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Let there be peace

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Let there be peace

Asian journalists visit the Baengnyeongdo Island of South Korea under the banner of Asia Journalists Association and adopt the ‘Freedom and Peace Declaration’

By Nasir Aijaz

Standing atop a hill at Baengnyeong, the northern most island of South Korea in the West Sea, I glanced towards the mountains of North Korean Hwanghae Province, visible very clearly, being at a distance of 10km.

My thoughts traversed through the history of Korean Peninsula. It was one country, one nation, same blood, culture and language, who remained under the subjugation of foreign powers for a long time, but unfortunately, they have strained relations, resulting in military conflicts.

I was among the group of journalists, comprising the members of the Asia Journalists Association (AJA) from different Asian countries, who had traveled about 240km in a cruise from Incheon port of South Korea and reached at Baengnyeong Island to adopt the ‘Freedom and Peace Declaration’.

Baengnyeongdo Island- Sindh CourierDuring the 2-day trip, starting on April 28, 2024, the journalists also visited various sites including the Museum of Simcheong, agricultural fields, beaches and Dumujin, known for the most beautiful coastal scenery on Baengnyeongdo Island.

The declaration was read by AJA President, Ashraf Abdul Yazid from Egypt and Senior Vice-President Norila Daud from Malaysia in the presence of 15 other Asian journalists who had gathered on the island to pursuit peace, stability and freedom of the Korean Peninsula.

The “2024 Baengnyeong Island Freedom and Peace Declaration” was read with one voice at the hilltop memorial of 46 maritime soldiers killed on March 26, 2010 when their patrolling ship was torpedoed.

Museum of Simcheong- Sindh Courier
Museum of Simcheong

Statue-Museum of Simcheong-Sindh Courier

Historically, the North and South Korea had experienced numerous maritime conflicts. On 26th March 2010 at 21:22, Cheonan, one of South Korea’s naval ships conducting a maritime operation at 2.5km away from southwest of Baengnyeong Island sank due to an explosion under the sea. The explosion separated head and tail sections of ship and among 104 crews 40 were killed and six others missing although the US Navy had helped in the search. The experts from US, UK, Australia and Sweden had noted that Cheonan sank due to Torpedo made by North Korea.

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Nasir Aijaz from Sindh, Pakistan and Habib Toumi from Bahrain

In view of the situation, the Asian journalists had gathered on the island in pursuit of peace, stability and freedom of the Korean Peninsula.

The Declaration read: “We oppose the situation where Baengnyeong Island becomes a flashpoint for Inter-Korean confrontation and actively strive to make it a bridgehead for permanent peace.”

“We actively promote and prepare solutions so that Baengnyeong Island, a treasure trove of natural resources can become a premium tourism center that captures the hearts of people in Korea, Asia and all over the world.

“We foster tangible and intangible core values so that Baengnyeong Island can grow into the frontline core area in the era of reunification of the Korean Peninsula. We will do our utmost to develop the best content that will help transform Baengnyeong Island into a transit port for West Sea trade in the Northeast Asia.”

Baengnyeong Island serves as a military stronghold, monitoring and observing North Korea’s Hwanghae Province all the year round the clock from a distance of 15km.

Historically, the North and South Korea had experienced numerous maritime conflicts. With patriotism, the Republic of Korea Navy and Marine Corps are protecting the seas of the nation, even amidst heightened military tensions.

Ivan Lim from Singapore and Habib Toumi from Bahrain
Ivan Lim from Singapore and Habib Toumi from Bahrain

“North Korea’s true colors were shown all over the world by discovery of savage, cruel provocation,” a note of Cheonan Ship 46 Brave Men Monument in Baengnyeong Island reads.

“To acknowledge our future generations of this tragedy and to remember North Korea’s savagery and honorable sacrifice of 46 men lost in Cheonan, our forces have established a monument where it overseas the place of attack,” the note said.

History, Geography and Economy of Island

Initially known as Gokdo Island, the name was changed to the current Baengnyeongdo Island based on its appearance as having white wings. It is the eighth largest island in Korea, and the closest to North Korea. Due to its vantage point, visitors must undergo a security process before touring the island. Baengnyeongdo Island is famous for an array of attractions and fresh seafood, with many fish varieties found in the area. The mighty sea cliffs of Dumujin are said to be the last masterpieces of an old god. Additional attractions of the island include the two-story high Simcheonggak Pavilion; Mulgaebawi Rock, the only place in Korea to see seals, and Sagot Coast, one of only two places in world with diatomaceous earth, strong enough to drive on and for military planes to use as a runway.

