South Korea reopens DMZ hiking trails despite high tensions with the North

South Korea is opening the Yeoncheon DMZ Peace Trail next week, allowing visitors to hike along the heavily fortified border area. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
1 of 9 | South Korea is opening the Yeoncheon DMZ Peace Trail next week, allowing visitors to hike along the heavily fortified border area. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

YEONCHEON, South Korea, May 6 (UPI) -- While tensions continue to simmer on the Korean Peninsula, South Korean officials are restarting an oft-interrupted tourism program that brings civilians to border areas along the demilitarized zone.

Starting next week, 10 DMZ Peace Trails will be accessible to the public on a trial basis, allowing up-close access to the heavily fortified buffer zone that has divided the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953.


On a recent weekday, a guided preview brought visitors to one of the new trails in Yeoncheon County, an agricultural region some 55 miles northeast of Seoul. The course runs alongside barbed wire-topped fences that slice across scenic landscapes of rice paddies, tree orchards and unspoiled hilly terrain less than 1.5 miles from the military demarcation line with North Korea.

The DMZ Peace Trail program was initiated in 2018 during a high point of detente with North Korea that included an agreement to reduce military activity along the border area. Initial trials were launched in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic and deteriorating relations with Pyongyang have limited DMZ tourism to a few pilot programs since then.


With the new round of openings, officials are pitching not just a message of peace and unity but reassurance to potential visitors.

"There is no problem regarding safety and security," Kim Kyung-jin, a Defense Ministry official who oversees the DMZ projects, told visitors on the preview tour.

"For the past 70 years after the armistice, relations between the two Koreas have been volatile," Kim said. "We have been striving very hard to protect this area, and that is a message we would like to send. We want to show tourists and civilians that this is a very safe place to come."

Any boost in tourism would be welcome in Yeoncheon, a county of around 42,000 that has seen its population shrink due to a steep demographic decline and migration from rural areas to Seoul.

"We are trying to revitalize the economy of this border area," Kim said. "There are few visitors coming here."

Stops along the Yeoncheon course include the site of a 1968 infiltration by North Korean commandos on a mission to assassinate then-president Park Chung-hee and a visit to Biryong Observatory, which looks directly across the 2.5 mile-wide DMZ into North Korea. Forests near the DMZ are still littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance, marked by signs at regular junctures warning visitors from veering off of trails.


For local residents, the legacy of the 1950-53 war -- which ended with an armistice but is still technically ongoing -- has been an everyday reality for decades.

Song Joong-seop, a 68-year-old farmer, has lived most of his life near the civilian control line, a protected area of land that approaches the DMZ and requires special permission to access. Song and the other farmers can enter the area each morning to tend their fields and livestock but have to exit before sundown every day.

"Most people are not sensitive around here," Song, who has become a Peace Trail guide, said. "We live peacefully even though we live very close to the civilian control line."

Despite growing hostility between the two Koreas, including North Korea withdrawing from the 2018 military agreement in November, Song said that he and many of his neighbors are still holding out hope for reunification.

"We think it's right to go back to the original [undivided] state," he said. "No one thinks that this should be achieved through armed forces or any kind of conflict. We believe that we should achieve unification through peace."

Younger generations, however, have shown diminishing interest in becoming one country with the North. In a recent poll of college students, more than 60% said unification was unnecessary.


Song said that he thinks the Peace Trail will bring a renewed interest in reunification, from older visitors who remember the aftermath of the war to younger ones drawn to the region by its ecosystem, which has been left untouched for decades and maintains extraordinary biodiversity.

"I believe that this is a very promising era thanks to the Peace Trail program," he said. "When I see the different generations, I feel proud to be a part of [the program]. I think there are going to be more positive views toward reunification."

The 10 DMZ Peace Trails will be open to the public starting May 13 at sites including Ganghwa, Gimpo, Goyang, Paju and Goseong. Visitors can register for limited daily tours through the program's official website.

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