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Tale of the Koreas
Publication Date : 04-07-2014
The demilitarised zone between the ROK and the DPRK offers not just glimpses of the peninsula's history but also an ecological treasure house
Myeongpa Beach on the eastern coast of the Korean Peninsula is a beautiful sight on a clear morning. A statue of Buddha, with one hand raised in blessing, looks on as waves roll in to break on the white sand, and tourists pose for pictures against the backdrop of Kumgang Mountain.
But look a little closer, and you will find that the beach has barbed-wire fencing that cuts inland just past an observatory, and military personnel watch over visitors. More than 1 million people visit the site each year, according to the Seoul-based Korean Tourism Organisation.
The Unification Observatory overlooking the beach is at the eastern tip of a 240-kilometre-long demilitarised zone that roughly follows the Earth's 38th parallel line and separates the Republic of Korea from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Running from the mouth of the Imjin River to Goseon, where the Unification Observatory is located, the zone stretches 2km on either side of the Military Demarcation Line (international border) drawn up following the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953, and accounts for approximately one-fifth of the total land area of the peninsula.
For tourists and residents of the ROK, the spot is as close to the DPRK as they can get.
The zone has six rivers, one plain, two mountain ranges and rare species of plants and animals. Because it was largely off-limits for humans for the past 60 years, it has become an ecological treasure house that Seoul is attempting to have Unesco declare as a world biosphere reserve.
The Gangwon-do DMZ Museum, where visitors can enter after first signing in at the Unification Observatory, reflects the many aspects of the zone - from the history of the peninsula's division to the physical and psychological scars it left on Korean people. The museum also houses exhibits that bear instances of cooperation between the Koreas.
Crossing the border
Foreign tourists are perhaps more familiar with the western zone in Paju city, which includes Imjingak village, the Mount Dora Observatory, the Third Infiltration Tunnel and the Joint Security Area near the village of Panmunjom.
Tours to this area can be arranged through private operators such as the Korridoor tour company that provides services and live entertainment to American troops and their families, or through Paju at Imingjak.
Unlike other parts of the demilitarised zone, all sites in this region with the exception of Imingjak can only be visited through group tours, and visits to the JSA must be scheduled well in advance.
Steve Tharp is a retired US army officer who served with the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission and is writing a series of guidebooks to the Korean frontiers. He describes Paju as the birthplace of the DMZ tourism.
In his first guidebook, The Western DMZ, scheduled for publication later this month, Tharp writes that more than 5 million tourists have visited the Mount Dora Observatory and Infiltration Tunnel 3 in the past decade, with a significant rise each year.
"Foreigners constituted about 70 per cent of those visitors, most of whom were Chinese tourists," he writes.
Because the JSA is a working site, tours may be cancelled or rescheduled at short notice if the site is needed for negotiations, such as those between the DPRK and the ROK to discuss family reunions, or rare events such as the recent repatriation of DPRK fishermen. The site also has a mandatory dress code that requires visitors to make "neat and dignified appearances".
It is also unique in being the only site that allows visitors to step across the international border into the DPRK, and enter a building, where armistice-related talks are held.
Visitors are eager to have their photographs taken standing on DPRK soil, usually posing beside an ROK soldier sporting aviator sunglasses, a stern countenance and what the soldiers refer to as the "ROK ready" stance. Occasionally, one can also see a DPRK soldier at close quarters, as military personnel exit the building of Panmunggak on the northern side and march down.
Infiltration Tunnel 3, one of four discovered under the DMZ, can be accessed by either a tram or on foot. Many reviewers on websites such as Tripadvisor.com recommend skipping the tunnel, perhaps keeping the claustrophobe in mind. But the sense of being enclosed by rock under such a sensitive piece of land imparts a sobering sense of history.
Ride the rails
As of May 4, Korail, the Korea Railroad Corp, restarted a train service between Seoul and Dorasan, within the DMZ and adjacent to the Mount Dora Observatory and Infiltration Tunnel 3.
The three-car train provides return trips twice a day, with the exception of Mondays and Korean national holidays, with a trip taking one hour and 20 minutes one way.
Son Hyuk-ki, deputy chief of publicity for Korail, says the service averages about 400 passengers a day, with Saturdays and Sundays almost fully booked. In its first 25 days of operation, about 11,000 passengers rode the train.
Once at Dorasan station, passengers can visit the Dorasan Peace Park, the Mount Dora Observatory or purchase tickets to the underground tunnel. As with elsewhere in the DMZ, Dorasan station is under the control of the military so tourists must carry official identification with them at all times.