“Hurray!” a group of students yells exuberantly after cresting a green mountain peak and taking out cameras to snap the scenery.
It’s a common sight in South Korea, where hikers in their thousands take every opportunity to flee the congested cities and ramble the mountains.
But this particular trail not far from the tense border with North Korea has remained largely untouched for 60 years, since the outbreak of war cemented the country’s division.
A 4km heavily guarded demilitarised zone runs the width of the peninsula. South of the DMZ is a strip of
land which civilians need special permission to visit.
Because of the limited access, wildlife has flourished in the border region and officials in Gyeonggi province — which surrounds Seoul and borders the DMZ — decided it was time to encourage hikers to appreciate it.
In early May they opened up 182km of hiking trails on the fringe of the civilian restricted area.
So far about 10 000 people have walked the trails, drawn by a combination of natural beauty, relics of the conflict decades ago and the opportunity to take a peek at North Korea in the hazy distance.
There are 12 courses varying in length from eight to 21km and marked by different coloured ribbons tied to trees.
The province has a long-term plan to expand the trails all the way from the west coast to the east in cooperation with neighbouring authorities.
“While they are walking, hikers can think about the tense reality of the Korean peninsula and give a thought to Korea’s unification, especially after the Cheonan incident,” said Han Bae-Soo, the provincial official in charge of the project.
The two Koreas have remained technically at war since the 1953 armistice. Tensions have risen sharply since the South accused the North of sinking its warship, the Cheonan, near the disputed sea border in March.
Cross-border tourism programmes for southerners were shut down as relations soured in recent years. But hikers can catch a glimpse of the North from some of the walks, notably the trial from the Munsu mountain fortress to Aegibong Peak.
“This is where people experience both pleasure and sadness because they can see North Korean villages with the naked eye,” says the province’s website, referring to the pain of the peninsula’s division.
A large Christmas tree is set up at Aegibong during the season and a Buddhist mass is held on Buddha’s Birthday to stress the need for reunification.
The dozens of visitors do not disturb the peace of the peak, where only birdsong and the rustle of faint breezes can be heard.
Hikers can also explore villages which have been largely off the beaten track for decades.
“All the houses here have gardens and beautiful surroundings. It’s something I can hardly see in the urban area. The scenery is beautiful and refreshing,” said Byun Mi-Sook (47) from Seoul.
The peaceful houses coexist strangely with symbols of war — old and overgrown bunkers made of old tyres and stacked sandbags every few hundred metres.
“It’s weird, being able to see and recognise the reality of the Korean peninsula. I wish such things did not exist, but it is necessary to stay cautious since the war has not ended yet,” said Byun.
After passing a few villages, there are fields. To the left are modern guardposts and barbed wire with North Korean territory in the haze beyond.
“This area is restricted to both civilians and residents due to operations,” reads a sign. Concrete bunkers camouflaged with leaves are sited on a hill opposite the neighbouring nation.
A mountain close to the border, the end of the course, has no hiking path — only grass and a parade of colourful flowers.
“Trekkers can witness nature’s ability to recover from the ruins of war,” said Han, the provincial official.
Farmers go on with their work even as helmeted soldiers roam the area. Residents welcome the calm and the novelty of visitors.
“It’s safe here. I always go to the mountains to pick herbs but people almost never visit here. But I see more of them these days,” said one. – AFP