Baengnyeongdo Island-Sindh CourierBaengnyeong Island was the 14th largest island in Korea, but its size was expanded through two land reclamation projects, and it is now the 8th largest island in Korea. There are about 130 large and small islands near Baengnyeong Island. People also live on islands such as Socheong Island and Daecheong Island, and Baengnyeong Island is by far the largest island in terms of size.

The total population of Baengnyeong Island is approximately 10,000, with civilians and military personnel each accounting for half. There are total of 4 schools: 2 elementary schools, 1 middle school, and 1 high school.

Baengnyeongdo Island-Sindh Courier-1Baengnyeong Island is administratively part of Incheon, but the closest land to Baengnyeong Island is Gimpo City, which is about 160km away. On the other hand, the closest landmass in North Korea is Jangsangot, which is less than 15km away. So, on days when the weather is good, North Korean land can be seen from anywhere along the coast of Baengnyeong Island.

The five islands in the West Sea, including Baengnyeong Island, are in a geographically disadvantageous location, and as a result, support is provided at the government level. In particular, the government is providing subsidies of about $20,000 to people who have lived on Baengnyeong Island for more than 10 years to remodel their old houses, and those who have lived for less than that are also receiving some support.

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Dr. Rohel Aijaz from Sindh Pakistan

When the sun is up, Baengnyeong Island is a quiet and peaceful island, but at midnight, the Coast of Baengnyeong Island is full of lights with South Korea and North Korea on guard and surveillance.

Baengnyeong Island, the westernmost island on the Korean Peninsula, continues fulfilling its role as a key security point for South Korea.

Baengnyeongdo Island-Sindh Courier-3Approximately, 60% of the economy is agriculture, centered on rice farming. 30% belongs to the fishing industry and 10% to the service industry such as tourism, retail, and finance. Farmland was secured through a reclamation project and a freshwater lake was created, but the area is still very salty and agricultural water relies on groundwater. Although it is adjacent to the sea, it also faces North Korea, making it an unfavorable environment for fishing. Like most other islands in Korea, there is a power plant on the island.

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Painting at the museum depicting the folklore of the Island

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To get to Baengnyeong Island, one must take a boat from Incheon, and it operates only twice a day. Additionally, it is said that about 30% of ships are canceled each year due to weather conditions such as fog or heavy rain. Previously, more ships traveled between Incheon and Baengnyeong Island, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, routes were shortened and the tourism industry was hit hard. After COVID-19, approximately 200 to 300 tourists visit Baengnyeong Island on weekdays and 500 to 600 on weekends. As it is a military strategic point and requires a four-hour boat ride from Incheon, the tourist infrastructure is somewhat poor. However, thanks to these aspects, there are many places that have preserved their natural appearance, and there are also famous places that have been designated as natural monuments.

Baengnyeongdo Island-Sindh Courier-6The white sand beach known as Sagot Beach (about 4km long), declared as Natural Monument No. 391, is one of only two natural airfields in the world, the other one being located in Naples, Italy. In fact, this place was used as an airfield during the Korean War and until the 1980s. Sagot Beach is also well known for its diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is a hard cement-like soil, and is commonly used as a raw material for household mats in Korea. Due to the hardness of the soil, it was possible to drive on the sandy beach until a few years ago, but due to its natural importance, it is now prohibited by the government.

Read: Korea reclaims 1600 ha land by dumping waste into West Sea

Dumujin, known for the most beautiful coastal scenery on Baengnyeongdo Island, is situated in the northwest of the island. Its picturesque coastal cliffs and vibrant rock formations, shaped by years of wave action, have earned it the nickname “Geumgangsan Mountain on the sea.” Visitors can enjoy Dumujin from the sea aboard a cruise ship, or explore it on land by taking the Dumujin port road.

The Korea Times daily has described Baengnyeong Island as ‘The most beautiful military frontline in Korea’ while the NBC News has termed it as ‘The fortress island fixed in North Korea’s sights’.

Read: Korea, a nation divided by artificial borders

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Nasir Aijaz is a senior journalist based in Karachi, the capital of Sindh province of Pakistan. He is author of nine books and hundreds of articles on language, literature, history, and other topics. He can be reached at nasir.akhund1954@gmail.com

 

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