Mayor Chung Gap-cheol of Hwacheon, the host county of the famous Hwacheon Mountain Trout and Ice Culture Festival (designated by the Central Government as the Representative Festival of the Republic of Korea), is a legendary person now widely known throughout the Republic of Korea and the world as well as in his native county of Hwacheon and province Gangwon.
Through the Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival, Mayor Chung has made the Festival one of the ‘Seven Winter Wonders of the World’ and turned the county to one of the most prosperous counties of the Republic of Korea as well as the Gangwon province.
Mayor Chung initially got the idea of the Festival from the Smelt Fish Festival in the nearby Inje County of the same Gangwon province. But the smelts are of the size of man’s fingers and whatever big prizes you offer for the lucky ‘fishermen’ who landed the ‘largest smelt’ or the ‘largest number of the tiny fish’ they were far from giving them any satisfaction.
In 2002 when Chung was elected the mayor of the County, he told himself that the ‘fishermen’ should be able to catch enough to become satisfied and that the fish must be of the size they would be happy to have caught. “Why would any tourist come to this Festival if the tourist does not catch enough fish worth his trouble of coming and, of course, his money?
Chung brought in trouts of about a foot each long or large and gave the fish a new name, San- Cheon-Eo, meaning Mountain-River-Fish and translating in English ‘Mountain Trout.’
Chung brought in over 500,000 trouts and released them into the sections of the frozen river where the tourists and visitors were to catch them through the holes bored on the surface.
The Hwacheon County at the time had a total population of 22,000 persons. He told the members of his county office and citizens, “I will take off my coat and dance in the market if I can have 20,000 visitors to this festival, or even less.”
Chung wanted to make sure how many people came and visited the frozen river. Chung saw the river literally covered with visitors, including many foreign tourists. The total number of visitors that year reached 220,000 more than 10 times his target.
On Dec. 1, 2011, Mayor Chung received a phone call from a friend of his. The friend told him in an excited tone, “My friend, the CNN has selected your ‘Mountain Trout Festival’ as one of the ‘Seven Winter Wonders of the World’.”
Chung could not believe his ears. He opened his Internet and confirmed that his friend’s tipping was true. The good news made him recall what difficulties he had in developing his Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival at the beginning. The ‘obstinacy’ on the part of Mayor Chung made the small mountain trout festival one of the most important festivals of the world.
The Hwacheon County in the rugged mountainous Gangwon province on the East Coast of the Korean peninsula consists 86% of steep mountains and 6% of rivers. The remaining 8% consists of farmland, residential districts, shopping area and small industries.
Hwacheon was the only county in the Republic of Korea without a four-lane access road. In this situation, it was extremely difficult for Chung to induce any industry to invest in his county because no businessman would want to invest in such a barren locality. The size of the farmland, too, was very small.
However, there was one thing which Chung was sure to be an advantage that other localities did not have. It was the cleanliness of the region completely free from pollution. Chung asked himself, “How can I turn this clean environment into an advantageous asset? Maybe I can produce farm goods and sell them with a ‘clean product’ tag.” However, Chung decided against it because the arable land in the Hwacheon County was so small and the clean farm produce did not yield much revenue for the county.
Then a noble idea struck his head. It was Sancheoneo (mountain trouts). However, Chung became a laughing stock from the county people as well as his friends. They reminded him that there were no mountain trouts living in any river or lake in Hwacheon! However, Chung was not daunted.
In 2003, Chung blocked the Hwacheon River and made it freeze and ventured on his project from January 11 to 16. He named the event “Mountain Trout Festival.” There was a festival in Hwacheon County at the time, which was called “Namcheon Ice Festival,” which, however, was a small village event. In order to make the county people believe in his plan, Chung, as was briefly mentioned earlier, told them, “I will dance in the middle of the market without my coat if I can draw 20,000 visitors for the new Festival.”
However, the result was much more than had been anticipated. A total of 220,000 persons, eleven times the targeted number, came to the Festival, which was a sheer surprise and a really great success for Chung.
It was a number for which Chung had to dance 11 times out in the market. The number of visitors to Hwacheon was the largest in the history of the county save for the surge of the Chinese troops into the area during the Korean War (1950-3). It was a festival and Chung needed dining facilities and souvenir stores at the event sites but the restaurant managers and storeowners hesitated to open their shops in the event sites because they remembered how bad their business was in the previous year.
However, learning that the Festival had drawn 220,000 visitors, the storeowners and dining house managers competed with one another to be the first to open their facilities in the event sites in 2004.
