PAJU, South Korea — Dozens of young children giggled, screamed and obediently tolerated their camera-toting parents as they went from ride to ride at a small amusement park here on a recent Saturday.
Across a parking lot, some 100 yards away, a grim-faced South Korean soldier stared out across a barbed-wire fence from his guard tower at the Civilian Control Line, which essentially serves as the southernmost boundary of the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone.
If there is an ice cream shop outside the Gates of Hell, it would not be that much more unusual than Pyeong Hwa Land, the 18-ride children’s park visited by as many as 2 million people a year just outside the DMZ, an area once described as “the scariest place on earth.”
You might call the park DMZ World or Six Flags Over the Hermit Kingdom.
Children can ride on everything from boats, bumper cars and trains to teacups at the park, which sits in the middle of Imjingak — a tourist destination with a number of exhibits related to the Korean War and the future of North-South relations, near the banks of the Imjin River.
Office worker Lee Sang-hoon said Pyeong Hwa Land is the perfect way to open the door for discussions with children about the historic attractions nearby and the DMZ, which has divided North and South Korea since the Korean War was halted by armistice in 1953.
“Before this park opened, the environment and atmosphere of this place was much more barren and cold,” he said, during a visit to the park with his extended family and a group of seven children. “I wouldn’t have had any reason to bring my kids here if it wasn’t for the amusement park. But now I can, and do.
“While they play, they will one day ask about what’s around and, naturally, I’ll be able to talk to them about the division (of the two Koreas),” Lee said. “As time passes and they become older, they’ll be able to understand.”
That, according to park director Suh Shin-ha, was one of the reasons the amusement park was opened in 2001 – to get more children to Imjingak and exposed to the more serious messages on display.
The Imjingak facility was opened in the early 1970s and dedicated to the hope of an eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula. There are a number of statues and monuments related to the Korean War, and there are periodically exhibits and festivals held there themed to the potential for a unified Korea.
On site, a locomotive is on display that before the war hauled cars between Pusan in southernmost Korea and Sinuiju near the Korea-China border. It now sits as a symbol of the border crossings that are no longer allowed.
There is the large Peace Bell used to ring in every new year with the hope of reunification. The park is also home to the Bridge of Freedom, which was used by soldiers and POWs returning to the South after the war.
Just outside Imjingak is an area where South Koreans separated from relatives visit on major holidays to bow toward the North as part of a prayer for a reunification with their relatives.
Suh — adopting a world-weary, darn-these-kids-today tone — said more needs to be done to make children who visit the park as interested in the fractured relationship between the Koreas as they are in the merry-go-round and sky cycle.
“I feel it is very unfortunate that the children do not seem to feel anything,” he said. “I am not sure whether it is because they are not aware of the importance of the site on which the amusement park is situated, or because they know but simply just do not care.
“The visitors … tend to forget that they are so near the North and just come to enjoy their time with their families,” Suh said. “What a pity that is. They are not aware that just (a short distance) away, there are North Korean soldiers.”
Between rides, 11-year-old Kim Yoo-suh said he knew Imjingak was adjacent to “where the North and South are divided,” but saw no deeper significance to the location of the amusement park.
“It’s just fun here,” he said.
Suh said there has been talk of building a “marketing facility” at Imjingak that could show movies or video clips about the Korean War and North-South relations to as many as 50 children at a time, but getting the space, money and approval from a variety of government agencies makes prospects for it “almost impossible.”
Baek Shin-hyun, 13, at the park as part of an educational project about relations between the two Koreas, said he was uncomfortable with how children were more interested with the rides than the history of the place.
“I don’t like it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right. This place is all about wanting peace and loving our country, but I don’t feel right about people going on rides at such a place.”