Beyond barbed wire: South Korea invites public to walk DMZ

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By Webdesk

Ganghwa County, South Korea – Barbed wire is coiled in large circles along the top of a high fence that runs the length of the promenade. A military escort stands vigilant in the green surroundings. Soldier watchtowers are scattered along the path.

This is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean Peninsula and is widely regarded as the most heavily fortified border in the world.

Just over 10 years ago, the DMZ was considered a “bad idea” and “deeply regrettable” by officials responsible for promoting South Korea’s image abroad.

But times have changed and the government is now keen to promote the area as a place of peace and contemplation, recently opening 11 “DMZ Peace Routes” to the public.

This is the “time to overcome the divisive situation,” Cho Yong-man, the second vice minister of tourism, told reporters during a recent tour of the trails.

A South Korean watchtower surrounded by barbed wire at the DMZ.  Bright pink bougainvillea grows on the path next to it
The hiking trails pass through lush vegetation and are a regular reminder that the DMZ is one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders [Raphael Rashid/Al Jazeera]

The Peace Trails are designed to allow visitors to hike and explore areas where nature has thrived in the absence of humans, including in Ganghwa County, an island group bordering North Korea and just 45 km (28 mi) from the South Korean capital Seoul is located .

The tour begins at the Ganghwa War Museum, where photos outside, along the wire fence, help visitors learn about the history of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended not in a peace treaty but in an armistice.

The devastating conflict tore apart the Korean peninsula, killing millions and dividing the country; a legacy still visible in the DMZ, a 250 km long and 4 km wide buffer zone between North and South Korea.

A memorial on the museum grounds honors Ganghwa war veterans and United Nations forces, including 16 countries who fought alongside South Korea during the war and five who provided medical assistance.

A 13 km drive, through a checkpoint within the Civilian Control Line (CCL), is a restaurant that serves both South and North Korean cuisine, with breathtaking views of the river that separates the two sides.

Although not technically part of the DMZ, which only covers the land, the mouth of the Han River, which runs 67 km (41 mi) from the mouth of the Imjin River at the tip of Ganghwa County, is classified as neutral water, although in reality no one is allowed to actually use it.

A blue sculpture for veterans of the Korean War in the DMZ.  There are pink bougainvillea and mountains behind it.
Korean Peninsula sculpture at a memorial honoring Korean War veterans from Ganghwa County and the United Nations. Behind it is the Ganghwa War Museum which runs along barbed wire [Raphael Rashid/Al Jazeera]

Untouched by human activity, the waterway is now home to a host of rare plants and animals, including several eagles, white-naped cranes, swan geese, bean geese, Seoul frogs, and black-fronted spoonbills, as well as endangered species. Since no detailed survey of the aquatic ecosystem has ever been conducted, the waterway is believed to be home to unrecorded species as well.

The Ganghwa Peace Observatory is located uphill from the restaurant and has both indoor and outdoor viewing platforms.

Through binoculars, walkers get a rare glimpse into the communist nation: workers, farmers, fields and houses across the street. Though miniscule, it’s a way of looking at everyday North Korean citizens through a more human lens – people who are as many victims of the tragic division of the peninsula as South Koreans.

Citizens on both sides will probably never be able to meet in person.

Family reunions brokered between the governments of the two countries for those seeking to reconnect with loved ones across the border have been rare. The most recent heartbreaking event took place in 2018, during a period of thawing relations under Moon Jae-in’s previous government. Every month, the number of family members on waiting lists drops by hundreds because they die of old age. Of the 133,000 registered so far, more than 41,000 people are still alive.

The next stop takes visitors to the most dramatic site of the tour, the 1.5km barbed wire walkway between Uidudondae and Buljangdondae watchtowers, historical sites used for defense purposes during the Korean Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and now a modern have a military function. .

Couple looks at North Korea across the mouth of the Han River at the Ganghwa Peace Observatory.  It is a sunny day with a cloudless sky
A couple looks across the mouth of the Han River to North Korea at the Ganghwa Peace Observatory [Raphael Rashid/Al Jazeera]

The area, one of the closest places South Korean citizens will ever get to North Korea, was previously closed to the public but is now open to the Ganghwa DMZ peace trail. According to Lieutenant Colonel Park Ki-byung, one of the military personnel assigned to guide this part of the tour, photography is strictly prohibited in order to “protect military facilities”.

With visitors donning fluorescent yellow jackets, conflict is unlikely but not impossible. North Korea has previously attacked its southern neighbor, including shelling Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Gunfire has also been exchanged along the DMZ in recent years. Lieutenant Colonel Park stressed that tourist safety is their top priority.

The tranquility of nature, with rice paddies on one side and pristine coastline on the other side of the fence, contrasts sharply with traditional DMZ tours, which take foreign tourists to the Joint Security Area’s Armistice Village of Panmunjom.

Hikers descend stairs to the sea.  They wear reflective shirts.  They walk to an empty beach with waves crashing on the shore
Hikers are accompanied on some hikes, which also require them to wear reflective jackets [Courtesy of Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, South Korea]

Often considered a must-see for any first-time visitor to South Korea, Panmunjom tours are distinguished by a theatrical build-up of suspense by American soldiers.

The recently opened peace pathways are the result of top diplomacy in 2018, when the two Koreas agreed in the Panmunjom Declaration to “turn the DMZ into a peace zone”. However, its opening was hampered by concerns about the spread of swine fever and later by COVID-19.

They are located along the DMZ in areas such as Gimpo, Paju and Cheorwon and consist of sections that participants can enjoy on foot or by vehicle for safety and conservation reasons. Due to the nature of the security area, only Korean nationals are eligible to apply, at least for now.

Choi Seong-ho, a resident of Gyodong Island in Ganghwa County, describes the area as a “cosy” and inclusive place that has always welcomed people from different backgrounds. He has a special affection for the island as it was home to people who fled North Korea during the war, including his father and grandfather, who he says were warmly received by the locals.

Choi Seong-ho smiles next to his meat fridge at Daeryong Market on the North Korean border.
Born in Ganghwa, Choi Seong-ho is the third generation to run his family’s butcher shop in Daeryong Market, on the border with North Korea [Raphael Rashid/Al Jazeera]

He is now the third generation to run a butcher shop and adjoining restaurant in the highly Instagrammable Daeryong Market, also located on the border and the last stop on the Ganghwa DMZ peace trail.

For him, living on the doorstep of North Korea has allowed him to observe their community’s peaceful coexistence with the same people as his own family, despite differing ideologies.

“I don’t know about reunification, but I know we have to maintain close ties and avoid conflict,” he told Al Jazeera.

“No one likes war.”

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