South Korea opens hiking trails on world’s most heavily armed border

CNN  — 

Travelers looking to experience the abundance of wildlife that’s thriving on the Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – oft described as the world’s most heavily armed border – have a new option to consider.

The United Nations Command (UNC) has approved phase one of South Korea’s “Peace Trail” project, which includes plans to open three routes along the DMZ.

The first approved trail is located in Goseong, in Gangwaon Province on the east side of the Korean Peninsula.

A Goseong tour program launched on April 27 to mark the first anniversary of the Panmunjom Declaration signed by President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to South Korean media.

Visitors begin their hike at the Unification Observatory and trek past barbed-wire fences before arriving at the Mount Kumgang Observatory.

“United Nations Command and the ROK [South Korea] government have demonstrated superb teamwork, collaboration and coordination throughout the entire ‘peace trail’ process and will continue to do so,” said Gen. Robert Abrams, leader of the UNC, in a statement.

“The ROK military has worked extremely long hours to ensure the success of this very important initiative, while assuring visitors their safety remains paramount.”

An unexpected haven for wildlife

The DMZ is a 160-mile-long no-man’s land about 30 miles north of Seoul that was established in the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement.

For over six decades, this 250-kilometer long, four kilometer-wide area has been closed off from human interference, barred with fences and landmines all across the region.

Thanks to the restrictions, the area became an unintended refuge for all sorts of endangered species, from migratory birds to wild mammals, such as red-crowned cranes, white-naped cranes, mandarin ducks, musk deer, mountain goats and more.

There are even reports of critically endangered Amur leopard sightings inside the DMZ.

The National Institute of Ecology of South Korea says there are about 6,000 different species of flora and fauna living inside the DMZ.

Winged residents of the DMZ

“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,” says Kim Seung-ho, head of the DMZ Ecology Research Institute.

Established in 2004 by Kim, the institute conducts studies of the area and consults with government departments to help them find ways to better preserve the environment.

Kim says he has been exploring restricted areas of the DMZ every weekend for nearly 20 years, occasionally taking fellow researchers and curious wildlife enthusiasts. He says it took him a decade to learn the roads and to know where to find the zone’s various inhabitants.

“Then the next 10 years were spent trying to really understand those areas and why those animals are there and at what time of the year certain plants bloom,” says Kim.

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5 things to do at the Korean DMZ
01:14 - Source: CNN

The ecologist is particularly interested in the rare migratory birds that travel from Siberia to winter in the DMZ’s warmer wetlands, such as endangered red-crowned cranes and vulnerable white-naped cranes.

The World Wide Fund for Nature describes the DMZ as “a critical stopping-off point during the annual migration of these birds from breeding grounds in northeastern China and southeastern Russia.”

When it comes to mammals, species such as water deer (a native species known for its vampire-like fangs) and leopard cats can be spotted prowling the empty fields that abut barbed-wire fences

Kim says he’s particularly fond of the water deer.

“They are one of the very ancient, original animal species that have not evolved much at all genetically,” says Kim. “They often appear in ancient murals.”

A race to save the DMZ

Many voices in both North Korea and South Korea and international environmental organizations have been calling for the conservation of the DMZ for decades.

However the process hasn’t been easy as it requires both North Korea and South Korea to come together.

“One of the most agonizing questions for me is how North and South Korea can come together and utilize the DMZ as a tool of reconciliation,” says Kim.

“I want to safeguard the biological resources of the DMZ as a tool to heal the wounds of separation.”