First busses make overland treck to Kumgang

from the BBC:

The BBC’s Kevin Kim joined the first overland tourist trip to North Korea, and reflects on his journey to the other side of the border.

“I was on board one of 20 buses that crossed the DMZ for the first time.

As a South Korean it felt really strange, because up to now we were strictly forbidden from getting near to the DMZ.

The mountains on the North Korean side looked totally different from the mountains on the South Korean side.

It was very barren. There were hardly any trees.

North Korea is in an energy crisis right now and every single tree is put to good use, for heating.

The South Korean guide told us that while travelling through the DMZ we must not take pictures, wave outside, or show any South Korean newspapers or magazines through the window.

I guess that is why everyone on the bus was talking in a very soft voice.

Every few hundred metres there were North Korean soldiers with their rifles just looking on as the buses went by.

I was really tempted to just open the window and say “hello” or “nice to see you”.

But I had been told by my South Korean guide that I could open the window but I could not say anything to them.

Like the words of the South Korean song, “Longing for Mount Kumgang”, getting to North Korea and seeing its natural beauty has been something that people in the South could only long for until now.

Unification, too, is something that Koreans have only dreamed about.

But having travelled through the most heavily fortified border in the world, I began to think that while unification in the Korean peninsula may seem impossible right away, it does not have to stay as a dream.

Who knows, in 20 years time we might actually be seeing the fences coming down.

It is wishful thinking. But Koreans are natural born optimists. ”

Also from the BBC:

The overland border between the two Koreas has opened for the first time since the Korean war ended half a century ago. The BBC’s Seoul correspondent Caroline Gluck was among the first to cross.

Fanfare, fireworks and balloons greeted us at a ceremony on the South Korean border, as we prepared to journey through the world’s most heavily fortified road border to the North.

This is the first land route for civilians since the end of the Korean war half a century ago.

The pilot journey is due to pave the way for regular overland tourist trips to the North’s scenic resort of Mount Kumgang, or Diamond Mountain – which has been developed by the South Korean company Hyundai Asan.

Hyundai Asan’s president, Kim Yoon-Kyu, described the trip as a historic moment.

“I can compare it to breaking the wall between East and West Germany,” he said.

Opening the border was also one of the ways to reduce tensions between North and South Korea, he said.

“I’m going to persuade (the North Koreans) not to have any nuclear power. We need money. Money is better than nuclear power,” he said.

At the demilitarized zone, there was a razor wire fence on either side, and signs warning that landmines were present.

When we reached the military demarcation line, I could see the first North Korean soldiers watch the convoy – around 20 buses in all.

All around me I could see the mountains covered in snow.

It is a barren landscape but quite beautiful. Many believe that if the two Koreas reunify, it should be turned into an ecological zone.

On the North Korean side, a welcoming committee with a female brass band was waiting for us, playing the North Korean song Pangap-sumnida, or Nice to Meet You.

Around 150 North Koreans took part in the ceremony to welcome their southern counterparts.

Ro Chang hyup, a North Korean tourist official, said it was an important step forward in inter-Korean exchanges.

“This is a first step towards unification. It is helping to break the ice and I really welcome our south Korean brothers.”

Ri Jong-hyok, deputy head of the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee which handles the North’s joint ventures with South Korea, said: “People are here for tourism. Why are you talking about nuclear issues? I get a headache when people talk about that”.

Bang Jong-Sam, head of the Mount Kumgang international tourism company, had a similar message.

“We don’t have nuclear weapons. Let the crazy people say whatever they want. All we have to do is to continue tourism,” he said.

Since 1988, when tours by cruise boat to Diamond Mountain began, around half a million South Koreans have travelled to the area.

For most, it is their only chance to visit the Communist North. They come to explore the peaks of the fabled mountain – immortalised in songs, paintings and poetry.

Fenced-in resort

But contacts between the two Koreans at the resort is limited.

The Hyundai-built tourism site is fenced in, and North Korean guides are on hand to monitor all movements.

You can catch glimpses of North Korean villages and people travelling on roads only allowed for locals – but most visible are the soldiers.

A group of around 40 soldiers marched by our tour group, singing the praises of their leader, Kim Jong-il.

He’s our great commander, they said.

“His love is like the sun, reaching out to every corner.”

If the project is aimed at breaking down barriers between the two Koreas, there is clearly a long way to go.

But some ventures, like a locally run restaurant open only to South Koreans, at least help to allow more contact between the two sides.

“I’m sure unification will come,” said my waitress.

“It’s really good that so many South Koreans are coming here. I’m proud to work here – and I welcome them.”

Projects like this and the opening of the cross-border road between the two Koreas are full of symbolism.

But, in practice, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before the two sides can freely mingle.

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