entering the old bowling alley, you cross a beam triggering light and sound. At first you are clearly seeing and hearing fireworks but slowly the sound all round you becomes more and more like gunfire. Eventually you realise you are watching the night vision of an actual firefight; it is work of artist Park Seong-jun.

The names of 154 American soldiers killed in skirmishes along the demilitarised zone even after the end of Korean War hostilities are beamed on a wall. The years 1967 and 1968 were particularly deadly. In the background, recordings of soldiers can be heard chanting their way through drills.

Walking through the installations, one can imagine the devastation that was caused during the war, but this deserted Cold War facility is the real thing. We were informed that at times up to 700 military personnel were stationed at Camp Greaves.

While Camp Greaves is now a symbol of peace and an arts centre and a tourist attraction, it is still in an area that neighbours an active base for the South Korean army.

American forces moved out of Camp Greaves in 2004, in one of the first steps of a wide-ranging plan to relocate many of the US units stationed in South Korea to Camp Humphreys, south of the capital Seoul.

While the armouries-turned-art spaces are just one of its attractions - the former officers› mess has been converted into a Youth Hostel.

The hugely popular 2016 South Korean television drama Descendants of the Sun was partly filmed at the site, and it offers fans the chance to take selfies in front of key backdrops. The hit drama TV-series is about the ups and downs of a love affair between a South Korean Special Forces captain and a doctor, starring the handsome Song Joong-ki and the beautiful Song Hye-kyo.

We were also informed that the former officers’ mess turned Youth Hostel allows visitors to experience the surroundings by staying in the rooms against a fee. After the full visit of Camp Greaves, we were handed a memento by Gyeonggi Tourism Organisation.

It was indeed heartening to see the transformation of an army base breathe new life, courtesy a group of talented artists.

The hope of the local tourism officials is to brand Camp Greaves as the centre of art and culture in the DMZ and neutralise the
military characteristics of the venue through art.