This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
The demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is the most heavily-armed border in the world. Two-hundred-and-forty-eight kilometres of barbed-wire fences, guard posts, and minefields separate the rival countries, slicing the Korean peninsula in half and forming a 4.5 kilometre-wide buffer zone between them. And now, for the first time since it was established in 1953, that DMZ is being opened up to the public for a series of picturesque hiking trails along the volatile frontline.
Last week, the United Nations Command approved the opening of a trail starting at the east coast town of Goseong, just south of the inter-Korean border. It is one of three “DMZ Peace Trail” sites proposed by the South Korean government in a big to convert the border region into a tourist-friendly area. The two other proposed hikes would be located at Cheorwon county, in the central South Korean province of Gangwon, and the western city of Paju, in Gyeonggi Province. The United Nations Command insist that the Korean military has worked hard "to ensure the success [of phase one of the project]… while assuring visitors their safety remains paramount," according to The Korea Herald.
The first 20 of those visitors set off on the trail over the weekend, hiking two kilometres along the fortified coastal road between the Unification Observatory and the Mount Kumgang Observatory, UPI reports. The tour is set to take place twice a day, six days a week, with a maximum of 20 people allowed on the walking route at a time, in consideration of military operations and environmental and ecological concerns. The Seoul government hopes the project will give visitors the chance to experience the security situation on the Korean Peninsula.
The border region’s 60-year history of inaccessibility, however, has also resulted in the DMZ becoming an involuntary park for all kinds of flora and fauna. A no-man’s-land makes for a pristine wildlife sanctuary, as it turns out, and CNN Travel reports that the area has become an improbable Eden for multiple endangered species: from red-crowned cranes and mandarin ducks to musk deer, mountain goats, and, allegedly, the critically endangered Amur leopard. The National Institute of Ecology of South Korea estimates that there are about 6,000 different species of plants and wildlife currently living inside the DMZ—and for Kim Seung-ho, head of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute, the area provides a compelling demonstration of how life can flourish in times and places of conflict.
"If you were to do an experiment on how new species could be restored when the Earth has gone to ruins, the DMZ would be the best place," he declared.
The United Nations Command has stated that that the Goseong trail “will join the other 13 existing UNC-approved DMZ educational sites as a location for inter-Korean exchanges and learning opportunities." The South Korean government plans to open the two other border hiking trails at later dates.
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