Many of the South Koreans who became the first civilian hikers to set foot in the long-forbidden Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) under a government-organized trail program over the weekend said they experienced mixed emotions while walking along the barbed-wire fences and marveling at the wonderful scenery of the inter-Korean maritime border.
The first group of 20 South Korean citizens who took part in Saturday's inaugural DMZ peace trail in Goseong, a Gangwon Province county just south of the inter-Korean border, said an hourlong stroll along the fortified coastal road and minefields reminded them of the pain of division.
Civilian hikers walk along the Goseong DMZ Peace Trail in Goseong, Gangwon Province, on April 27, 2019. (Yonhap)
Such pain, however, was forgotten at times, as breathless scenery of the east coastal border areas, dotted with strangely shaped rocks and lakes linked to North Korea's Mount Kumgang, unfolded before their eyes along the coastal hiking trail, they said.
"I can hardly control my emotion for becoming the first to step on the land closed to civilians since the national division," Park Sang-ki, a 60-year-old resident of Busan, said.
"I wish the barbed wires will disappear as soon as possible so that the people of the South and North can come and go freely," Park said.
Park and his wife were among the first group of 20 who hiked on course A of the Goseong DMZ Trail, which took them from the Unification Observatory, about 470 kilometers east of Seoul, to the Mount Kumgang Observatory along a 2-km coastal road with barbed-wire fences on one side. On course B, a group of 80 visitors traveled between the two observatories by car. The Goseong trail is run twice a day for six days, except Mondays, every week. Guides accompany hikers to give explanations of security facilities and the ecological environment.
The DMZ, which is about 250 kilometers long and 4 km wide, is one of the world's most heavily fortified borders, with the rival Koreas technically in a state of war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The previously unthinkable DMZ trail has come to pass after President Moon Jae-in vowed to return the off-limits border areas to the public in his March 1 Independence Day address.
The opening of the Goseong DMZ Trail was also timed with the first anniversary of Moon's first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Panmunjom, a border peace village, on April 27, 2018, and is in line with a number of inter-Korean tension-easing efforts, including the demolition of frontline guard posts.
The Moon government plans to open two other border hiking trails in Paju in the western section of the DMZ and Cheorwon in the central part at later dates.
The first group of 20 hikers on the Goseong trail's course A, who were chosen by lottery, included couples and 20-somethings who came with their parents. The coastal trail path has double barbed-wire fences on the seaside and minefields inland.
"I'm interested in the history of inter-Korean division. I feel very honored to be able to visit a border road that opens to the public for the first time. I hope more people will come here," Park Seo-hui, a participant in the course A hiking program, said.
The weather was particularly clear on Saturday, allowing the hikers to easily see all the scenic peaks of North Korea's Mount Kumgang and its seashore scenery called Haegeumgang. From the Mount Kumgang Observatory, hikers had a closer look at the North's scenic coasts, lakes and mountains.
When the hikers arrived at a "tree of hope" installed near the Southern Limit Line, they left various memos that read, "I hope many people will see this beautiful place," "We will keep this symbolic trail of peace" and "I wish for a quick unification."