Thursday, April 21, 2011

Baengnyeong full of hidden beauties

BAENGNYEONG ISLAND ㅡ This island should be rich in tourism assets. Picturesque views of mountain peaks “floating” over low-lying sea fog create a scene of a place where the guardian sprits of the mountains featuring in oriental folk tales seem to live.

A cluster of giant, spiky rocks shaped like knight’s helmet on the northeastern waterfront of this island is awe-inspiring. A sand beach whose surface is solid enough for aircraft to land on and take off from is situated here.

Countless colorful bean-sized pebbles engulf another sprawling beach, which is designated as a national treasure. Other exclusive joys from traveling to Baengnyeong include untouched nature, tranquility and fresh seafood.

However, all of these attractions have long been eclipsed for security concerns stemming from military confrontation with North Korea.

Jangsan Cape, a North Korean naval base, is just 17 kilometers away, which is close enough to be seen with the naked eye on fog-free days. A series of bloody skirmishes between the two Koreas that took place in recent years in waters off the island molded its image as a “front line zone” with the constant possibility of North Korean attacks.

Judging from a recent visit to this island, however, I reached the conclusion that labeling Baengnyeong as an “off-limits” area over lingering security fears is likened to a silly decision of boycotting bungee jumping on a knee-jerk fear of heights before knowing how thrilling it is.

“Here is much safer than elsewhere,” said Major Sohn Jung-ho of the 6th Brigade of the Marine Corps that defends the island. Nearly 5,000 armed soldiers keep a vigil there round-the-clock.

Nature-crafted island

Baengnyeong is a home a sandy beach whose surface is solid enough to be used by aircraft. Similar to ones in Naples, Italy and the Isle of Barra, Scotland, the “runway,” named Sagot Natural Runway, stretches out 3.2 kilometers. Small and mid-sized aircrafts landed and took off on the beach until 1985, said Kim Eung-kyeun, a tour guide.

“The solid surface is attributable to tiny particle of sands on the beach,” Kim said. “The reaction between the salt water and sand strengthens it like a formula for making concrete.”

Dumujin ㅡ a gathering of high, spiky rocks shaped like a brave knight’s helmet standing back to back on the northeastern seaside ㅡ is a must-visit destination.
It was designated as the 8th place with a scenic view in 1997. The first Western missionary to Korea landed on the island through Dumujin in 1832.

Baengnyeong is also well known as the “birthplace” of Christianity in South Korea. Junghwadong Church was established here in August 1896, the second Christian church in South Korea. For that reason, the majority of the 5,000 residents here believe in Christianity. No Buddhist temples exist.

A beach covered with bean-sized colorful pebbles is another must-visit destination. These are round and smooth, forming ideal conditions to walk barefoot on it. It is designated as a national treasure so taking samples from the beach is punishable by law.

Lesson on security

Baengnyeong is critical in military strategy for its proximity to the North. Jangsan Cape, a North Korean naval base, is just 17 kilometers north of the island, which is close enough to be seen with the naked eye in good weather.

Pyongyang insists the maritime border should be drawn further south, including Baengnyeong as part of its territory. This means a military clash within the disputed ocean is a constant possibility.

In fact, several bloody skirmishes between two Koreas have broken out in recent years in waters off the island. The worst naval incident in the country’s post-Korean War (1950-53) history ㅡ the sinking of warship Cheonan that killed 46 sailors ㅡ occurred last year in its vicinity.

A memorial tower was erected on a cliff that looks down the site of the tragedy on the occasion of the first anniversary of the tragedy that fell March 26.

A military official described the location of Baengnyeong as a “dagger aimed at heart of an enemy,” referring to its closeness to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

A military observatory on top of the 184-meter Mt. Upjuk, affiliated with the 6th Marine Brigade, offers many views of Jangsan Cape. The observatory is available for citizens after making a reservation at Ongjingun office ( at least one week in advance.

Critical disadvantages

Two critical disadvantages stand in the way of the island being a popular tourism destination. First, it takes nearly five hours to get there from Incheon by ferry, the sole public transportation available.

It is located 170 kilometers northwest of Incheon as the crow flies. But non-combat boats have to sail a 240-kilometer route that is designed to detour disputed waters with the North.

Second, nobody can say for 100 percent sure whether travelers here will leave as scheduled ㅡ nearly 30 percent of ferries are delayed or cancelled due to “capricious” weather conditions. For more information about Baengnyeong, visit

Source: The Korea Times

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