Tourists look toward North Korea from the Imjingak Pavilion near the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea. File Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo
PYEONGTAEK, South Korea, April 19 (UPI) -- Tourists may soon be able to hike on "DMZ Peace Trails" into the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, the United Nations Command said.
Lt. Gen Wayne Eyre, deputy commander of the UNC, said Thursday that he fully supports the plan, which was announced earlier this month by the South Korean government, and is coordinating with the country's Ministry of Defense to implement it.
"We're working very closely with Ministry of Defense to make the peace trails a reality," Eyre told reporters during a media day at UNC headquarters in Camp Humphreys, some 40 miles south of Seoul.
"Our primary concern is the safety and security of any citizen that would be on these peace trails because if it's done within the DMZ, it's under the authority of the commander of the UNC."
The United Nations Command was created in 1950 as a U.S.-led coalition of American, South Korean and international forces fighting to defend South Korea during the Korean War. Its primary role in recent decades has been to enforce the armistice agreement that has remained in effect since the end of hostilities in 1953.
The peace trails are slated to be opened in three counties near the inter-Korean border: Goseong-gun and Cheorwon-gun in Gangwon Province and the city of Paju in Gyeonggi Province. This would mark the first time the DMZ will be accessible since the two Koreas have been divided.
The gesture is the latest of a series of initiatives under the Comprehensive Military Agreement that was signed during the Pyongyang summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last September.
The agreement is meant to reduce tensions and prevent accidental military clashes along the heavily guarded border zone, once referred to as the "scariest place on earth" by former President Bill Clinton.
So far, it has led to the removal of mines, guard posts, troops and firearms from the Joint Security Area that straddles the military demarcation line between the countries.
Popular tours to the JSA, which is also known as the Panmunjom truce village, have been suspended during the process, but Eyre said tours to the southern side of the demarcation line would be reopened in "relatively short order."
Eyre's comments came on a day that tensions on the peninsula seemed to be on the rise again as Pyongyang announced it had tested a new "tactical guided weapon" and demanded that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be removed from any future nuclear talks.
However, the UNC deputy commander said that there has been a "palpable reduction in tensions" in the Joint Security Area since the signing of the military agreement.
"I was out there yesterday and it's manifest," Eyre said. "You can feel it. The tension is nowhere near the same as it was under the old system."
The Comprehensive Military Agreement calls for tourists to be able to move freely across both sides of the demarcation line in the JSA from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but Eyre said initially the JSA tours would stay only on the south side as an interim step until a "code of conduct" can be agreed upon by the two Koreas and the UNC.
He also noted that North Korea has also questioned the legitimacy of the UNC in recent months.
"It is no secret that North Korea would like to bypass us and see the UNC disbanded," Eyre said. "What we have is a lack of trust."
Eyre told reporters that the UNC has been "revitalized" in recent years and is bringing a newly strengthened international commitment to Korean Peninsula security.
Eyre, a Canadian, is the first non-American to hold the deputy commander post. His appointment in 2018, along with an increase in dedicated senior staff and international personnel, has been part of a U.S. strategy to give the UNC a greater presence in inter-Korean affairs.
The UNC is led by Gen. Robert Abrams, who also commands U.S. Forces Korea and the Combined Forces Command, which oversees the military cooperation between the United States and South Korea.
"The multinational aspect of the United Nations Command provides value and international legitimacy," Eyre said.
"Engaging UNC by extension engages the wider international community, as well, and can start at a very low level to build that trust that will be so important as we move toward peace."