Mountain scenery and a military patrolled border — Gangwon is South Korea's most mysterious province

Divided during the Korean War, a visit to the northern province of Gangwon combines witnessing the most fortified border on earth with hiking though monumental mountain scenery.

By Chris Tharp
Published 27 May 2021, 09:42 BST
Gangwon: where North meets South
From a military patrolled border to spectacular national parks, a visit to the northern province of Gangwon showcases South Korea at its most mysterious.

The soldiers manning the checkpoint may be baby-faced, but their helmets, armbands and automatic rifles tell us they mean business. Despite their youth, they project an air of solemn authority, and after a couple of questions and a peek into the boot of the car they wave us through. Our light mood is replaced with a telling silence. After all, we’re rolling into one of the world’s most notorious flashpoints: Korea’s last outpost of the Cold War, known as the DMZ (DeMilitarised Zone).

It’s a late-winter morning, with a biting wind blowing in from the East Sea. A smothering of clouds broods overhead and I can taste kelp in the air. As we leave the car and climb the stairs towards the Goseong Unification Observatory, I’m afforded my first ocean view: the beach below is rugged and empty, with roiling surf foaming on a wide stretch of rock-strewn sand.

“The waters here are very rich,” remarks my guide, Jeon Seong-soon. Originally from South Korea’s North Jeolla Province, she retired to Gangwon with her husband to soak up the fresh air and natural living that this northerly region offers in spades. “This area is well-known for octopus,” she continues, gesturing towards the watery expanse. “They are harvested by male divers known as meoguri, several of whom are defectors from the north.”     

This is the first time she has mentioned North Korea, the other half of this ancient peninsula and a country much maligned in the West. The chance to gaze into this mysterious land is, of course, why I’ve come to the DMZ, but what I’m initially struck by is its serenity. I thought such a place would induce anxiety, but the combination of mountains, pine trees, sea and sky manages to soothe. Who knew the most fortified border on earth could feel so peaceful? 

The demilitarized zone (DMZ) splits North Korea from South and is the most fortified border on earth.

The demilitarized zone (DMZ) splits North Korea from South and is the most fortified border on earth. 

Photograph by PSW

We enter the main building, a gleaming, multilevel affair, and emerge onto an outdoor observation deck. As the wind picks up, I pull my wool cap down over my ears and commandeer one of the coin-operated telescopes, poring over the desolate stretch of coastline in front of us and pausing at a lump of land extending into the sea, connected to the shore by only a narrow spit of sand. 

“That’s the border,” remarks Mrs Jeon. As I look on, my lens stops at a rocky rise looming in the distance. “And that’s North Korea.” Mrs Jeon goes on to inform me that this little mountain is also home to a sizable bunker, and while I do my best to discern a trace of military presence, I can make out only weather-worn forms of ancient stone. 

As my eyes rove onwards I do, however, manage to spy a couple of man-made structures: two South Korean observation stations, as well as the faint outline of a northern watchtower perched on top of a prominent peak. Just beneath us, stretching north, is a railway line and four-lane road, seemingly brand new. Built to connect the two Koreas, both stand silent and empty; links, it seems, to nowhere.

“When I look out, I feel like I can just go there with one step.” says Mrs Jeon, sorrowfully. “But then I realise I can’t,” she adds, “and it breaks my heart.” 

The small seaside city of Sokcho sits at the entrance to Seoraksan National Park, and is ...

The small seaside city of Sokcho sits at the entrance to Seoraksan National Park, and is famous throughout South Korea for its fish market. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Spirits in stone

The clouds continue to swirl as we head back south along the coast, and after a lunch of abalone dolsot bap (stone pot rice) and freshly grilled fish at Daejin Harbour, we drive down to Hwajinpo Lake. This natural lagoon is the largest in Korea, an incredibly beautiful blue expanse, though it’s most famous for its connection to the past.  

Wandering through a stand of pines, we come out at the door of a small stone house, the summer villa for South Korea’s founding president, Rhee Syngman. Rhee shared the surprisingly humble cottage with his Austrian-born wife, Franziska Donner, and the space is done up exactly how it was when it was built in 1954, complete with a set of fishing rods in the corner. 