They competed beginning several months before the opening time of the Festival. During the 2nd Mountain Trout Festival in 2004, a total 580,000 tourists came, more than double the number of visitors of the 1st Mountain Trout Festival.
The Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT) saw this and designated the Mountain Trout Festival as the “Preliminary Primary Culture-Tourism Festival.”
In 2005, the 3rd Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival was visited by a total of 870,000 people from across the country and in the following year of 2006 the total number of visitors reached over one million, which made the MCT re-designate the Festival as a ‘Promising Culture-Tourism Festival.’
The number of visitors to the Mountain Trout Festival continued to grow, namely 1.25 million in 2007, 1.3 million in 2008, and continuously over 1 million in 2009 and 2010. The MCT repeatedly upgraded the status of the Festival to ‘Excellent Festival’ and then to ‘The Most Excellent Festival.' And ultimately to the ‘Representative Festival of the Republic of Korea’ in 2013.
The development also made the Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival one that won the top designation (‘The Most Excellent Festival) within the shortest period of time in the history of the MCT designation of festivals in Korea.
Mayor Chung stopped counting the number of visitors beginning in 2009 as the number exceeded the one million mark because if he was overly concerned with the number of visitors the Festival could not make any progress in terms of quality and in regard to giving satisfaction to the visitors. Then he turned his attention to upgrading the quality of the Festival.
Chung learned that he had a problem to solve immediately. It was the lack of appropriate lodging facilities in Hwacheon County. Many of the visitors wanting to stay in Hwacheon for the night or for a few days had to leave the county to the nearby city of Chuncheon to spend the night there and then come back to Hwacheon to continue their tour. Nor were there appropriate night-life facilities in Hwacheon.
Mayor Chung gave the citizens of Hwacheon a job to make lanterns and make money. Then he told the citizens to light up the streets with the colorful ‘Mountain Trout Lanterns’ during the Festival period for a night sight so that the visitors would want to stay in Hwacheon instead of leaving for Chuncheon.
Chung had the citizens make a total of over 24,000 ‘Mountain Trout Lanterns’ in all colors and ‘embroidered’ entire area of the Hwacheon Town with the colorful lanterns. Then he asked the noted Korean novelist Lee Oisoo give the town a name. Novelist Lee, an invited resident of Hwacheon, gladly accepted the offer and gave the town this name, Seondeung Geori (“The Street of Saints’ Lanterns’). Seon also means ‘angles’ in Korean. Lee said, “The name means that anyone walking in this lantern-lit street will become a saint or an angle.”
So Chung got the tourists alright to stay in Hwacheon, but did he have adequate lodging facilities? Chung checked all the Pension Houses and Home-stay houses in town and asked the owners to carry out renovations to provide the tourists with a more comfortable stay.
Soon, Chung started getting inquires and requests from similar festival managers and city authorities for festival cooperation and they included the famed Chinese Harbin Ice Lantern Festival, the Quebec Winter Carnival of Canada and the Grindelwald City of Switzerland.
At this juncture, the TIME magazine of the United States covered the Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival as the ‘News of the Week.’
Chung then turned his attention to the Southeast Asian countries that did not have a winter season. In 2009, Chung flew to Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and other warm countries of Asia with English promotional literature on the Festival (including, of course, the stories and photos published by The Korea Post), and met with various tour agents. The result was over 8,000 tourists attending the 8th Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival in 2010 from these countries. Back home after their visit to Hwacheon, they introduced their tour of Hwacheon to their friends and other contacts through their Internet blogs.
Since then Hwacheon has a good number of visitors from the Southeast Asian countries all year round. One tourist from Taiwan said, “So far, we saw only old palaces and other historical sites in Korea and some shopping at department stores. Now we have Hwacheon which gave us an entirely different experience. You see the rare DMZ, visit a ginseng farm, pick some ginseng roots and take home all that you have picked. We also make kimchi with cabbage and radish.”
Chung says, “If someone wants me to grade the Mountain Trout Festival, I would give it nothing more than 60 points out of total 100, Why? It is because then I would have 40 more to go to continuously improve the Festival.”
Mayor Chung leaves his post as the mayor of the Hwacheon County of Gangwon province in June this year upon his successful tour of duty. He has served all three terms as the county mayor and he cannot run for any more terms immediately after the current one.
The Korea Post asked people close to Mayor Chung as to what Chung was planning to do, including the possibility of running for the gubernatorial election for the provincial governor.
They said, “Mayor Chung is a modest man and he denies it, but a very hard-working man as he is won’t idle his time away.”
The lifespan of the Korean people has become considerably long and there are people why say, “Nowadays, we should add 20 years to the retirement age.” They said that Chung would be doing something maybe more important than a county mayor.