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New hiking trails in Korean DMZ offer rare access to forbidden areas

By Thomas Maresca
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New hiking trails in Korean DMZ offer rare access to forbidden areas
Tourists gather at the start of a trek along the recently opened DMZ Peace Trail in Goseong, South Korea. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

GOSEONG, South Korea, June 18 (UPI) -- For most South Koreans, a chance to enter the demilitarized zone, the heavily fortified buffer that has divided the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953, has been rare.

However, a series of newly opened DMZ Peace Trails is allowing curious civilians to get a closer glimpse of North Korea.

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On a recent guided tour at the first Peace Trail to open, in Goseong, located on the East Coast of South Korea, a group of around 20 tourists trekked along a trail with rugged coastline on one side and dense forest on the other. Shrubs of sweetbrier, whose fragrant pink flowers are a symbol of the area, stood alongside barbed wire-topped fences and signs warning of landmines.

The mood was hopeful and contemplative for the tourists, who were chosen via a lottery after entering their names on an official website.

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"This is a very important venue," said tourist Lee Hyun-mi. "We can feel the scar of the war here."

Lee said she had seen this trail before from an observation deck nearby and wished that she could trek the 2-kilometer path one day.

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"Now that the government has opened this area, I'm so happy," she said. "Walking along the trail, with every step I'm hoping peace will get closer for the two Koreas."

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The Goseong trail opened in late April. A second trail, in Cheorwon, opened at the beginning of June, and a third is slated for Paju in the western part of the country.

Park Jang-soon, 52, on the tour with his wife and daughter, said the setting reminded him of his days in the army.

"I did my military service around here so I'm familiar with the area," he said.

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Park said he was thinking of his father, also a veteran, while walking the trail but also wanted his daughter to experience the hope for the future.

"If the road [to the North] ever opens, I'll drive my family up in my car to Mount Kumgang," he said, referring to the famed mountain resort area across the border. Mount Kumgang was opened for about a decade to South Koreans, but access was shut down in 2008 after a tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier there.

Signposts on the trail pointed out the distance to Kumgang as well as other destinations in North Korea such as the capital city Pyongyang and Mount Paektu, the deeply symbolic mountain held sacred by Koreans.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made connecting the roads and rail systems of the two Koreas one of the first joint economic initiatives he is hoping to undertake with the North. He is also hoping to reopen Kumgang tourism and restart the joint Kaesong Industrial Region, which was shuttered in 2016. However, at those point all of those initiatives remain little more than dreams.

An impasse in negotiations between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear program has kept international sanctions firmly in place, preventing almost all economic cooperation with the North.

The peace process stalled out after a Hanoi summit in February between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to produce an agreement, but recent signs have sparked some hope that dialogue may be coming back to life.

Trump told reporters last week that he received a "beautiful" and "very warm" letter from Kim Jong Un, while Moon said Friday during a state visit to Sweden that the two Koreas were in constant negotiation through "various different channels."

For now, tourists are able to take in some of the earliest signs of progress. A "hope tree" sculpture on the trail allows visitors to hang plastic "leaves" with messages. One message, addressed to a father and grandfather, read: "Now that I'm at the DMZ, I'm hoping for reunification. Rest in peace."

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It is not just military and political history but also an incredible biodiversity that is expected to eventually draw more visitors to the DMZ. The roughly 160 mile-long, 2.5 mile-wide buffer zone is home to some 5,097 species, according to South Korea's Ministry of Environment, including about 106 protected species.

The view from Mount Kumgang Observatory, which was previously closed to civilians but is now part of the tour, offered a tantalizing glance of a magnificent landscape that continues across the border.

David Mason, a professor of tourism at Sejong University in Seoul and an expert on Korea's mountains, said that the potential of mountain trekking across the DMZ has long held a great appeal for hikers.

"Many hikers express a wish for unification, a wish to hike into the North," he said. "At least the Kumgang Mountains, which are incredibly beautiful. That would be a great first step."

A continuous mountain ridge line runs from Mount Paektu in North Korea all the way down to Mount Jirisan in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula.

"A lot of Koreans hike from the south to the north," Mason said. "It's kind of a pilgrimage to Mount Paektu and then they stop reluctantly at the DMZ."

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Another person hoping for unification was the DMZ Peace Trail tour guide on this day, Park Jeung-hey of Goseong, who explained the natural surroundings and military history of the area to the visitors.

"It's my dream to one day lead tours on Mount Kumgang and Mount Paektu," she said.

"My husband tries to discourage my dream, but I won't give it up," she added, laughing.

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