Rhee’s cottage has a terrific view of the lake, including an imposing, castle-like building, once the summer villa of North Korea’s first strongman Kim Il-sung, perched on a hillside across the water. This part of Gangwon Province changed hands during the Korean War (1950-53), and both leaders clearly saw the merit of having a house in such a serene place, setting up shop on opposite sides of the water. 

We stroll across the little bridge spanning the lake’s narrows and find ourselves in the more spacious Kim Il-sung compound. As I wander its empty, echoing halls, I keep my eyes peeled for ghosts, and while actual phantoms escape me, a single black and white photograph stands out: five children sit on rough-hewn stone steps, including a skinny, shirtless Kim Jong-il, who would not only go on to succeed his father, but sire today’s North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. 

“When I first arrived in Gangwon,” Mrs Jeon says as we leave the house and amble down to the beach below, “I was afraid all the time. I actually hid under my blanket at night because I could hear the sound of guns in the distance. But soon I noticed that the local people lived their lives free of fear, and now I am the same. This makes me smile.” 

Sinheungsa Temple is an ancient Zen Buddhist site, home to many hundreds of monks.

Sinheungsa Temple is an ancient Zen Buddhist site, home to many hundreds of monks. 

Photograph by Alamy

The following day, I find myself trekking through South Korea’s most famous valley in Seoraksan National Park. “We have three great mountains in the country,” says local forest guide, Kweon Gi-hwan. “Hallasan is the highest, Jirisan is the grandest, but Seoraksan is the most majestic.” 

It’s still early, and we’re walking in frigid forest shade, but above us sunlight is starting to spill over the valley, lighting up the otherworldly stone spires of Gangwon’s most famous massif like an oil painting. We climb further and I become intoxicated with my surroundings. The stream whose path we’re following meanders merrily through boulders; much of it is frozen over, with intermittent stretches of running water meeting glossy, iced-over pools and patches of white frost. The landscape is barren and stark, yet utterly spellbinding in its beauty. 

At Biseondae, a narrowing of the canyon famous for its flat rock and three guardian peaks, I’m reminded that people have been coming to this mountain for millennia, centuries before North and South Korea divided. Buddhist prayers in the form of Chinese characters are carved into a slab of stone next to the stream, and when I ask Kweon how old they might be, he shrugs and says, “Oh, four or five hundred years.” 

We press on, criss-crossing the stream via footbridges before finally reaching Guimyeon-am, a rock formation said to contain the face of a ghost. The spirit I see is wholly different from the one I was searching for at Kim Il-sung’s summer house, though I find myself again reminded of North Korea. Even deep in the national park, where the only sounds are the trickle of water and a breeze making its way through the forest’s naked limbs, we are still only 25 miles from the border and its brooding presence lingers. 

After heading back down the valley, we end our day at Sinheungsa, a Buddhist temple near the trailhead. The six peaks of Ulsanbawi, Seoraksan’s most iconic rock formation, stand like sentinels in the background, and as we stroll through the grounds Kweon reflects on the mountain. “In my opinion,” he says, “Seoraksan is both a father and mother to the Korean people. It’s strong like a father, and beautiful like a mother. We see both in this peak.”

I’m moved by Kweon’s speech, for he is not simply referring to the people of South Korea but the country as a whole. Physically, this land may be separated by watchtowers and razor wire, but the population still consider themselves one. Perhaps one day, in a future near or far, they will be brought together once more.

Plan your trip

Getting there & around
British Airways and Korean Air fly several times a week from Heathrow to Incheon.

KTX high-speed rail travels from Seoul to Gangneung city several times a day and takes around two hours. Express buses also leave from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal to many destinations in Gangwon. But local bus services can be infrequent, so the best way to explore is by car. All cities and towns offer cheap, metered taxis; write directions in Korean as few drivers speak English. 

When to go
Ideal temperatures are April to June and September to early November; the region can get busy in autumn. Winter is cold (though good for snow sports) and summer hot and humid. 

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Gangwon: where North meets South
From a military patrolled border to spectacular national parks, a visit to the northern province of Gangwon showcases South Korea at its most mysterious.

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