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On the Border Between North and South Korea, Spicy Catfish Stew Is on the Menu

Getting to Jeonseon Hyugaeso requires a 2-hour drive from Seoul, plenty of paperwork, and turning in your passport

There’s only one thing on the menu at Jeonseon Hyugaeso: maegi maeuntang. “No additional sujebi (pulled dough) after you get your stew. Ask for a lot when you order,” a handwritten sign instructs. Diners can choose the size, from a small pot for two up to a five-person serving, but there’s no dinner service, only lunch. That’s because there’s a sunset curfew here: The restaurant is one of only a few inside the Civilian Control Zone, which sits on the southern border of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ.

Established after the Korean War, the DMZ is a heavily armed four-kilometer belt straddling the 38th parallel. It’s vast: Together with the CCZ (a military-controlled buffer zone between the DMZ’s southern line and South Korea), this hinterland covers an area four times the size of Seoul. Largely untouched over the last 65 years, forests and wetlands have overtaken ruins and battlefields, and scientists have observed over 91 endangered species in the region. The DMZ has become such a fixture of the imagination that the Harvard Graduate School of Design has a course this year rethinking this “landscape of intrinsic beauty and terror.” For many of us with Korean ancestry, the DMZ has a particular pull; it’s a place to reach out and touch the rift, to try to understand the unseen things we inherit from generations of war.

Getting to Jeonseon Hyugaeso requires advance planning: You have to reserve ahead of time so the restaurant owners can give your names to the guards. There’s no public transportation, and it’s a two-hour drive outside of Seoul. Entering Cheorwon County, apartment complexes, coffee shops, and strip malls fade into rice fields, then into huge black billboards with a white skull and crossbones painted on them. This image is the insignia for the 3rd Infantry Division, also called the White Skulls, who are stationed in Cheorwon and often come in to eat at Jeonseon Hyugaeso. They’re notorious for their intense training: Their presence here is palpable, a steady reminder of the militarization of this landscape.

To enter the CCZ, drivers must weave through concrete barriers, fill out paperwork, unplug dash cams and turn in their passports at the gate. A guard hands our group a day pass that must be visible on the dashboard at all times. “Purpose of entry: Security tourism,” it reads.

Security tourism, an industry that brings travelers to sites emblematic of the Korean War and ongoing tensions in the border region, took off in the 1980s thanks to government efforts to bolster anti-communism education. The bombed-out ruins and discontinued railways that serve as remembrances of the intense back-and-forth battles along the 38th parallel are now destinations for busloads of tourists. Wartime nostalgia can take various perspectives, but in recent years, Cheorwon has taken to advertising the region as a symbol for peace. “In many ways, security tourism serves as a social device to induce both public vigilance against the ‘enemy’ and aspiration for unification,” writes professor Keunsik Jung, director of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

After the gate, it’s another 10 minutes past frozen fields and we’re there: an unassuming brick and cinder block structure on the banks of the Hantan River. Owners Kim Young-beom, 69, and Kim Sun-hee, 63, opened the restaurant in 1992 and named it after the now-defunct railway that crosses the river just steps away: jeonseon for electric rail, and hyugaeso for “rest stop,” like the kind found along highways.

The Kims greet us warmly, ushering us towards the coal briquette stove in the center of the room and handing us paper cups of hot, sweet instant coffee before showing us their farm. There’s a shed on the property packed with a year’s supply of homemade kimchi, easily hundreds of gallons of pickled cabbage and radish. Inside their storehouse piled high with dried chilies, the air carries the fragrance of something between dried fruit and smoky autumn leaves. “It’s still early, why don’t you go see the bridge before lunch?” Kim Sun-hee suggests.

We gingerly follow their son, Kim Chang-seop, 36, over the ice-slicked path onto the Geumgangsan Bridge, which once supported a railway between Seoul and towns now north of the border. “Disconnected railroad! Mt. Geumgang 90km,” read a series of signs, the exclamation point underscoring the symbolism of these relics. The air is bright and icy, and our voices take on the timbre of bells in the stillness. Well, almost-stillness: The entire time, a loudspeaker has been playing an upbeat mix of Korean folk ballads and pop songs, but at one point, a women’s solemn voice comes on, saying something stern about North Korea that’s hard to make out. This soundtrack is projected for the benefit of our northern neighbors, who are not playing theirs today.

We’re in the middle of the bridge, but we can’t go any further. There used to be a village on the other side, Kim Chang-seop tells us, “but it’s full of landmines now.” There are an estimated one million landmines in the DMZ and another million in the CCZ, with both sides allegedly replacing aging devices. It’s the story of the Fall told backwards, human suffering and then the garden.

Kim Chang-seop tells us that we can take photos on the left side of the bridge (river, forest) but not the right (military base), adding casually, “The soldiers are probably watching us right now.” Growing up inside the sparsely-populated CCZ, there were only five children in his elementary school. He has fond memories of hanging out with the soldiers, who would share their hardtack provisions with him. They assured him that he wouldn’t have to join the military because the two countries would be unified by the time he was old enough to be conscripted. “It’s been 15 years since I finished my service,” Kim Chang-seop laughs.

