GOSEONG, South Korea – The de-escalation of tension between North and South Korea has allowed hiking trails to open along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which divides the nations, but some doubt has risen over whether these will continue to flourish following a resurgence of friction.
The silhouette of a falcon hovers over the Daehang meadows, which sits opposite a beautiful coastline.
Small deer trot across dense pine forests and rosehip bushes whilst groups of tourists look on in awe.
For security reasons visitors are only allowed to take pictures in specific areas of the route and they lament the fact they are unable to capture its idyllic beauty framed with hostile electric fencing and barbed wire.
Lee Hyun-mi, one of the hikers on the trail that departs from the South Korean border town of Goseong (some 170 kilometers northeast of the capital) describes this place as the scar that has divided both sides of the peninsula for seven decades.
The trail is one of three routes that were launched in April and May in the southern stretch of the DMZ thanks to an agreement signed in Sept. 2018 between the states still technically at war to reduce military tension and transform the border into a “peace zone.”
“Don’t get close to the barbed wire because you could activate the alarms that are installed to avoid North Korean infiltrations,” Park Jung-hae, the official guide warned at the beginning of the walk.
Halfway into the hike, which in total is some 2.5 kilometers long, the remains of a scorched digger serve as a morbid reminder that in 2003 a soldier was struck by a landmine.
Experts estimate that there could be close to 1 million mines along the 250 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide DMZ.
Parker explained that the serviceman was lucky enough to survive the accident and adds that it is a luxury to be able to walk down these pathways that up until very recently were exclusively accessed by military personnel.
“Legend has it that here fish and mollusks die of old age,” the tour guide joked pointing to the pristine beach which can be seen through the three rows of electric fencing and that locals have been banned from fishing at.
“I love telling people who visit each day the stories about the DMZ. Both the ones about the surrounding nature and those about events that took place here,” Park told Efe.
Park added that he would rather not think about what would happen if the authorities decided to close down the nature trails due to the militant attitude North Korea has displayed in recent months.
Differences that have emerged between the United States and Pyongyang over a deal to denuclearize the Asian state have also affected relations between the two Koreas.
Since the Hanoi summit statement, in Feb, North Korea has toughened its rhetoric with its neighbor and even launched several short-range missiles aimed at putting pressure on Seoul to talk Washington into adopting a softer approach to denuclearization.
Lee, a young soldier who has been sent to accompany hikers on the DMZ trail as part of military service, which is obligatory for all South Korean men, is delighted with his mission and is also hopeful that the routes will remain open.
“If this is for the sake of peace, then it is worth it,” the soldier concluded.