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(Yonhap Feature) Military tension, pristine nature coexist in waist of Korean Peninsula

All Headlines 09:00 May 09, 2016

By Kim Eun-jung

HWACHEON, South Korea, May 9 (Yonhap) -- On a mild spring day, trees show off green foliage across the mountain ridges in this no-go zone in Hwacheon, just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.

The feast of green goes along the valley and stream, but suddenly stops at the bare land on the northern side of the military demarcation line. Trees are barely seen on the North Korean soil, heavily guarded by its soldiers.

The different colors of the mountains in the same ecosystem and climate show how different ideology and policies can turn pristine nature into starkly different places.

"There are few trees on the northern boundary of the DMZ because North Korean soldiers chop them up for firewood. They also catch fish in the stream to eat them," Choi Byung-kwan, who took photos in one of the world's most sensitive areas for more than a decade, said. "It is one of many examples of how lives have diverged after the Korean War divided the nation several decades ago."

For visitors to the Seven Star Observatory atop a 590-meter hill, being able to see guard posts on mountain peaks through telescope on a clear day or even spotting a North Korean soldier passing by a stream on a lucky day may be something to brag about to others: "I've been there and seen things."

But there's not much visitors can actually do here. You can't walk along the narrow trail beside the barbed wire, a path South Korean soldiers use to patrol day and night. You can't take a photo in many parts of this area and post a selfie on Instagram. Military installations cannot be exposed, and attempts to connect to the Internet are strictly banned in fear of "the enemy's infiltration into networks," an Army lieutenant colonel warned.

While the DMZ is a 4-kilometer buffer line running across the Korean Peninsula along the 38th line, this observatory guarded by the 7th Infantry Division is just 1 kilometer away from North Korean territory. Guard posts on each side have inched closer over the past decades to get a better vantage point.

"The Seven Star Observatory is a representative place that displays the ongoing conflict and pain of division, where soldiers counter each other very closely. At the same time, the beautiful scenery and well-preserved nature in the DMZ makes people almost forget about the military tension," Suh Jeong-yeol, a brigadier general who commands the division, said. "This is a symbolic place where conflict and peace, past and present coexist."

Though it looks peaceful outside, two Koreas are still technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire. The DMZ should be "demilitarized" in theory, but heavy weapons are installed in this area and a considerable amount of land mines were buried after the fratricidal war.

Located 118 kilometers northeast of Seoul, Hwacheon is a military-intensive county with 24,000 civilians and 36,000 soldiers. Several areas ban civilian entry with mine warning signs and tank traps set at major checkpoints.

The strategic region is one of the bloodiest battle sites where North Korean tanks marched down along a stream to attack the South Korean Army in Hwacheon on June 25, 1950, and stormed into Chuncheon. Then they headed to Seoul and took it in just three days. U.N. forces won back the capital city in September through Battle of Incheon, an amphibious invasion operation led by American general Douglas MacArthur.

That is why soldiers in the front-line troops should maintain a high state of military readiness all the time against any provocations, especially after Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test and a slew of missile tests earlier this year, the two-star general said.

"The military tension has escalated following North Korean provocations, but we are ready to fight back immediately if the enemy carry out any provocations," Suh said.

Despite strained inter-Korean ties, tourists from various walks of life and countries have visited this unique place to witness the bare face of the divided nation.

Last year, about 6 million visited the 248-kilometer-long DMZ area running across the peninsula, according to the state-run Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), which hosted a rare workshop in Hwacheon late last month to promote tourism in the heavily fortified region.

"The DMZ was born through a tragedy in which the same countrymen fought each other nearly seven decades ago. Although foreigners mostly link this place to conflict and confrontation, we need to change the story of the DMZ," Ryoo Kihl-jae, former unification minister and current professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said at the workshop. "Why don't we change the story to promote peace and co-existence?"

The KTO said it will put concerted efforts with provincial governments and industry officials to diversify programs and provide easier access to visitors.

"The demilitarized zone is ironically a heavily fortified region where the militaries of the two Koreas are confronting each other," Jung Chang-soo, the chief of KTO, said. "If we develop it as a world tourism spot, it would help deter North Korean aggression and contribute to the national economy and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula." Also mindful of the current security situation, Jung said his organization will study ways to select the best spots for international tourism and expand them later when the time is ready.

Gangwon Province, which governs the eastern part of the DMZ area, expressed hope that the tourism programs could give wider options to tourists and athletes during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

While border observatories are one of the most famous programs for people who want to get a rare glimpse of North Korean life through a telescope, symbols of Cold War hysteria are also frequented by curious folks.

Less than an hour drive from the observatory lies Peace Dam, a 125-meter-tall, 600-meter-wide dam built in 1986 against a massive dam project just above the DMZ.

The government of former president Chun Doo-hwan speculated the North's dam was aimed at "a massive water attack" on Seoul when it held the 1988 Summer Olympics and started a massive fund-raising campaign to build its own dam to stave off possible catastrophic flooding should the upstream Imnam Dam in North Korea collapse.

Construction was suspended before completion amid allegations that Chun tried to exaggerate the North Korean threat to mute dissenting voices. It was resumed in 2002 after satellite imagery revealed cracks in the clumsily built Imnam Dam, sparking fears of collapse during heavy rain. The construction was completed in 2005, and is capable of holding 2.61 billion tons of water, though it never has had the chance to use its maximum capacity.

Without a reservoir and power-generating facility, the $429 million project has become a symbol of misguided anti-communist propaganda.

"With the money poured into this dam, people ask whether it can really function like a normal dam," a tour guide said. "Unless water from the North Korean dam floods into this dam, accidentally or intentionally, it will just stand here to tell the story of an unfinished war."

Now, the dam may best illustrate the massive challenge Seoul and Pyongyang face to get over deep-rooted mistrust to normalize ties that dipped further in light of North's weapons tests.

Since taking office in early 2014, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has repeatedly urged North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to give up nuclear weapons to resume talks.

Despite additional international sanctions in response to the North's nuclear and missile tests, however, Kim made it clear that his country will keep pursuing guns-and-butter policy of developing North Korea's nuclear weapons while also building its domestic economy.

In a critical ruling Workers' Party congress underway since Friday, North Korean media hailed the North's "powerful nuclear deterrent" as the biggest achievement of its leader. Kim was quoted as saying on Sunday that the nuclear weapon is for its "self-defense" and his country will not use them first unless its sovereignty is invaded.

While past talks have produced no visible progress on easing tension, experts propose the two Koreas may start talks on increased civilian exchanges and tourism to get to know better about each other.

"Can South and North Korea gain trust with each other through government talks? I don't think so," said Sohn Ki-woon, the head of the Korean Association of DMZ Studies.

"Through trade and exchange of goods, people get first-hand experience and feel that they share the same language and history. That's why we have to promote tourism and exchanges at the civilian level to make a step toward reunification."


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