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Amid minefields and barbed wire, South Korea hopes for tourism boom

Written by editor

YEONCHEON, South Korea — Hundreds of colourful ribbons bearing messages yearning for peace flutter from a barbed-wire fence at the edge of the heavily fortified buffer zone dividing Korea.

YEONCHEON, South Korea — Hundreds of colourful ribbons bearing messages yearning for peace flutter from a barbed-wire fence at the edge of the heavily fortified buffer zone dividing Korea.

On a mountaintop is the Yeolseo Observation Platform, overlooking the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which has split communist North and capitalist South Korea since the 1950-53 war.

Guard posts manned by rival armies face each other inside the four-kilometre-wide (2.5-mile) zone. Buses reach the observatory along a concrete road through a minefield.

It’s not the obvious setting for a tourist attraction.

But South Korean provincial officials see potential in “peace tours” to the world’s last Cold War frontier, once described by President Bill Clinton as “the scariest place on Earth”.

Yeolseo, in Yeoncheon County 70 kilometres (44 miles) north of Seoul, is one of six observatories built to overlook the DMZ.

Selected tourists are allowed to walk along the fence marking the edge of the zone. But the military maintains tight control for security reasons — the area was a major invasion route used by the North 58 years ago.

The Yeolseo observatory drew just 35,000 tourists including 700 foreigners last year. The county has plans to attract more by building new roads through the military-controlled area abutting the DMZ.

The truce village of Panmunjom, the only place where tourists are allowed inside the DMZ itself, has been a visitor attraction for decades.

Business got a boost in 2002 when the Seoul government dropped requirements for visitors to apply for tours a week in advance.

The Panmunjom tours are a major money-spinner, with some firms charging around 70 dollars a head. Visitor numbers at any one time are restricted for security reasons but the village drew about 150,000 people last year.

Authorities mindful of spectators from the North Korean side impose a dress code which bans faded jeans and miniskirts.

Lengths of rusty barbed wire which were once part of the frontier are among a variety of souvenirs on offer.

“Panmunjom, where you can see North Korean soldiers close up, is seen by foreign visitors as the most attractive destination,” said Kim Yong-Kyu, a spokesman for 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea.

Now the two provinces which border North Korea — Gyeonggi and Gangwon — are trying to catch up.

Gyeonggi, which covers 40 percent of the DMZ’s 240 km length, in August opened a peace-themed park south of Panmunjom, featuring the history of Cold War division.

Work started after US President George W. Bush visited Panmunjom in 2002. The province has spent about 11 billion won (8.5 million dollars) on building the park which includes a museum, an artificial lake and sculptures.

“Foreigners have a wrong perception that the Korean peninsula is still in a state of war. It is true that the border remains tense but the mood is not like what it was,” said Gyeonggi province spokesman Choi Moon-Hwan.

Not to be outdone, Gangwon is also building a museum and a peace-themed park near the borderline.

Its plans also include selling souvenirs such as rusty barbed wire, a wild flower from the DMZ, commemorative coins, medals and postage stamps.

“Gyeonggi, which surrounds the capital, has a geographical advantage but our province has better natural resources and abundant war relics,” said Gangwon provincial spokesman Kim Nam-Soo.

Overall figures are not available. But local government officials estimate that a total of 1.5 million people visited observatories, infiltration tunnels or other spots somewhere along the DMZ last year.

Gangwon is pinning its hopes for a tourism boom partly on an expected third bid by Pyeongchang county to host the Winter Olympics, this time the 2018 Games. It lost out to Vancouver for the 2010 event and to Russia’s Sochi for the 2014 winter games.

“Pyeongchang will try again. If its third bid is successful, our province will be able to turn the DMZ and nearby areas into one of the world’s most attractive destinations,” Kim said.