Safety of DMZ hikes questioned

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Safety of DMZ hikes questioned

Seoul’s plans to open hiking trails in the demilitarized zone near Cheorwon County, Gangwon and Paju, Gyeonggi, have prompted worries that visitors could be exposed to gunfire from the North Korean military.

The two trails, which pass through the western and central portions of the DMZ, are set to be opened to civilians by appointment starting from next month after the United Nations Command, which oversees the DMZ, granted its approval.

A third trail through the DMZ on the peninsula’s eastern coast in Goseong County, Gangwon, was opened to the public April 27. It follows a military fence on the coast that leads to an observatory overlooking the North’s famed Mount Kumgang.

The three hiking trails are a first step in a long-term plan by South Korea to turn the 250 kilometer-long (155 miles) DMZ into a so-called peace park, in tandem with steps taken by both Koreas to reduce military tensions in the area. Last year, the two sides followed through on a military agreement signed in September by dismantling 10 guard posts each in the DMZ, some of which were located near the hiking paths.

Yet worries remain about the safety of such tourism ventures, given that relations between the two Koreas have taken a downturn recently.

The Paju trail, beginning on the banks of the Imjin River, passes through some areas in the DMZ that are within firing range of North Korean troops.

The Defense Ministry has attempted to downplay any risk, saying that the nearest North Korean guard post to the trail is over 1.2 kilometers away and beyond the range of machine guns usually stationed at such posts.

Critics point out that North Korean patrols, fully armed, often cross the military demarcation line that marks the official border between the two Koreas within the DMZ. Tourists on the Paju trail, they say, could be vulnerable to fire from AK-47 rifles - called Type 58 by North Korea - if patrolling troops open fire for some reason.

Two North Korean guard posts in the area remain active, including the one 1.2 kilometers away. The second stands 1.5 kilometers from a dismantled South Korean guard post that is part of the trail. A North Korean guard post that was torn down as part of the inter-Korean agreement is over five kilometers away.

The central trail in Cheorwon is set to be opened to the public on June 1. Tourists will be given the opportunity to observe the sites of major battles from the 1950-53 Korean War as they hike the path linking Baekma (White Horse) Ridge to Arrowhead Ridge, the latter of which was excavated for remains by South Korean troops last October.

Military authorities have yet to determine the exact date for the opening of the Paju trail but are likely to decide as soon as these safety questions are resolved.

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