South Korea Opens Wildlife Hiking Trail Along the DMZ
Jonesing for a controversial nature walk? South Korea invites you to consider the new Peace Trail, which will include three hiking routes along the world's most heavily-armed border.
According to CNN, the United Nations approved the first phase of South Korea's proposed Peace Trail project this past week, and 20 inaugural visitors took a 1.25-mile guided hike past barbed-wire fences to the Mount Kumgang Observatory, on the eastern side of the Korean Peninsula, on April 27.
The Korean Peninsula's Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) begins just 30 miles north of South Korea's capital city, Seoul. Established in the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement to divide North and South Korea, the 2.5 mile-wide stretch of no man's land has been barricaded and peppered with landmines for its entire 160-mile length.
The new Peace Trail hikes are designed to give North and South Koreans an opportunity to enjoy their jointly-shared wildlife and "ease the pain of separation," according to Kim Seung-ho, head of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute. The division between the two nations is political, and many Koreans on both sides lost contact with family members and other loved ones when the countries split in 1948.
The DMZ has become an unlikely haven for wildlife of all kinds, thanks to its relatively untouched state. According to the National Institute of Ecology of South Korea, more than 6,000 distinct species of animals and plants have flourished in this relatively untouched space, including a number of endangered species including red-crowned cranes, white-naped cranes, mandarin ducks, musk deer, mountain goats and even critically endangered Amur leopards, which have been sighted in the restricted area.
"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," said Kim, who has explored restricted areas of the DMZ on his weekends for the better part of the last two decades. Kim established the institute in 2004 to better help government departments understand the best ways to preserve the local environment. He spent the first 10 years learning the area's roads and finding the various animals and plants of the region. The decade that followed, he said, was spent, "trying to really understand those areas and why those animals are there ..."
It may come as a surprise that the Korean DMZ sees more than 1.2 million travelers every year, primarily to the Panmunjom truce or Joint Security Area (JSA), which former President Bill Clinton famously called, "the scariest place on Earth" during a visit in 1993.
But the South Korean side of the border offers a number of other tourist attractions including several observation towers, museums and even a theme park. Soon, the Peace Trails provide yet one more way for travelers to experience the region. For now, visitor access to the Peace Trails is on a trial basis, although the project may eventually accept applications online.