He’s since left the village and has a family of his own, but returns regularly to help his parents out. He’s also not particularly bothered by recent growing tensions between the North and South. “We’re so close to the border, the missiles will just fly over us,” he says. It’s unclear if he’s joking or not, but he, like many Koreans I know, comfortably wears this shrug of indifference, an easy, pocket-sized nihilism.

Back at the restaurant, the dining room is now full with locals in layered work clothes, a middle-aged couple, and soldiers with the skull and crossbones stitched onto their uniforms. (A tour bus sometimes stops at Jeonseon Hyugaeso, offloading groups of security tourists, but none are visible.) Rumor has it that each side chooses the handsomest soldiers to serve on the front lines, as propaganda that places each nation’s best face(s) forward. The soldiers here are good-looking, and they are also so young. Everyone, locals and soldiers alike, is huddled over the steaming pots of maeuntang.

Maeuntang, which literally translates to “spicy stew,” is a humble concoction of fish and vegetables in a brick-red broth. It’s often made with freshwater species, and at fish markets, a plate of fresh-cut hwae, or sliced raw fish, is followed by a pot of maeuntang made with the leftover carcass and innards. It can be be seasoned to eye-watering, nose-searing levels, but our party opts for medium heat. “Maybe about this much?” Kim Sun-hee says, back in the kitchen, throwing a ladleful of gochugaru (chili flakes), and then a little extra, into the gochujang-radish broth.

She pulls out a small bucket of shimmering green catfish. “We don’t use frozen,” she says proudly, patting the plump, sticky fillets before adding them to the broth. They used to get their fish from the river, whose waters are so clear you can count every stone on the riverbed. “But we’re not supposed to fish here anymore because of the landmines,” says Chang-seop. In addition to the unmarked devices still buried south of the DMZ, heavy rains can bring other landmines downstream into cleared areas; one non-profit estimates that nearly 300 civilians have been killed by landmines since the war. So instead, the Kims get their catfish from friends nearby who have fishing licenses.

They grow their own chilies, garlic, scallions, cabbages, and radishes here. They have fruit trees and bee hives, and they sell honey and dried chrysanthemums at the counter. Like many Koreans of their generation, their self-sufficiency was hard-won: Both moved to Cheorwon County as children, in the post-war years when both the South and North Korean governments relocated civilians and encouraged farming in border towns to deter invasions and increase food supply.

“When we got married, we had nothing,” Kim Sun-hee explains. “I’d go to the mountains to pick wild greens and sell those.” With that money, they bought a cow, which gave birth to twins. They sold the calves and little by little, saved enough to buy the land where their restaurant sits now. Today, they say, a legal dispute with the county threatens to do away with their business: In 1991, they donated their land to the county government with the understanding that doing so would guarantee their business license and a permanent lease. Now, the Kims say, the county tells them there is no record of any such agreement and their building might be put up for auction.

But while there are customers here, they are all business. Kim Sun-hee brings out our soup in a wide-rimmed pot piled high with giant scallions, water dropwort, and perilla leaves, each lending herbal notes of pungency, minerality, and mint. The pot simmers on a tabletop burner while we ladle out chunks of catfish, radish, and sujebi infused with the brick-red chili broth.

I’ve never had catfish like this before: With no muddiness or mush, the flesh is mild, almost olive-oil-rich, and I pick the bones clean. If you ever have the good fortune of ordering maeuntang with wild-caught catfish, do yourself a favor and ask for mild to medium heat. There are times for blasting your face off with chilies, but this is not one of them. The banchan’s flavors are clean, too, the kimchi bright and citrusy.

Meanwhile, the stew continues to cook at the table, the broth thickening into a rich, rust-colored sauce that we scrape off the bottom and eat with spoonfuls of rice.

One of the restaurant’s wide glass windows offers views of the bridge, the half-frozen river, and the forest with its hidden landmines. The same war that created this nature preserve also created the conditions for Jeonseon Hyugaeso to exist. If reunification is achieved someday, how will the powers that be protect this landscape from the kinds of rampant development that the rest of South Korea has seen? It is already lapping at the edges: The southern boundary of the CCZ has moved north three times since its establishment, fueled by rising property values. Whatever the resolution to a divided Korea entails — war, peace, or something in between — residents of this border region face an uncertain future.

As the clock ticks towards 2 p.m., Kim Chang-seop starts to fidget. His phone rings: It is the gate guard, wanting to know why our party hasn’t left yet. We say our goodbyes; pull on our hats and gloves, and make our way back out into winter.

Sonja Swanson is a writer and former editor at Time Out Seoul now living in the Southwest. Michelle Min is a food and travel photographer based in San Francisco.
Editors: Erin DeJesus and Whitney Filloon

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